Heavenly creatures at play on high seas

In a forward-thinking and significant initiative, the Government declared the coastal waters of Ireland a whale and dolphin sanctuary in the early 1990s.

It was the first safe haven of its kind in Europe. Coastal waters off the southwest of Ireland are a summer feeding ground for numerous whale species and provide a year round sanctuary for several resident dolphin species.

Even the mighty Humpback Whale can be seen off the southwest coast in the autumn months. They feed in Irish waters for over seven months of the year on a variety of small shoaling fish. Some lucky observers have sighted them just a few kilometres off shore.

Some 24 species of whale and dolphin have been recorded in Irish waters and the unpolluted West Cork waters are one of the richest areas for whale and dolphin watching in the country.

But despite the best attempts of the Government to protect these extraordinary creatures in our own country, many are under threat. The proliferation of synthetic fishing gear has been the single most important factor in the thousands of accidental deaths of cetaceans during the last 30 years.

The deliberate hunting and killing of cetaceans and the spurious claims of some countries that they hunt and kill cetaceans in the interest of science further decimate their numbers. Chemical and noise pollution and the increase in the amount of commercial and recreational watercraft are also culprits.

The organisation Whale and Dolphin Watch are concerned that the low frequency Active Sonar signals used extensively by the US Navy kill, maim and harass thousands of whales and dolphins through their underwater sonar programmes. They say sound penetrates an animal’s body when it is immersed n water and the effect can cause tissue rupture haemorrhaging beaching and death. Newer, harmless technologies are available they claim and urgently need to be explored.

Since water conducts sound better than air, their highly developed inner ear can detect sound from many miles away and can even discern the direction that sound comes from.

Over many centuries of evolution, these amazing animals have also developed the ability to search for and chase their fast-swimming prey in total darkness.

Whale Watch West Cork (WWWC) is a Union Hall-based company founded by zoologist Dr Nic Slocum with the express purpose of introducing greater numbers of people to these majestic creatures while always observing a strict conservation ethos.

Since its inception, WWWC has become one of the most popular operators in the region and has recently won Eircom’s Digital Boost Initiative, an award, which is worth 10,000 in invaluable IT benefits. WWWC also offers some fabulous whale watching holidays in exotic locations such as the Pearl Islands, Baja California and Hawaii. Nic Slocum told me about his company’s continued success.

*When did you get West Cork Whale Watch started, Nic?

>>“It was 2003. My wife Wendy and I had been living in London and organising business conferences. Eventually, we simply got sick and tired of the rat race and we decided to chuck in the towel and change our lives. We’ve been sailing for 30 years and that’s how we knew all about West Cork. We’d sailed here from Falmouth quite a lot. And eventually we found the perfect house just outside Union Hall.”

*Did you start whale watching right away?

>>“No. For about a year and a half we ran our conference business from home. But there comes a time in one’s life when you have to go for it and do what you are passionate about. So we started Whale Watch West Cork in 2003. And to our delight it went well from the start. Whale watching has really taken off in West Cork, and around the world for that matter. A big effort is being made to gather whale facts based on the study of live animals in their natural habitat, difficult though that is.”

*There is a lot of concern about threats facing cetaceans, which I’m sure you share.

>>“Many of the larger whale species were badly depleted in numbers before the moratorium on commercial whaling was introduced in 1986. Many have shown significant recovery, but others like the Northern Right Whale remain critically endangered. And the Japanese have continued killing whales under the loophole of ‘scientific’ whaling. We’ve yet to determine the damage of low frequency sonar to cetaceans, but there is a body of evidence that recent strandings of deep diving species like sperm whales and beaked whales can be attributed to low frequency military sonar.”

*What can people expect on a whale watching expedition?

>>“An unique safe and memorable experience on our boat Voyager. The cruises last for about two and a half hours and during that time people will see great scenery, learn about all the wildlife in this area, and if things go the way we always hope they will, they will encounter these majestic creatures. We have three core philosophises — that our passengers are safe, that we give them plenty of information, and lastly and perhaps most importantly, that we have minimum impact on the environment and the species who inhabit it.”

*I believe congratulations are in order on your recent Eircom Digital Award win?

>>“Yes. We are absolutely delighted to have been selected. Now we are keen to realise our full potential in attracting overseas and domestic visitors here in Ireland and to our other global destinations. The business is currently 75% reliant on the Internet, so improving our online and social media presence will have an immediate impact on growth. We are excited about implementing our new and improved global on-line strategy.”


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