Your handy guide to whale-watching in Ireland

Where to go and how to do it - we have all the information you need.

Your handy guide to whale-watching in Ireland

Humpback whales off West Cork (Photo by P Whooley, IWDG)

No doubt you’ve seen some of the amazing photos and videos of the whales, dolphins and sharks that have been spotted in Irish waters in recent months.

Some of the best whale-watching in the world is right at our doorstep and most of us have yet to take advantage of it.

So if you've always wanted to see these majestic animals in real life, then read our guide, grab your binoculars and get out there.

(Disclaimer: We’re going to use the phrase ‘whale-watching’ throughout the guide as short-hand for ‘whale/dolphin/porpoise/shark/seal-watching - it’s just easier that way).

Common dolphins off Baltimore, West Cork (Photo by Richard O' Flynn of Best Photos of Baltimore)

Where to go - to the ocean!

The government declared our waters a whale and dolphin sanctuary in 1991 and, although it's taken a while, whale-watching is becoming more and more popular.

Before you do anything, you going to need to know where to go - to the sea, of course.

The easiest way to see some of our cetaceans (the scientific word for marine mammals) is by boat - you can find operators in most coastal towns offering whale watching tours.

While there is no definitive list of all the companies, you can find the names and contact details of some operators on the Irish Dolphin and Whale Group’s (IWDG)website, Planet Whale's website or on Discover Ireland.

However, your best bet is to just Google ‘whale-watching tours’ and the area you’re in and see what comes up.

Dolphins and Gannets feeding off the Kerry coast

While you probably do have more of a chance of seeing marine wildlife from a boat - especially if you're with someone who knows what they're doing - you can also have plenty of success whale-watching from dry land. The beauty of living on an island means you're never too far from the coast and it's free!

Where to go in Connaught and Ulster (IWDG)

Sightings of whales and dolphins can take place almost anywhere along the coast but the best spots are along the west of Ireland - especially on headlands, bays and islands.

And, of course, the higher up you go, the greater range of vision you will have - and the better chance of seeing something.

Where to go in Leinster and Munster (IWDG)

However, headlands and cliffs can be dangerous places so be careful - wear the right clothes and shoes and always tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back.

The IWDG have a handy map that you can print out of where the best spots for land-based whale-watching here.

How to do it and what to bring - tea, binoculars and endless optimism

Whether you’re on a boat or sitting on a headland, you’ll need to bring a few things with you to keep you comfortable and to give you the best chance of spotting an animal.

Some things that might come in handy:

•Binoculars - all the better to see them with.

•Camera/phone - to take blurry photos of a something that MIGHT be a dolphin.

•Snacks - You don’t know how long you’ll be out there - a flask of tea is always a god idea.

•Water - it’s thirsty work.

•Warm clothes - preferably in layers to deal with the changing Irish weather.

•Sunglasses - to reduce glare off the water.

•PATIENCE - it might take a while and you might not see anything but hey, you’ll get to enjoy our beautiful coastline.

.

Humpbacks feeding in sight of land.

How to spot a marine animal:

•Keep an eye on the birds - a flock of seabirds in one place on the water might mean fish which might mean a whale, dolphin or porpoise.

•Odd-looking waves - is there a dolphin swimming against the current?

•Sudden reflections - did the sun catch the back of a fin?

•Lines or circular ‘footprints’ in the water - could be a sign of a recently dived animal.

•Odd-looking vapour plumes hanging on the horizon in windless conditions means whales are close. Keep an eye out, because they have to return to the surface.

Stuff to remember:

Although they may not seem dangerous, these creatures are still wild animals and should be respected so keep your distance. As recent visitors to Clare have found out the hard way, sometimes these animals don't know their own strength and can injure you even if they’re being playful.

When to go whale-watching - all year round

Marine mammals aren’t on a strict timetable so they could surface at anytime. With the warmer weather, it is a great time to go out on the water or for a long walk along a headland and see what you can see.

Mornings and evenings are a good time to go as there will be less glare from the sun on the water to tire out your eyes.

Killer whales off the Donegal coast

And don’t think it’s just the milder weather in the summer that brings the cetaceans to our shores - in fact, the IWDG actually recommends winter as one of the best times to go out.

According to their website, “the potential rewards for whale watchers prepared to brave the cold is immense.”

The light is also better in the winter which makes it easier to spot the elusive creatures.

“The best light conditions may be in winter when atmospheric clarity offers seemingly endless visibility to the horizon, whereas hot summer weather can result in heat haze, limiting visibility to a few meagre miles."

“The shame is that these inshore forays pass largely unnoticed by the public during our long winter hibernation, when almost everyone with a passion for the ocean turns their backs on the sea.”

What you might see - whales and sharks and seals and...

Our waters are home to more than two dozen species of marine mammals - including humpback whales, common dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, killer whales, bottlenose dolphins, Minke whales, porpoises and the massive fin whale, to name but a few.

Dolphins and porpoises are the most commonly seen mammals in harbours, and of course, seals can be found all along the coastline. Basking sharks - which are not marine mammals - are also regularly spotted.

The IWDG have a detailed guide on each species and how to recognise them here.

Basking Shark off Cape Clear (Photo by Niamh Ní Drisceoil of the Fastnet Tour Company)

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group are holding a whale-watching event on Sunday, August 24th to celebrate National Whale Watch Day. There will be 20 land-based, guided whale watches open to the public taking place around the Irish coastline.

The event is free and is a great way to get introduced to the hobby. Keep an eye on their Facebook page for details of where the tours will take place.

More in this section

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up