The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group is bringing its ‘Trail of the Whale’ tour to libraries, writes
You don’t need to be a marine biologist or the next David Attenborough to witness the many great wonders of our oceans.
That’s the message that the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) hope to get across as they share their stories from last summer’s Iceland expedition. Thirty IWDG members of all ages spent time aboard the Celtic Mist during the seven-week research trip, which saw them sail 4,500 km around the Icelandic coast, into the Arctic Circle and home again. The primary purpose of the expedition was to gather more information about the humpback whales that share Irish and Icelandic waters. Now, back on land, the crew are bringing their On the Trail of the Whale tour to libraries nationwide.
“Through the tour, we want to encourage people to get involved,” explains Dr Simon Berrow, IWDG’s chief science officer. “If even one person at every event we do gets interested [in marine life] and gets motivated, that’s fantastic.”
Humpback whales are returning to feed in Irish waters in increasing numbers every year. The IWDG have catalogued 92 individual humpback whales in Irish waters since 1999, each which can be recognised by unique markings on their tail flukes. Through the use of photo identification images and collaboration with colleagues in Iceland and the USA, the IWDG identified some of the same individual whales in both Irish and Icelandic waters. The aim of the expedition was to gather additional images and try to increase the number of matches between the two nations.
The trip was a great success, according to Berrow. A total of 55 fluke images were collected, seven of which were known individuals. While no new Ireland-Iceland matches were made, the crew could reconfirm a match between a whale identified in both Húsavík, Iceland, and the Blasket Islands. During the whole expedition, a total of 13 cetacean species were recorded, including minke whales, white-beaked dolphins and harbour porpoises.
“I was blown away by the amount of species that we saw,” says Berrow.
Preparation began months before the Celtic Mist research vessel departed from Dublin Bay on May 24. Although the journey itself held many unknowns at that stage, what the IWDG could rely upon was the dedication of their volunteers.
“You don’t go to Iceland unprepared,” says skipper Liam Quinn, who explains how both crew members and other volunteers met throughout winter to prepare the boat for the voyage.
From farmers to IT specialists, teachers to scientists, the crew brought a diverse range of experience and skills on board. One thing they all had in common was a fascination and appreciation for marine life. While the expedition proved both enjoyable and worthwhile, it was not without challenges. Indeed, some aspects of sailing are far beyond human control, as the crew confirmed when pack ice and strong winds delayed their voyage from Ísafjörur for several days. Rough seas and 24-hours of daylight were other things they had to contend with.
Quinn was one of five skippers responsible for keeping everything afloat. Speaking in his hometown of Arklow during the recent library event, he says his biggest challenge was worrying about keeping everyone safe.
“You’re always nervous as a skipper, you know. The ocean is so big and my boat is so small, but we got there.”
The expedition was funded by Wicklow-based cosmetics company Inis the Energy of the Sea, who have been core sponsors of the IWDG since 2001. Inis marketing director Karen Wilkinson hopped aboard for some of the journey.
“I personally have a lot of interest in marine animals and I have been lucky enough to be a sailor and diver my whole life,” she explains. “For me, it was a privilege to go on the boat with everyone. I enjoyed every second.”
Wilkinson planned to spend one week on Celtic Mist, but when that first leg resulted in few whale sightings, she returned a fortnight later. She describes this as “an unbelievable treat”, reminiscing on a particular moment off the coast of Húsavík when they witnessed up to 60 humpback whales feeding in calm waters.
“We turned the engines off and just sat there watching. We were surrounded,” she says. “When you see one of these animals, it really does take your breath away.”
To experience the stories and breath-taking footage shared in the library tour may seem just a dream, but Wilkinson says anybody can get involved in such an expedition.
“The IWDG is made up of everyday regular people who are interested in marine biology and in protecting the oceans,” she says. “You don’t necessarily have to be a marine biologist or have a scientific background to get involved. I don’t. I do it for fun. It’s just such a great group.”
For those who weren’t lucky enough to be on board this time, Tony Whelan’s footage offers a vivid insight into the experience. The filmmaker and owner of Canola Pictures embarked on the entire seven-week trip to film marine life and interview the Icelandic people they met on shore. These videos, snippets of which are shared during the library events, will form the basis of a documentary due to be released this year.
Owing to lack of time before the expedition, Whelan didn’t secure funding for the documentary in advance, but he hopes to do so through the Patreon platform.
“With Patreon, you build a community of funders. My ambition is that over a period of time, I will get enough people supporting it so that I won’t have to worry about funding from corporations, because fashions come and go. I want to just keep making my films,” he says. “For each film, patrons have ownership of them, they come to the openings, they all get to see them.”
Through this experience, Whelan hoped to explore the relationship that Icelandic people have with the sea and compare it with our own.
“The interviews will be the backbone. The idea is to explore our world and the Icelandic world through their eyes,” he says. “We have turned our back on the sea, whereas the Icelandic embrace the sea. It’s completely different.”
A key aim of the expedition was to build relationships between Ireland and Iceland and promote the idea that we have a shared responsibility towards whales. While humpback whales are the focus of the country’s whale watching industry, Iceland allows the hunting of minke and fin whales, but Berrow and the crew did not embark on the journey to preach to local people.
“We have to treat people with respect,” says Berrow. “If we don’t listen to their stories and try to understand where they are coming from, we have no chance to try and work together.”
Berrow and Whelan say whaling is a red herring; while it can be seen as a welfare issue, it doesn’t threaten populations in the way that overfishing, pollution, marine debris and other key issues do, says Berrow.
There are a growing number of humpback whales feeding off Ireland’s south and west coasts. Berrow says this increase is likely as a result of protection measures and, in the case of whale sightings in new geographical areas, a change in oceanography. Twenty-five species of whales and dolphins have been recorded off Ireland. Considering this, our responsibility towards the ocean is clear. So how can people help?
“I think it’s a case of trying to encourage people to take ownership of their local patch,” says Berrow. “Then you’ll find the issues that need resolving.”
The IWDG will run library tours until the end of March. If that leaves you wanting more, there’s no need to go to Iceland for a front-row seat. The group will also run a series of week-long humpback whale surveys around Ireland this summer. Places are open to IWDG members.