Chasing a flatulent whale in Castle Haven Bay

Flatulence is just as common in marine mammals as in humans and terrestrial animals, writes Damien Enright

On a lovely morning last week we drove down Castle Haven Bay on a whale-watch boat, on a calm sea. My companions were my son and two grandsons visiting from the Czech Republic, an entirely landlocked place.

Just to be at sea was a thrill, although they are fortunate boys — aged eight and four — in that they go to ‘our’ island in the Canaries, La Gomera, at least once a year and are surrounded by sea, and come to West Cork, where the sea is also a constant presence. However, while the sea in the Canaries is almost always amenable and the sun almost always shines, it isn’t so here.

We were, therefore, fortunate in finding the water millpond calm, and the sun warming us through mantles of cloud. Perfect conditions for a whale-watch. The only thing missing was the whales. However, for the boys there were plentiful compensations and sights and smells they would never experience at home.

The big whales, the fins and humpbacks, migrate south to breed early in the year. Two humpbacks were reported near Dursey Island, but too far west for our four-hour outing.

However, we did see minke whales, three individuals, one of which emphasised its presence by emitting a noxious whiff into the air, formidable although the animal was 200m away. I’d never been in the proximity of a flatulent cetacean before; maybe the wind was blowing our way.

Some years ago, scientists photographed a giant gas bubble released by an Arctic minke. Flatulence is just as common in marine mammals as in humans and terrestrial animals.

Minkes are relatively small, 7m to 8m, but weigh the equivalent of two elephants. Unfortunately, there’s not much to see when they surface, simply the curve of the back, brown and shiny with a dorsal fin, appearing for a second out the water and disappearing for 10 minutes or more. For the skipper to guess where they will reappear isn’t easy. And even though the animal appeared for only seconds, we certainly got that exclusive whiff of whale.

While the atomiser-fine spray propelled from the blowhole is simply fishy and greasy, this was a rear emission. Happily, the culprit wasn’t an adult fin whale, which might well discharge a bubble capable of lifting a Graf Zeppelin barrage balloon. Based on weight, the fin emission might equal that of 90 friesian cows (friesians weigh 770kg, fin whales 70,000kg).

The carbon ‘footprint’ of a pod of six fins is considerable. Perfidious Norwegians or Japanese whale-hunters might argue that they should conduct a ‘scientific’ cull to reduce global warming. However, whales aren’t double-stomached ruminants, so I’d be surprised if they were as carbon-productive as cows.

Dolphins were ever-present near the boat, at their best when it was moving fast, nosing out under the prow, then dashing ahead to outrace it. A metre and a half below the nose of the viewers at the bow, jumping clear of the water singly or in co-ordinated pairs, they only got bored when the boat stopped.

Whales being unavailable, our skipper steered through a channel between two large rocks draped with grey seals that showed no fear as we passed within 10m of them but lolled there, in companionable groups, like sunbathers at a swimming pool. More than anything, we marvelled at their camouflage, matching so perfectly the rocks plastered with acorn barnacles, limpets and black mussels. A mother protectively hauled herself nearer her furry pup but none took to the sea in panic, although a few did slide in and followed us a little distance so as to observe us more closely.

Before returning to shore, we stopped for a fishing session, much to the delight of the boys. Our skipper knew where to catch fish, and soon the eldest boy hauled two fine pollack aboard on a string of feathers. That evening, his grandmother made a delicious Catalan fish stew, taken from our friend Karen Austin’s The Lettercollum Cookbook.

It was the perfect repeat of the day, almost 30 years ago, when the boys’ father, my own son, invited on a fishing expedition by the same skipper, reeled aboard a sizeable ling, and I took a photo. Back in London, I sent it to The Ham and High, our local newspaper, and it was published, with a short account.

At school, my son’s London classmates were envious of his adventures. Such occasions were the reason we decided to no longer just holiday in Ireland, but to move back. Now, our polyglot grandchildren can come and enjoy the same wonderful world of sea and shore their parents and grandparents enjoyed.


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