Damien Enright: Welcome return of elvers recorded on bit of tech genius

One of the best short videos of a humpback whale leaping vertically, full body, out of the sea was taken just outside Courtmacsherry Bay by a visitor aboard Mark Gannon’s angling boat.

Damien Enright: Welcome return of elvers recorded on bit of tech genius

By Damien Enright

One of the best short videos of a humpback whale leaping vertically, full body, out of the sea was taken just outside Courtmacsherry Bay by a visitor aboard Mark Gannon’s angling boat.

It augurs well for Mark’s new whale-watching initiative.

It was taken on a mobile phone. How extraordinary! How amazing that a device sold to the public for the first time in 2000 in Japan and Korea has become commonplace worldwide.

It’s not just the rate and volume of take-up by the public, but the astonishing expertise that invented it.

Two engineers working for Kodak were patented the first camera phones in 1997.

Now, the phones shoot film as clear and colourful as dedicated cameras, meanwhile providing communications systems, film-watching systems, filming systems, news and weather reports, also measuring your blood-pressure and the pace at which you walk or run.

They are, also, capable of driving one crazy, disturbing one’s sleep, encouraging loudmouths to talk interminably on trains, and frying one’s brain.

However, in such cases as the leaping whale, they are above reproach: unfortunately, because of the distance, the photo, big on the screen, is too small to reproduce here.

For the whale, it was clearly a day to be celebrated (they’re very brainy creatures, as we know) and one on which it could take a look at the above-water world, the stunning scenery of the Seven Heads basking, that afternoon, in the West Cork sun, its extant history seen in the stumps of castles, ring fort and old coastguard stations, and graceful horses in lovely fields sloping down to the cliffs where ravens and fulmar and shags nest, and under which big, fat seals lie sunbathing.

Responses from readers reminded me that the loggerhead turtle, so spectacularly photographed and appearing in this column on May 14 (also filmed on a mobile phone) had swum over and around the north Atlantic Garbage Patch, hundreds of kilometers in size and with a density of 200,000 pieces of trash per square kilometer in places.

This floating and submerged rubbish dump is geographically known as the North Atlantic Gyre, and the depths of the Sargasso Sea — where all Atlantic eels originate as tiny elvers before drifting with the currents to the coasts and rivers of Europe and north America — are directly beneath it.

Gyres occur where currents rotate and draw water toward the centre, surrounding and trapping the floating bits.

There are gyres in every major ocean, all carrying garbage, five in all. It can’t be netted away because vast billions of tiny marine creatures would be annihilated, creatures important in the oceanic food chains.

Newly arrived elvers are a food- chain item noticeably absent from estuaries and rivers in Ireland for most of the last decade, this attested to by observant men and women enjoying an early evening drink in a local pub last Friday. All avowed not having seen an elver for years.

However then, good news arrived with a zoologist, Paddy Sleeman, of UCC, who showed us a picture (on a mobile phone) of a river entirely, bank to bank, bottom to top, packed with elvers, ‘bootlace eels’ as I call them.

And, it was an eddy of the River Lee.

The return, this month, of elvers to the Lee after 25 years absence is an occasion for great joy for ecologists, otters, kingfishers, herons, pike and maybe even the mullet.

He put me in touch with Ross Macklin, an aquatic and fisheries consultant, to tell me more.

Firstly, the return was heart-warming, a vindication on the moratorium imposed on elver-harvesting (at the behest of ecologists) in 2009.

Elver harvesting was banned on the Shannon, Corrib and Lough Erne. Stocks in the River Bann ran out, making harvesting for Europe’s largest commercial fishery, in Lough Neagh, cease production.

The presence of elvers bolster and reinforce the ecosystem of a river.

They’re tiny at first, thin as a bootlace and about 5cm. long. They migrate up the rivers at night and hide in mud during the day.

They feed on earthworms and invertebrates, and hibernate in mud during the winter, spending 10 to 14 years in our rivers, transforming into yellow eels (dark brown with yellow bellies) before maturing into silver eels (black or purplish).

At maturity, they go down to the sea and swim with the currents across the Atlantic to mate and die in the Sargasso in the Gulf of Mexico.

I remember as a boy meeting a silver eel squirming across a wet meadow and, in 2003, in our house stream, another, for which we named the house, Abhainn Easca, or Eel River.

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