Iolo's whale-watching in Ireland
Guest post: Autumnwatch guest presenter Iolo Williams on the humbling experience of filming fin whales.
“Iolo, we want you to go in search of fin whales,” said the lovely lady from Autumnwatch, “off the Irish coast, in November.”
Now I’d already made two visits to Ireland earlier in the year and out of ten days nine had involved filming in either driving rain or strong winds, or a combination of both.
“Is that wise?” I asked tentatively. “Because the likelihood is that it will be wet and windy, the sea will be rough and grey, and we’ll see very little.”
As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Three weeks later, there I was in bright sunshine on the deck of the Holly Jo, the flat, azure-blue ocean stretching out to the far horizon and not a cloud in the sky.
Colin, the captain and an experienced whale watcher, had taken us out of the Blackwater Estuary and west along the coast for an hour before we came across our first cetaceans. Spotted by Padraig Whooley of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG), a man with eyes like a hawk, they turned out to be a school of playful common dolphins eager to ride our bow wave.
These agile mammals are often good indicators of the presence of fin whales because both eat small fish. But having watched them swim all around the boat for ten minutes, they suddenly disappeared and tranquillity returned once more to the calm sea.
It didn’t last long, however, as Padraig soon spotted not one but two fin whales feeding on a huge shoal of herring and sprats. One of the whales was enormous, about 22 metres in length, dwarfing our boat as it swam just 40 metres away from a stunned audience. There is something very humbling about being in the presence of the larger whales, something that makes us mere humans feel incredibly insignificant.
I could throw statistics at you all day long: it is the second largest animal to have ever lived on our planet; it has a heart the size of a small car; it is the fastest whale in our oceans, swimming at speeds of up to 25 knots; its huge mouth can engulf 70 cubic metres of fish and a small child could swim along its main arteries!
I knew that this incredible mammal was found in British and Irish waters, regularly found off the coast of Pembrokeshire and north-west Scotland as well as all around the Irish coast, but what I didn’t realise was that they are present in such large numbers. In a day and a half, we saw around 30 different individuals but experts from the IWDG estimate that several hundred whales visit the waters around the south coast of Ireland every year.
It may be one of the largest animals on earth but we know very little about its ecology. Where the Irish fin whales come from and where they go to, we do not yet know but the IWDG is continuing its excellent work in the hope that we can ensure the future of this gentle giant. One thing is for sure, Autumnwatch will have to go a long way to send me on a more incredible assignment!
All photos by Hector Skevington-Postles. Read the IWDG's account filming with Iolo on its website and watch Iolo's film.