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Iolo's whale-watching in Ireland

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 15:32 UK time, Thursday, 17 November 2011

Guest post: Autumnwatch guest presenter Iolo Williams on the humbling experience of filming fin whales.

fin whale in sunset

“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.”

filming Iolo Williams

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.

common dolphin


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.

fin whale


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.


  • Comment number 1.

    It was a pleasure to welcome Iolo and the BBC crew to the sunny south-east of Ireland, the weathers always lovely here (well, it is sometimes!)
    Over the years the best way to keep track of the movements of these large whales has come from observations from the cliff tops.
    I carried out a watch from Ram Head, Ardmore, County Waterford on Tuesday 22nd November and although I saw plenty of common dolphins, there was no sign of any whales. So where had they gone? Not too far away as it transpires, for that evening I began to get several reports of fin whales all along the coastline to my east.[Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]Fin whales now dispersed along Waterford coast
    Several of these whales were within 1km of the shore and could even be seen with the naked eye as they fed on the abundant shoals of herring. As the water that close to the cliffs is shallower than the whales are long, they could easily have been said to have been paddling for their supper!
    Keep posted to the IWDG webpage for updates of sightings of these amazing animals, they should remain in our waters until February.
    Andrew Malcolm IWDG


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