Light was fading as we made our way along the congested roadway. We’d left the car and decided to proceed on foot — which turned out to be a wise decision. A few hundred yards further on the road was completely impassable. There were cars and people everywhere, despite the inclement drizzle. Freezing drizzle and driving wind is a perfectly normal part of a West Cork January, the cause of all this commotion on this normally quiet stretch of coastal road was anything but normal.
A fin whale, one of the largest animals ever to have lived on earth, second only to it’s close cousin the blue whale, had live-stranded in Courtmacsherry estuary earlier that day. Early morning reports of a giant whale in the estuary prompted a concerted rescue effort involving the Courtmacsherry lifeboat crew, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG), the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and an army of volunteers.
But their efforts were to no avail. The magnificent creature — 19.7 metres (c. 65 foot) long, with an estimated weight in excess of 50 tonnes — died later that afternoon, left behind on a sandbank by the rapidly receding tide.
Why such an intelligent marine mammal with one of natures most sophisticated navigation systems at its disposal entered the shallow waters of the estuary we may never know, but experts from the IWDG speculate that, as in the vast majority of live stranding cases, this animal — a young adult — was probably injured or sick before it ventured inshore.
As twilight descended over Courtmacsherry bay we made our way across the channel out onto the sandbank where the whale’s body lay.
"Why did he die?" the little one asked from her perch up on my shoulders, her voice full of curiosity and wonder.
I explained that we didn’t know yet, but that the whale experts were doing some tests to find out as much as they could about the whale, including why it died. The twins were equally enthralled as we approached the gargantuan carcass.
It was unbelievably big. Fin whales are regular visitors to the waters off West Cork, and I’ve seen them from boats a number of times, sometimes cruising very close alongside, but nothing prepares you for the sheer bulk of the creature when you see it’s entire body out of the water. It was truly a spectacular, if sobering site. All around people were taking photographs, walking around the body of the whale, and generally taking advantage of this unique opportunity to get up-close to one of natures most astonishing spectacles.
I was delighted to see parents bringing their children along to see the whale. The youngsters were full of wonder, awe, and respect for the magnificent creature before them; their voices filled with curiosity and a genuine desire to know more about the great animal before them. It was heartening to see in a world where there’s generally a disturbing disconnect between children and the natural world around them.
Of course, the whale’s death was unfortunate… but it is highly likely it was dying before it beached itself. The IWDG, NPWS and a US specialist flown in by National Geographic, no less, performed a post-mortem on the whale two days after it died. Information from that post-mortem will perhaps reveal the animal’s cause of death, offer insight into why it beached itself, and inform the overall scientific record of this magnificent species.
The fact that it came inshore to die also gave hundreds, if not thousands of people in County Cork a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the sheer scale and majesty of this amazing creatures for themselves. Many of those people were children, and if the experience inspires just a few of them to learn more about wildlife, and to engage with the natural world around them, then that’s something extremely positive.