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The sea was like a sheet of black glass.
I’d never seen the Atlantic quite so calm before. It was eerily silent, not a breath of wind. As I dipped my paddle into the shimmering surface I couldn’t help but feel rising disquiet as I contemplated what the darkness beneath me might conceal.
I pushed the notion aside and paddled on.
Ahead of me the aptly named High Island rose out of the sea, illuminated, for once, by that scarcest of West Cork commodities: glorious morning sunshine. Viewed from the vantage point of a kayak out on the open water it was a truly breathtaking vista.
We’d spent the night camping on Rabbit Island just off the coast near Myross. There were nine of us in total: my wife and I, another couple and five children. We’d ferried all of the gear and people over on two inflatable kayaks the previous afternoon, and had a wonderful evening with a view out over High Island and the Atlantic Ocean that’s simply out of this world.
Early the next morning we heard the seals calling out around High Island and Seal Rock, it was flat calm, so two of us decided to hop in the kayaks to investigate.
The other island turned out to be further away than it looked, but we reached it without incident and headed around to the ocean-facing side through a channel between the rocks. That’s where we encountered the seals.
There were a dozen or more grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) on the rocks. As we passed them they entered the water and swam up for a closer look. They ranged in size from cute youngsters through mid-sized females to a couple of enormous bulls. The size of the bulls made me nervous at first, but they were more curious than anything else. They’d take it in turns to pop up in front of the kayaks and lift their heads well out of the water for a good look before flipping over with a spectacular splash and disappearing into the depths.
The seals stayed with us as we paddled along, obviously enjoying some sort of seal-game that we weren’t privy to.
We progressed along the spectacular cliffs on the ocean-facing side of the island, but my attention was mainly on the horizon. It’s big whale season off Ireland’s south coast, and I was looking for something specific. Suddenly I spotted it… a plume of water vapour erupting from the sea towards the horizon… rising vertically before being carried sideways by the offshore breeze, then another, and another. Fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus)!
There was no way we were ever going to attempt to head out to sea on kayaks for a closer encounter with these oceanic leviathans, but it was a thrill just to see the tell-tale blows and know they were nearby. The second largest creature ever to have lived on earth was swimming about a scant few kilometres off shore, and here we were in the same vicinity paddling along in ten-foot inflatable kayaks.
It was an amazing feeling.
Our seal entourage stayed with us as we rounded High Island and headed back across open water to our base on Rabbit Island. It had been a remarkable and memorable wildlife encounter… an experience that will stay etched in my memory long after the aching in my muscles has subsided.