Aug 102010
 
Grey Seal

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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.

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Jul 072009
 
Overhead view of a Fin Whale feeding

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Last night on Channel 4 “Inside Nature’s Giants” showed the in-situ autopsy of a fin whale that stranded in Courtmacsherry Bay, West Cork back in January.

We all watched last week’s show, in which the team dismembered an elephant, in rapt fascination. Even the five-year-old was allowed to stay up, and was full of questions that, thankfully, the programme answered.

It was amazing – if a little on the grizzly side.

This week it was the turn of the whale.

As we’d all been up to see the unfortunate whale the day it died, the girls were incredibly excited to see the programme.

But I have to say that despite being very interesting, and revealing some astonishing facts, conducting the autopsy in the field while battling the tides and the worst of the Irish winter took the edge off the operation.

The elephant, in the controlled environment of London’s Royal Veterinary College, had been an exercise in clinical precision. The whale, in contrast, was a race against the elements – a race that meant things we could have seen, we didn’t get to see, or at least didn’t get to see as clearly as we might have.

The girls were thrilled to watch the dissection of the whale that they’d seen lying on the beach – but for me the programme itself wasn’t as engaging and informative as the elephant one the week before.

Next week it’s back to the Royal Veterinary College, where the subject going under the knife is a crocodile. Should be revealing!

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Jan 242009
 

Fin whale on Courtmacsherry beach, West Cork 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.

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Jan 162009
 

A 19.7 metre (more than 60’) long Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus) that live-stranded in Courtmacsherry, West Cork unfortunately died after being beached by a rapidly receding tide.

 Dead fin whale stranded on sandbank in Courtmacsherry, West Cork

For full details see the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) article on the stranding.

Here are some of the photographs I managed to snap in very low light during the few minutes we had around the whale before the tide raced in and cut us off. I might have stayed a bit longer, but we had the children with us, so didn’t want to risk it. It was also raining, and the camera was getting soaked :-(.

These were 4-8 second exposures, and turned out reasonably well, all things considered.

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