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Tips on how to whale watch around the Dingle Peninsula coast

basking shark from Slea Head 2

Basking shark next to Blasket Princess off Slea Head, (c) Nick Massett
basker and blasket princess 2 c Nick Massett

Basking shark photographed from Slea Head (c) Britta Wilkens

Blasket princess and minke whale

Minke whale close to our tour boat near Slea Head, (c) Nick Massett

Blasket Princess and bottlenose dolphins c Nick Massett

Our tour boat surrounded by bottlenose dolphins, taken from Slea Head, (c) Nick Massett


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Whale watching in Ireland - hints and information to help you enjoy your whale watch trip

Over the last ten years or so word has spread that the waters around the West Kerry coast are a great place for both land and boat based whale and dolphin watching. While nothing can beat seeing a whale up close from a boat, cliff top vantage points such as Slea Head and Clogher Head on the Dingle Peninsula are great spots from where to look out for cetaceans frequenting our coast, and if you spend a bit of time scanning the sea below you are often rewarded with the sight of a minke whale or two, some common dolphins, or even a humpback whale.

Wow, people might think, whales off West Kerry, and position themselves on a lovely blustery day equipped with a tiny pair of binoculars that fit snugly into their coat pocket. Full of anticipation they sit there for a while, expecting leviathan to rise from the depths, surfacing with a mighty blow and vanishing again with a powerful tail fluke raised to the heavens above. (And yes, we speak from personal experience many, many moons ago!)

Well, whale and dolphin watching is usually - though by no means always - a lot more mundane than that but with a little bit of knowledge as to how, where and when to look out for our cetaceans it is a hugely rewarding way to spend your time. So here are a few tips which apply, by and large, to both land and boat based watching.

Choose a reasonably calm day with few whitecaps and not too much ocean swell. Our most commonly observed whale, the minke whale, surfaces slowly and gracefully a few times before going on a deep dive after which it is liable to surface again pretty much anywhere in the vicinity and frequently quite some distance from where it went down. Minke whales hardly ever have a visible blow and never tailfluke so you have to have to look for a long black body breaking through the water with a relatively small dorsal fin set about two-thirds back along its body.

We are very lucky in West Kerry that we have humpback whales reasonably close to our coast during the summer months. They tend to be that bit higher out to sea though than minke whales and when watching from land a telescope will come in handy. However, it is possible to spot their bushy blows and, occasionally, even their humped backs and raised tail flukes with the help of a good pair of binoculars. The north side of the Dingle Peninsula - off Clogher Head - is by far the best place to look for these spectacular visitors to our shores.

On the subject of binoculars: get as good a pair as you can afford and your whale watching pleasure will increase manifold! Out on the boat - while we do provide binoculars for our passengers' use - you are generally better off scanning the ocean with your naked eye as it affords you a much greater field of vision and better chances of glimpsing a minke whale nearby.

Both from land and sea keep a good eye out for any aggregations of feeding sea birds, in particular gannets, shearwaters and kittiwakes. Whales, dolphins and birds are constantly on the lookout for food, and a shoal of fish will attract all of them. Furthermore, whales and dolphins often corral fish into bait balls which provide easy pickings for the birds. In the big open sea a flock of excited birds is much easier to spot than a few fins or splashes in the water, so make use of the birds to increase your chances of finding cetaceans.

When we go out on our tours we go to some feeding hotspots (the 'Wild Bank' and 'Barrack Rock' amongst them) where updwellings of nutrient rich colder water kickstart the food chain and attract whales, dolphins and birds alike.

From the land choose an elevated site that offers optimum viewing all around and far our to sea. We frequently check out the sea from places like Slea Head or Clogher Head in the mornings ourselves to give us some indication as to where there might be some cetacean activity that day.

The months from March to November are the best around the West Kerry coast for any cetacean watching which - luckily for us - coincides with our boating season. In general our first sightings in spring are of common dolphins and porpoises, closely followed by minke whales and basking sharks (ok, sharks are not cetaceans but they're big, have fins and are lots of fun to watch!). A bit later we start looking out for the arrival of the first humpback whales, while Risso's and bottlenose dolphins could show up at any stage, as well as the odd orca (killer whale) or two.

We report our sightings to the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) who validate the sighting and enter it into their data bank which is used for both national and international research. The IWDG is happy for anyone to report a sighting, just log onto www.iwdg.ie and click on 'report a sighting'. Happy whale watching!!!

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