Whales in Ireland: 20 different kinds of Whales in Ireland!

Killer Whale "John Coe"

Killer whale John Coe

Rare Sei whale in Ventry Harbour (photo: Nick Massett)

Rare Sei whale in Ventry harbour

Video: Whale Watching Ireland

Whales in Ireland: 20 Different Whale Species recorded in Ireland!

Irish Whale Watching: Best Time, Places, Species

There are 27 different cetacean species (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) in Ireland, including 20 different species of whales, with Minke whales and Humpback whales the most commonly-seen species off the coasts of West Kerry and West Cork during the summer months

 What Kind of Whales are in Ireland?

Below is a table of the 20 different species of whales recorded in Ireland from various sources including the records of the Arranmore Whaling Co.; Blacksod Whaling Co.; Akties Nordhaven / Blacksod Whaling Co.; Irish Naturalist Journal ; I.W.D.G. [Irish Whale & Dolphin Group] and the National Biodiversity Centre

This list is compiled in terms of relative abundance of recorded sightings, live stranding and dead stranding. The last two listed whales - Blainville's beaked whale and the North Atlantic right-whale may need reassessment as the accuracy or veracity of the (1) sighting of two Blainville's beaked  whales on the Rockall Plateau, N.W. Donegal is unknown [Irish Naturalist Journal] with no other recorded sighting or stranding of the species (unlike that of other beaked whales on the list).

In the case of the North Atlantic right-whale no verified sighting or stranding has been recorded since 1910 so this species may now be extinct in Irish waters, subject to targeted survey on known former migratory route at known time of year. The Norwegian marine authority now officially classifies this whale species as extinct in its waters - where it formerly spent the summer months - and a targeted survey in its former breeding grounds off N.W. Africa did not find any animals, so it would be surprising, but wonderful in the extreme, if there were are individuals still migrating through Irish waters.

1. Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) - Most frequently spotted Spring / Summer visitor all along the west coast of Ireland, especially S.W. and most recorded sightings in West Kerry and West Cork.

2. Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) - Second most frequently sighted whale in Ireland in Summer  months off the S.W. coast, West Kerry and West Cork. 120 different individuals have been photo-identified so far by the IWDG (31.12.2022)

3. Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus) - Common off the coasts of Kerry / Cork / Waterford during late Summer and Autumn. Live stranding at Baltimore slip, Co. Cork in August, 2012.

4. Long-finned pilot Whale (Globicephala melas) - unfortunately, pilot whales are the most common candidates for live mass stranding worldwide and off the S.W. coast of Ireland especially Brandon Bay, Co. Kerry. They mostly dwell offshore and are called pilot whales because they follow a leader even when that leader strands. 

5. Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) - There are two separate communities and sub-species of killer whales in Ireland. The marine mammal-eating Scottish West Coast Community of killer Whales with 2 remaining members ["John Coe" and "Aquarius"] out of an original 20 members (1980) who sometimes do the "Circuit of Ireland" and a different fish-eating offshore community who follow pelagic fishing boats (herring, mackerel) off N.W. coast of Donegal.

6. Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus) - Found offshore at continental shelf edge hunting the diurnal, vertically migrating shoals of krill, up and down the shelf edge in Summer / Autumn.

7. Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus) -  Found offshore west of the continental shelf edge hunting for (giant) squid. 4 recoded stranding events along the west coast of Ireland.

8. Sei Whale (Balaenoptera borealis) - Once common whale, now critically endangered. Three live sightings in recent years off Galway, Mayo, and once by the author off Slea Hd. Co. Kerry and the animal followed our boat into Ventry Harbour next day for photo-id! 2 live stranding recorded in Co. Antrim.

9. Northern bottlenose Whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus) - Often seen offshore. Over 50 stranding events along the west coast of Ireland in recent years. One live-stranded in Seal Cove on Great Blasket Island, Co. Kerry some years ago.

10. Cuvier's beaked Whale (Ziphius cavirostris) - There was a major stranding event in September 2018 when 24 Cuvier's beaked whales stranded along the west coast of Ireland, probably due to acoustic damage from powerful ,underwater military sonar. Usually one or two animals are found stranded every year.

11. Sowerby's beaked Whale (Mesoplodon bidens) - First recorded stranding was as far back as 1864 in Brandon Bay, Co. Kerry. There are annual irregular stranding events along the west coast of Ireland. 

From here onwards in the list we begin to list rare and vagrant species either live-sighted once (Bowhead whale, Blainville's beaked whale); or twice only (Beluga whale); or live-stranded (Dwarf sperm whale) who subsequently dead-stranded; or dead-stranded and never sighted live in the wild (Pygmy sperm whale) in Irish waters.

12. False killer Whale (Pseudorca crassidens) - These whales were spotted in the Porcupine Seabight area and Rockall Bank during the summer months.

13. True's beaked Whale (Mesoplodon mirus) - No live sightings in the wild of this beaked whale species but there are records of 14 stranding events along the west coast of Ireland.

14. Gervais' beaked Whale (Mesoplodon europaeus) - No live sighting recorded in Irish waters. One stranding recorded from Ballysodare, Co. Sligo in 1989.

15. Dwarf sperm Whale (Kogia sima) - one pregnant female live-stranded in Glengariff, Co. Cork 1st May, 2022. Unfortunately, after being re-floated by members of IWDG subsequently dead-stranded the following day.

16. Pygmy sperm Whale (Kogia breviceps) - No live sightings of this species in Irish waters.10 stranding records from the west coast of Ireland.

17. Beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) - This normally Arctic species sighted July, 1948, Co. Mayo and sighting also recorded from Co. Antrim, July, 2015

18. Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus) - One live-sighting of one individual - previously sighted off Cornwall, England - near Helly Rocks, Carlingford lough, Co. Louth on 1st May, 2016

19. Blainville's beaked Whale (Mesoplodon densirostris) - One live sighting of two individuals, as recorded by Irish Naturalist Journal, on 1st May, near the Rockall Plateau, N/W. Donegal.

20. North Atlantic right-whale (Eubalaena glacialis) - Last recorded "sighting" - total of 8 North Atlantic right-whales taken by whalers off Co. Mayo during the 1910 whaling season, as per ships'  logs. No recorded or verifiable sightings or stranding along the west coast of Ireland since, although there were some possible sightings of either a Bowhead whale or a North Atlantic right-whale by birders on Cape Clear island, Co. Cork at the right time of the year (late May) on their former northwards migration route. Some unverified reported sightings from N.W. Donegal. 

North Atlantic right-whales may now be extinct (?) on this NE side of the North Atlantic. Like Sei whales, with whom they congregated and scooped the surface water for the zooplankton copepod  (Calanus finmarchicus) in May / June on their migration northwards towards Norway, they may not have recovered from the devastation of whaling. Both species are very sensitive to acoustic damage and in the case of Sei whales, the "minstrels of the sea", even hard-hearted whalers recorded that they "sang" beside the whaling boats and then "cried terribly when being killed".

There is a small possibility, if habitat and food resource was protected, that the N.E. North Atlantic could be repopulated by vagrants / migrants from the N.W. North Atlantic right-whale population (which may be the same gene pool) although more than likely, such a vagrant is likely to be a prepubescent or sexually immature male rather than a sexually mature or pregnant female.

It would be sad in the extreme to see North Atlantic right-whales taken off the recorded list of whales in Irish waters but we may have to accept extinctions if we are not prepared to protect habitat and food resources for whales in Irish waters.

From the above list it looks like 1st May is a very auspicious day for spotting rare and vagrant whales or perhaps there is a bit of serendipity involved! [Blainville's beaked whale (1st May, 2016); Bowhead whale (1st May, 2016); Dwarf sperm whale (1st May, 2022)

Some Interesting Facts re Irish Whales

1. We have one species of porpoise in Ireland - Harbour porpoise - which is slightly smaller in size than a common dolphin, and six species of dolphins - Common dolphins, Bottlenose dolphins (like Fungi, the Dingle dolphin), Risso's dolphins, white-sided dolphins, white-beaked dolphins and striped dolphins - but the list of dolphins in Ireland does not include Killer whales, Long-finned pilot whales and False killer whales which are all oceanic dolphins and members of the Delphinidae family but are normally (incorrectly) classified in Europe (but not in America) as whales.

2. The latest addition to the Irish Whale Catalogue is the Dwarf sperm whale (Kogia sima) - which is a close relative to the Pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps). A  pregnant female Dwarf sperm whale live stranded in Glengariff, Co. Cork on 1st May, 2022. This is a new and exciting entry to the Irish Whale Catalogue and the first recorded sighting of this whale species above 40 degrees N or S of the equator as it is normally a warm tropical water species inhabiting the continental shelf edge and slope area. It's live presence here is yet more proof of global warming and the changing movements of sea creatures corresponding to warming oceans.

  This species have morphologically mimicked the appearance of a shark for protection with a recessed lower jaw and "false gills" colouration between its eyes and pectoral fins. Furthermore, it appears to have learned how to protect itself better by mimicking the defence strategy of its prey- the squid, who ejects a cloud of black ink to confuse its predators - by having a small sac of chocolate coloured liquid hanging from its lower intestine, near the anus, which it squirts into the water to muddy the waters when in danger of attack.

3. The Bowhead whale was just recently added to the list of cetaceans in Ireland by the IWDG following a confirmed sighting of a juvenile by Helly Rocks at the mouth of Carlingford Lough, Co. Louth in May, 2016 by the local Carlingford Pilot Boat Company personnel. This juvenile had previously been spotted off the Scilly Isles, Cornwall, England a few weeks previously. Bowhead whales can live up to 250 yrs. of age (!) making them the longest-living mammal in the world. Eskimos in the Arctic have found Bowhead whales with flint, slate and ivory harpoon tips still embedded in them dating back about 130yrs. 

Of course Greenland shark can live up to 500yrs.(!) and are the oldest-living vertebrate in the world. Other long-lived marine animals are:
Black coral, which can be found on the continental shelf edge on the Porcupine Seabight about 60 mi, west of Co. Kerry which can grow up to 4,000yrs.;
Glass sponges which can grow for 10,000yrs. and of course the
"Immoral jellyfish" (Turritopsis dohrnii) which is - well, immortal (!) - as it can endlessly change from its mature medusa state back to its younger hydroid / polyp state. Nice one!

There is a lot of very interesting animal behaviour and morphology going on underwater, like crustaceans that can regrow their arms when broken off (edible brown crab) and fish like clownfish and wrasse that can change their sex at will and seahorses, which are actually contorted pipefish permanently adapting a very efficient poise for maximum thrust at their prey, who although they cannot change their sex as is commonly believed, the males  have a  brood patch under their abdomen to nourish their young to whom they eventually give birth!

This is all a long way from the study of whales but this is all part of the wonderful underwater world of "Whaledom" in which they live.

 When can you see (Humpback, Minke) Whales in Ireland?
Where can you see (Humpback, Minke) Whales in Ireland?

Variations of these two questions are our most FAQ so below is a list of the months and locations (in order) that you are most likely to see Humpback whales in Ireland.

1. July - West Kerry, West Cork
2. August - West Kerry, West Cork
3. September - West Cork, West Kerry
4. June - West Kerry, West Cork
5. May - West Kerry
6. October - West Cork
7. April - West Kerry
8. November - West Cork, Waterford

In order to have a good chance of seeing whales (and dolphins, porpoises, sharks etc.) please be aware that you may need to book more than one trip and on different days as the animals are free and the ocean is big and our boat is (relatively) small and the North Atlantic ocean is definitely not an aquarium where we can always guarantee sightings. [The good side of this is that the animals are free and not in jail - as they are in aquariums, where you can pay to  go to see them in jail on a daily basis - but we prefer to show our visitors free animals in their own wild environment]. 

If the animals are in the vicinity on the day that you book your tour, you can be assured that our experienced skipper and crew will find 'em, if weather and sea conditions are suitable for spotting. If not, please book another day, as some of our best sightings were on days that we thought would be relatively quiet and some of our biggest disappointments  were on days that we thought would be relatively productive. Wildlife viewing is always a bit of a lottery, but we have a very good network of people who keep us informed of whale movements and locations and we are very much aware of the most productive areas and feeding preferences of migrating whales.

If you book a trip now with www.marinetours.ie you have begun your journey to some of the best whale watching in Ireland, the British Isles and Europe and on a good day some of the best whale watching in the world!

Bibliography: A Guide to the Identification of Whales & Dolphins of Ireland - Wilson J. and Berrow S. 2006

Mick Sheeran                               Blasket Islands Eco Marine Tours

       www.marinetours.ie             24.12.2022

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