Whale Watching in West Cork

To celebrate the lifting of travel restrictions within Cork county, I did something I have been meaning to do for years – I went whale watching! Thank you to my good friend Susan Byron of Ireland’s Hidden Gems for the recommendation of where to go and who to go with.

Colin Barnes (below), of Cork Whale Watch (and see their Facebook Page here) has been doing this for years and knows every large animal in these waters. For him, this is a personal passion, an academic study, and a mission to show us that we have, in our own backyard, a world-class whale watching experience.

I have been whale watching several times in Canada so I know that there is never a guarantee that you will see anything. I’ve always been impressed by the people who run these experiences, at how knowledgeable they are and how they seem to love these enormous animals. Colin fits that description to a T. From the website:

Colin Barnes has worked closely with the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) since 2000, and continues to assist with their scientific work. His knowledge and experience was instrumental in helping the IWDG develop their recommendations for responsible whale watching and marine eco-tourism in Ireland. Colin submits details of all cetacean and basking sharks sightings to the IWDG’s sighting scheme. He is the co-author of “Photo-identification of fin and humpback whales off the south coast of Ireland” and a number of other peer reviewed publications.

Socially distancing on board – lots of hand sanitiser in use as well

I knew that it was possible to identify Orcas in Canada by their dorsal fin patterns, but on this trip I learned that this was also the practise with Humpback Whales, except in this case the pattern scientists rely upon is that on the tail fluke. Colin was hoping for a sight of a humpback that had been hanging around off Castlehaven, as well as some Minke Whales and lots of dolphin.

The dolphins happened almost immediately we left the harbour and what a joy this was! They stayed with us almost the whole way out and back, riding the bow wave, leaping and dancing along beside us, at incredible speeds. It was mesmerising and I felt like I had a permanent smile on my face. They seem to do it for the sheer fun of it!

These are the Short-beaked Common Dolphins and they are the most frequently sighted in these waters. Worryingly, there has been a huge increase in the last few years of the number of strandings of this species and nobody yet knows what has caused this.

Passing Horse Island with its Circular tower. Although this is classed as a belvedere on the National Monumnets site, local tradition has it that it was built by a Somerville to guide his merchant ships into harbour. That’s the Toe Head Napoleonic-era signal tower in the background

I’m not great at doing videos but one of my fellow passengers, Denis O’Regan, had an underwater camera with him on a long pole and he has posted footage on his Vimeo channel. Take a look here to see how he captured some of the magic that we saw last Monday. Thank you, Denis!

A great shout went up when the first blow was spotted – it was a Humpback, just starting a dive. They dive for several minutes and you don’t know where they will come up again. But it wasn’t too far away and when it surfaced it stayed for a while, allowing us several looks at that giant shape curving through the water.

A passenger the previous day, John Holden, had posted incredible photos on Facebook of the same whale lunge-feeding  – take a look at these amazing images here and here. Thank you, John, for sharing these incredible photographs so freely. I have followed your page now, and hugely admire your highly skilled photography of the natural world.

Back to my own efforts. Photography was difficult – the boat is heaving and the animals are moving fast. I did manage to capture a photo of the tail fluke (below), though, and later found out that I had a match – it was #HBIRL43, the same whale that had been feeding in this area for a few days. The ID is courtesy of the marvellous Irish Whale and Dolphin Group – a one stop shop for everything you want to know, and Dedicated to the conservation and better understanding of whales, dolphins and porpoises in Irish waters.

We sighted some Minke Whales but they were moving too fast to pose for their photos. On the return trip, Colin gave us a sightseeing tour of the islands and rocks at the mouth of the Haven, with their bird and seal populations.

Atlantic Sea Kayaking operates from the same pier at Reen that Cork Whale Watch does and this is their paddling ground. I had a magical night tour with them on Lough Hyne a few years ago, and I can see that I now need to do some daylight padding around these rocks and caves.

Thank you, Colin Barnes and Cork Whale Watch for a marvellous experience. I don’t know what took me so long!

 

Starlight Bliss

Lough Hyne twilight

Lough Hyne twilight

Have you ever had one of those experiences where you float home afterwards, totally blissed out, knowing that something very special just happened to lucky you? Yes, I suppose the day you meet The One would qualify, but here’s another one – kayaking under the stars on a West Cork lake to the strains of baroque music. Let me explain…

Lough Hyne is a unique ecosystem. A partially landlocked seawater lake, it is filled by the incoming tide and then empties twice a day, through a stretch of water called The Rapids. Aquatic marine plants and animals flourish in the warm protected waters – many not found elsewhere in Ireland. It’s also a beautiful and peaceful place, steeped in archaeology and history.

In a kayak for the first time in years!

In a kayak for the first time in years!

Jim Kennedy and his family run Atlantic Sea Kayaking and a couple of times a year, to coincide with local festivals, they offer a special kayaking trip on Lough Hyne called the Starlight Serenade. I was disappointed to have missed the first offering earlier in the summer so as soon as they announced a second one, during the Taste of West Cork Festival, I signed up to go with my friend Sheena Jolley.

We're off!

We’re off!

After a brief introduction to basic paddling techniques we were off, a group of about 20 of us, mostly local. Jim led us first to The Rapids, pointing out the birdlife along the way. It was an unusually high tide and the water was thundering in. We rafted up in a sheltering eddy, trying not to be too intimidated by the tidal surge. Jim explained the ecology of the constant filling and draining of the lake and then he pushed us out into the rushing water. Hanging  on to each other’s kayaks, we swirled giddily in the torrent, gradually swinging back into the calmer waters of the lake.

Loght Hyne with the islands. The Rapids are at the top right. Photo by 'Riekeshieldmaiden' at en.wikipedia

Lough Hyne with the islands. The Rapids are at the top left. (Photo by ‘Riekeshieldmaiden’ at en.wikipedia)

As dusk closed in the next stop was the island, and stories of an O’Driscoll warlord who once ruled supreme in Baltimore but who lived out his final days in this remote place. Then Jim told us to head ‘towards the light’ and pointed to the far shore. As we got closer the ‘light’ began to resolve itself. Several steps led down to a tiny quay and on each step and all over the quay were candles – dozens of them. Then we heard the music. Two violinists were playing Bach. One by one we drifted in, rafted up as silently as we could, and then lay back in the kayak seat and just listened. The Milky Way arced across the sky, the music floated to us from the little quay, we dangled fingers in the warm water and each of us felt in our own way that surely heaven couldn’t hold much better than this.

The Serenade

The Serenade

The concert continued – some Telemann, a song composed by Jessie (these were two members of the Vespertine Quintet I reported on at the beginning of August), something gentle and minimalistic, more Bach – and then it was ‘follow the light’ again: this time the light was on the helmet of the lead guide. But before we started, Jim asked us to look down into the water and to dip our hands in. Suddenly, the stars were beneath us: bioluminesence shimmered and shook from our fingers. As we paddled back every stroke of the blade struck sparks from the water: flash on the right, flash on the left, flash, flash, flash, flash.

Starlight repast

Starlight repast

It was hard to leave the magic that was happening on the water. Sheena and I walked back to where the cars were parked, breathless with the wonder of what we had just experienced. But wait…here were more candles and luminarias, and a table groaning with wonderful food, and grinning guides handing out cups of tea and glasses of wine, and Maria Kennedy presiding over a homemade feast of organic goodies: smoked salmon, seaweed scones (delicious!), salads from her garden, cheeses and biscuits and cake and chocolates. We sat or stood in the warm night air, munching contentedly, unable to utter much more than superlative heaped on superlative.

luminarios

Words are inadequate tools to fully convey the essence of an evening like this. I can’t tell you. You have to do it too.

Sensory Upload

Skibbereen Arts Festival

In the words of one of the organisers, Robert and I have been doing a marathon – an arts marathon. The Skibbereen Arts Festival has been running all week and we’ve taken in as many exhibitions, concerts, events and experiences as we could. Last year we missed most of this festival, as we had just arrived and were occupied with settling in. This year we wanted to remedy that.

In the bottling plant*

In the bottling plant*

And what a sensory feast it was: music, art, dance, drama and various items that defied categorisation. There was something for everyone, no matter what your age and taste. We took two days to cover the art walks. There were several pop-up galleries – empty houses converted into pro tem exhibition spaces ideal for the kind of modern installations that leave you scratching your head and worrying that you’re not sophisticated enough. The Working Artist Studios, a building run by artists for artists, had opened all their rooms for the duration of the Festival. Some of the rooms functioned as galleries, while others provided a glimpse into the working process of an emerging canvas.

In one room we discovered Caoine by a young local woman, Michelle Collins, which explored the ancient practice of keening, the Irish funerary custom of women lamenting over the dead. In a darkened room, among scented candles, we listened to the sorrowful songs and sounds of an age-old tradition. To give you an idea of a keening song, listen to Iarla O Lionaird singing the Lament of the Three Marys, with its repetition of the phrase  Óchón agus óchón ó – which can translate as alas and alas, or my grief, my grief.

At the other end of town an old bottling plant had been cleared out to become a perfect space for showing artists’ work. Several of these exhibitors had graduated from an innovative visual arts degree program offered on Sherkin Island by the Dublin Institute of Technology. We talked to Janet Murran and Donagh Carey who were enthusiastic about their experiences in the Sherkin Program – their work clearly showed mature artists seeking meaning in a variety of media. In one corner an intriguing little installation by Tess Leak featured Haiku written by Sherkin Islanders and inspired by island life. And in an adjacent building photographs, by Yvette Monahan, of Bugarach in France – where a new arcadia was supposed to begin once the world ended on December 21st, 2012. Moody and elegaic, the colour reminded me of the Agfa prints of my youth.

Robert is writing about Canon Goodman – see his post for more on the concert in his honour (and in his church) that has become a staple of this Festival. Another highlight for us was the staging of The Playboy of the Western World by J M Synge, a classic of Irish theatre: one which caused riots when first performed. This was an amateur production but it was hard to tell – the Kilmeen Drama Group had won the All-Ireland Drama finals with this production, had performed it at the Abbey Theatre (Ireland’s National Theatre) and are taking it to New York next. It was superb – full of energy and humour with each line singing with poetic expression.

The Playboy of the Western World

The Playboy of the Western World

To illustrate the sheer variety of what was on offer we also attended:

Men Without Names: a poignant exploration in poetry and music of the Irish diaspora. 

Sunrise/3Epkano: a classic silent movie with soundtrack provided by the group 3Epkano. A surreal experience, different from what I was expecting but in the best way.

The Vespertine Quintet: in the beautiful setting of Lissard House, an afternoon of gentle, haunting, minimalist music from Iceland mixed with baroque.

Croi Glan Dance: I have written about this marvellous dance company before – these two dances looked at the challenges of finding our place in the world and once again brought lumps to our throats.

We couldn’t go to everything and I was sorry to miss the dancing at the crossroads and the sean-nós evening. Sean-nós is a traditional style of highly ornamented unaccompanied singing – here is Nell Ní Chróinín showing how it’s done. There were events for families, a river day, a drama day, outdoor movie screenings…But most of all I was disappointed that Starlight Serenade sold out before I could get a ticket. Moonlight kayaking on beautiful Lough Hyne with musical accompaniment. For a taste of what I missed, take a look at this, and add music. 

‘Paddling Through Stars’ on Lough Hyne

Next year! But I might have to call that one Sensory Overload.

*Sorry, I don’t know the name of this artist. Can anyone supply it?