Thursday 20 July 2017

Whale of a time for marine tourism

Humpback whale 'Hookie' makes waves off Hook Head, Co Wexford. Photo: Deirdre Slevin
Humpback whale 'Hookie' makes waves off Hook Head, Co Wexford. Photo: Deirdre Slevin
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

It's whale-shark season in Cancun. Every summer, as many as 14,000 of these gentle giants glide through the waters north of Isla Mujeres, sending divers and snorkellers into raptures.

Whale shark (pictured) are the largest fish in the world. They migrate to the Yucatan Peninsula to feed on its abundant plankton, so visitors needn't worry about getting up close and personal.

Though their mouths can open five-feet wide, these shark are completely harmless to humans.

But magical and all as these animals are, you don't need to cross the Atlantic to experience some of earth's largest fish and mammals in their natural habitat. Ireland is a "staggering" site for cetacean spotting, says Simon Berrow of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG).

From the moment basking shark start appearing in April, our coastal waters experience a constant procession of marine visitors right through November and beyond.

This month, we watched ITV's Monty Hall tag basking shark off Inishowen. We learned of fin and minke whales splashing about off the Blasket Islands. Killiney Bay has its dolphins, but did you know humpback whale have been spotted off Lambay Island for two years running?

Last month, IWDG Dublin member Matt Comiskey and friends were sailing off the island when they got the amazing opportunity to spend half an hour just 30m from the blowing whale.

Shortly afterwards came the news that passengers on Brittany Ferries' route from Plymouth to Santander witnessed a blue whale surfacing right beside the MV Pont Avon. Blue whales, measuring up to 100ft long, are the largest animals ever to have lived on Earth.

All this and we haven't even hit peak season. Whale watching really kicks off on the Irish coast in autumn, with sightings rising to a peak in November. This year, Wexford and Waterford could be in for a treat, with fin and humpback forecast to follow spawning herring along their coastlines.

But it's not all good news. Ireland's cetacean spotting can be world class, but we don't have the marine tourism infrastructure to match. There is a sore lack of advertising, interpretative centres and packages that bundle wildlife experiences, rather than relying on weather-dependent boat rides.

Developing a more rounded product is crucial, because whales -- being wild animals -- don't always show up.

Key to their promotion is the management of expectations (which wasn't helped by Fáilte Ireland's recent ad featuring a Southern right whale -- a species never seen in Irish waters).

Ireland's weather and sea conditions may not be as reliable as the warm waters of Cancun, but our season is long, and our visiting species are spectacularly diverse.

It's time for a nuanced campaign to make the most of them.

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