Once more into the breach, dear friends
The arrival of a group of humpbacks has turned a fishing village upside-down, writes Louis Jacob
In Baltimore, west Cork, the language has suddenly changed. The familiar vocabularies of fishing and sailing, which normally permeate worthwhile conversation in the village, have been temporarily relegated. Bubble-netting, breaching, pectoral-slapping and tail-fluking are just a few of the terms driving the discourse in the village now.
This all began about a fortnight ago when a pod of humpback whales showed up just outside the harbour and began to gorge on the abundance of Atlantic sprat, which shoal along the coast at this time of year. The arrival of these gigantic sea creatures triggered an epidemic of humpback-mania in Baltimore. Now you need a pretty sound grasp of the ol' whale speak just to get on.
The currency has changed too, by the way. Photographs of these ocean giants and their fascinating display are the new gold, and three guys – Simon Duggan, Youen Jacob and Richard O'Flynn – are now reaping the rewards from years of dedicated fascination with all things whale.
By now, anyone who reads the newspapers will have seen the photograph of the Baltimore humpback jumping clean out of the water. That's called 'breaching' in the new language.
The photo was made epic by the presence of whale watchers on a nearby boat looking the wrong way, in a quintessential "he's behind you" moment. It was like the Christmas pantomime arrived early. However, local artist Peter Perry, who was on the other boat, assures me that they saw plenty of other breaching whales that day, and I believe him.
It seems to defy logic that a blubber-laden sea creature measuring all of 50-something feet and weighing in at 40 tonnes could actually propel itself out of the water and airborne in such a manner.
To witness this phenomenon is one thing. To get a photograph of it, as local photographer Simon Duggan did, is quite something else. Having spotted the whales from the cliffs at the Beacon, while out walking at 7am, he and Youen raced out there in a semi-inflatable: "We knew something was going on below the surface. So we were just hanging around and waiting for some action. Then it just happened right in front of us. I couldn't believe I had my camera ready and I caught pretty much the whole sequence from start to finish. It's that one shot from quite literally thousands we've been taking over the past few weeks alone and I was unbelievably fortunate to get it," he says. "The fact that the guys on the other boat were looking the other way made it, really."
You get the feeling he is ever-so-slightly frazzled by the whole thing: "There's been very little sleep and a whole lot of very strong coffee from Youen's bar over the last two weeks. We've been out at dawn every morning and now to get all the exposure from this one photo. It's all pretty surreal."
Behind the adventure and the spectacular photography, there's been something more serious going on – the ongoing documentation and information-gathering regarding the population of whales that visit Irish waters annually. It's important work. Two weeks ago, Youen and Richard O'Flynn, both prolific photographers too, were out on the water early doors when Youen caught another remarkable image – a first in Irish waters – of two humpbacks 'bubble-netting' in tandem.
Bubble-netting is "engaging in complex feeding manoeuvres that are often accompanied by the apparently directed use of air bubble clouds (the production of single or multiple bursts of seltzer-sized bubbles) to corral or herd fish," – Science Daily.
The whale game is all about recording. Through his ongoing affiliation with the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG), Simon helps to identify individual whales for reference. This involves photographing thousands of the whales' tail fins and uploading them for examination. The pattern on the tail fin is a fingerprint and allows them to identify individual whales. There have been 21 humpback whales individually identified in Irish waters over 13 years. Constant reidentifying allows the IWDG to track the whales during their visits to Irish waters. People like Simon put big hours into gathering this information.
November/early December can be a slow haul in Baltimore. Lost between the summer and Christmas, it is usually a dreary few weeks. This time it was different. It was exciting. Now Youen thinks it's going to catch on: "They come at the same time every year. It's all there right on our doorstep. It's just to get out there and capture it," he says.
Last Wednesday, the local Rath Primary School rented Brendan Cottrell's Cape Clear Island ferryboat, An Dun An Oir. Fifth and sixth class students took a trip out to try and catch the show for themselves. It was a magnificent morning in the south west so Brendan and I headed up to the cliffs to see if we could spot any humpbacks out there. We were in the same class in Rath and we agreed it was amazing for this new batch of school kids to be involved in something so extraordinary.
That evening, the whales finally headed east, and sometime soon, our buddies will turn tail and set a course for the breeding grounds of Cape Verde or the Dominican Republic, oblivious to the sensation they have caused. Nobody will truly be any wiser as to why these heavyweights put on such a tidy performance but theories abound . . . you'd really need to know the language, though.