Sightings of humpback whale increase by 50%
Sightings of the majestic humpback whale have shot up by 50% this year along some stretches of the Irish coast.
Areas of the Atlantic around the Blasket Islands and west Kerry are throwing up jaw-dropping views of the spectacular 40 tonne creatures on a weekly basis as they feed on locally abundant prey.
The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) estimates that as many as 60 individual humpbacks are now visiting our coasts - a spike from the previous figure of 39.
Padraig Whooley, sightings co-ordinator with the group, said it will be later in the year before they can confirm if the 50% increase in sightings along the south west represents growing numbers right around Irish waters.
"If this is replicated throughout the country, then this is a very significant development and suggests a recovery of humpback whale numbers in Irish waters," he said.
"It tells us these aren't random chance encounters. These are animals that are seeking out our waters as important feeding habitats. They aren't just passing through."
Local whale watchers estimate that anywhere from 15-20 individual humpbacks have been feeding off the Slea Head peninsula in west Kerry this summer.
Humpbacks are also regularly spotted and counted off west Cork and o nly 10 days ago one was reported for the first time off Ballycastle, Co Antrim.
Among the sightings this year included an experienced paddle boarder's close encounter off Inchydoney, Cork, when a humpback - as close as 20m from shore - approached him and gently lifted his board off the surface.
Urging people to take part in its annual whale watch day this Sunday , the IWDG said regular sightings are at the very least a sign of the health of Irish waters.
"The factors underpinning this increase in sightings are unclear and are likely to be varied and as complex as the local marine ecosystems," Mr Whooley said.
"But such a large aggregation of these 25-40 tonne iconic giants suggests a local abundance of prey such as lesser sand eels, sprat and perhaps even warm water anchovies, which are now being documented in Irish waters."
Mr Whooley said Ireland's protected waters and strong legislation against harassment combine to offer suitable habitat for seasonal visits.
"There is the real possibility increasing sightings merely reflects a shift in their distribution. So, what is good news for Irish whale-watchers and visitors to the Wild Atlantic Way, may well be as a result of the decline of suitable habitat elsewhere in the north-east Atlantic," he said.
Humpbacks which grow to about 16m long are mainly attracted to Irish shores by guaranteed shoals of sprat and herring.
They were hunted to the brink of extinction in the 19th century, including from the Mayo coast, but e stimates now put the north Atlantic population at more than 1,000.