THE Department of the Marine has drawn up new sea traffic rules for skippers of boats to protect the unprecedented number of whales and dolphins swimming in Irish waters.
The regulations warn vessels, especially whale-watching boats, to stay 100 metres away from the mammals and to keep boat speed under seven knots.
A giant humpback whale, christened Boomerang, has turned up on Irish shores for the fifth year in a row, helping to foster a marine sightseeing industry in the southwest. Two whale-watching operators work off the coast of Cork, with passengers looking to spot giant whales and schools of dolphins. In 2003, whale-watchers and bird-watchers in seaside areas are estimated to have brought in €12.3m in tourism revenue.
Simon Berrow, a marine biologist from the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, said it is important to protect the marine mammals from harassment. “The department has issued a marine notice for crafts getting close to whales and dolphins,” he said. “It means boats can lose their licences if they harass whales.”
The departmental directive instructs boats not to pursue the whales and dolphins and never to come between a mother and her calf. The operators are also asked not to corral the creatures between boats, and not to attempt to swim with them.
The department requires whale-watching boats to be licensed passenger vehicles and warns small craft about coming into contact with 50ft humpbacks and 80ft fin whales.
“There are definite risks associated in engaging these mammals, particularly the larger whales,” it says. “As wild animals their actions may be unpredictable, particularly if they feel their young are at risk. Considering their size they are certainly capable of causing damage to small craft.”
Berrow said there is growing excitement about the number of big whales coming to Irish shores. “Boomerang has arrived about a week early this year,” he said. “We don’t know where the humpbacks are coming from or where they are going, but there has never been as many sightings.
“We have six humpback whales who are individually recognisable by their tail flukes. Some of them have been coming for four years but Boomerang has been seen for the past five.
“Last year there were humpbacks off all coasts and there are also fin whales. It is unprecedented in Ireland and the annual sightings means it is not just a freak occurrence.
Colin Barnes has been operating a whale-watching boat from Skibbereen for several years, and now a second sightseeing boat is working from the same pier. At least two further operators are hoping to get licences to operate from Cork harbour this autumn.
Boomerang caused a stir when he was first identified on August 29, 2001 and the 50ft mammal has been spotted again by Barnes, nine miles south of the Stags in west Cork. He generally arrives in late August or early September and stays for about six weeks. Humpbacks are known as “singing” whales, producing a variety of moans, groans, bellows and whines in their breeding grounds. Humpbacks of different regions have different songs and dialects.
As taoiseach in 1991, Charles Haughey declared Irish waters a whale and dolphin sanctuary and all 24 species are protected from “deliberate disturbance”.
Some dolphins and porpoises pick up harmful chemicals and radiation in the Irish Sea, however. A number of dolphins washed up on Irish shores have been found with high levels of a deadly toxin used to fire-proof furniture. Up to five times as much of the toxin was discovered in Irish Sea dolphins than from ones found in other European waters. Radioactive caesium found in other animals has been blamed on Sellafield.