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25 Jun 2022

Three close encounters with dolphins off the coast of Donegal

Column - A View of Donegal by journalist Siobhán McNamara

Dolphins riding a bow wave at Sliabh Liag

Dolphins riding a bow wave at Sliabh Liag. PHOTO: Siobhán McNamara

Having seen whales and dolphins in a few places around the world, it was only in the last month that I finally had the pleasure of seeing them off the coast of Donegal.

And to make up for lost time, I was lucky enough to enjoy three separate sightings during the month of May.

The first came on May 8 during a long overdue trip on Paddy Byrne’s Sliabh Liag Boat Trip. There were two boats out for the trip, and it was really great to see the cliffs so close up and from the sea. It’s always nice to get a very different perspective of something that is quite familiar

When the first dolphin appeared at the surface, there was a ripple of excitement. The boat operator swung round to get closer, and before long there were three or four dolphins surfacing alongside us

The second boat was a bit bigger, and at least three dolphins began to bow ride. I had never seen this behaviour first hand, though I gather it is a common occurrence. It looked like the dolphins were surfing the bow wave of the boat, staying at the surface for ages and appearing to be really enjoying themselves

Being able to witness this from another nearby boat felt like such a privilege.

The dolphins were a spectacular sight, very graceful and looking at times as if they were gliding in slow motion even though they were in fact moving quite quickly.

It felt like a big box had been ticked on my wishlist, and to have had this experience against the backdrop of one of Donegal’s most iconic scenes made the whole thing particularly special.

The second dolphin sighting I experienced this month started off as somewhat worrying. I trained last year as a stranding officer for the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group. On the morning of the Bluestack Challenge, I had been in Glencolmcille taking photos of participants.

As I was about to leave, I got a call to say there was a report of a live stranding at Fintra, most likely a Risso’s dolphin but possibly a small whale. It had already been assessed by a local wildlife ranger and there was a concern that the animal was in poor health.

That would have meant that the best case scenario was to provide palliative care, making the animal as comfortable as possible for its final hours.

When I arrived at Fintra, the dolphin was in the estuary area at the far end of the beach. It seemed to be on its side and was flailing. The prognosis didn’t seem great at that stage, and as it couldn’t be safely reached there was nothing more to be done for the time being.

I was able to use the long lens of the camera to get photos that helped identify it as a Risso’s dolphin, often mistaken for a whale because the species is quite large and doesn’t have the typical dolphin beak.

I returned at low tide with a lot of trepidation, expecting to find the dolphin lying on the sand where I had seen it earlier. But my heart lifted when I realised that it had made it out to sea and was swimming in the waves.

It was a bit soon to assume that it was ok. I was in contact with IWDG’s stranding officer and she felt that its swimming behaviour was not in keeping with a healthy Risso’s dolphin, so I stayed put and kept an eye.

The dolphin disappeared from view for a while, and there was a fear that it had simply sank. But thankfully - again with the help of the camera lens - I spotted it further out to sea, swimming in much deeper water and in a more natural pattern for its species.
I came back a few times on Sunday at various levels of tide, and thankfully there was no sign of it. It may have washed up somewhere else, but if so, it hasn’t been reported to the IWDG so hopefully all is well.

The third sighting was very unexpected and a real treat.

Last Sunday, I was swimming with some friends at the Nun’s Pool in Bundoran. While we were getting dried off, I spotted something moving just offshore. As I watched, it became apparent that there were three dolphins only a few metres from the shore.

They played - or fed - there for ages, and again, it felt really special.

Reflecting on each experience, it seems strange now that having enjoyed these three sightings of dolphins so close together, that I had never seen them here before. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. I have often stood on the shore, or on high coastal ground and wondered at all the magnificent creatures that inhabit our ocean, living out their lives oblivious to the comings and goings of the human race - expect, sadly, when they pay the price for our impact on their habitat.

Close encounters with wildlife remind us that we are not the sole occupants of the planet, but we do have a responsibility to care for it and for all who dwell here.

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