The waters between Loop Head, Co. Clare and Kenmare Bay, Co. Kerry, are highly biodiverse. Identified as an Area of Interest (AoI) for Marine Protected Area (MPA) designation by Fair Seas in the recent report ‘Revitalising our Seas’. It is no surprise, but a great honour, that the global organisation Mission Blue led by Dr Sylvia Earle, have announced that this will be Ireland’s first ‘Hope Spot’.
Hope Spots are special places that are scientifically identified as critical to the health of the ocean. Hope Spots are championed by local conservationists whom Mission Blue support with communications, expeditions and scientific advisory.
The name of the new Hope Spot gives a nod to the iconic Skellig Islands, which is included in the Hope Spot. Although waters included in the Greater Skellig Coast Hope Spot represent only 1.37% of Ireland’s Maritime Area, they are home to some of Ireland’s most important seabird colonies, vital breeding grounds for several species of threatened shark, ray and skate and important seabed features of conservation importance, such as Maerl and Zostera beds.
The new Hope Spot is also an important area for cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoise). Analysis of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group sightings database revealed that at least 14 different species of cetacean had been recorded within the Greater Skellig Coast Hope Spot. Detailed analysis of over 100 datasets collected between 2005-2021 reveal that this site hosts the highest densities of minke whales within the Irish Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Minke Whales are Ireland’s smallest baleen whale species; at around 8m in length, although they are dwarfed by the mammoth size of Ireland’s largest whales, the fin and blue whales. Often elusive and weary of boats, these fast, powerful swimmers tend to be overlooked due to their less charismatic nature compared to other species like the acrobatic humpback whale. But minke whales can be seen along the Greater Skellig Coast all year round. The humpback is a migrating visitor to our shores and can be observed from April to November with a peak in sightings generally occurring in August. Through photo-identification, the IWDG have confirmed that humpback whales visiting Irish waters mainly breed in the warm waters around the Cabo Verde archipelago off the west coast of Africa, although recently we have re-sightings also to their Caribbean breeding grounds.
Breeding whales don’t eat while mating; instead, they rely on blubber (fat) reserves to sustain them during this period. The waters surrounding the Greater Skellig Coast Hope Spot are highly productive, providing the whales with nutrient and oil-rich food, like, herring, sprat, and krill. This feeding allows them to build up fat reserves for their migration and breeding. Protecting these vital feeding grounds for whales is therefore essential to the conservation of these iconic species.
The Greater Skellig Coast is also hugely important for several dolphin species, like the robust, powerful, and yet agile bottlenose dolphin.
Bottlenose dolphins are a fascinating species with behaviours and even physical characteristics, like body size, differing between populations. We know through population genetics there are three distinct populations of bottlenose dolphins in Irish waters.
The Shannon bottlenose dolphins are particularly dear to my heart as they are the first species, I officially surveyed as an IWDG community scientist using photo identification and acoustics in 2013, under the guidance and mentorship of Dr Joanne O’Brien.
The Shannon dolphins are a qualifying interest of the already designated MPA called the Lower River Shannon Special Area of Conservation, but their home range extends out of the Lower River Shannon and into the adjacent waters around the Loop Head Peninsula Co. Clare and Brandon and Tralee Bays in Co. Kerry.
There is no sign of the expansion of industrialisation around our inshore waters or in the Shannon Estuary slowing down. However, with the announcement of the Greater Skellig Coast Hope Spot, there is an opportunity for local communities and international audiences to recognise, embrace and conserve this area and its inhabitants preserving its awe-inspiring beauty and significant biological and economic importance.
This blog was written by Sibéal Regan, Education & Outreach Officer at the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, a partner of the Fair Seas campaign.
We also welcome you to join us in Cork on 8th June, where we are hosting our inaugural World Ocean Day conference. We are bringing ocean advocates, government, industry and key stakeholders together to map out the next steps for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Irish waters.
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