West Cork Whale Watching

Pod of Dolphins West Cork

I have been looking for more experiences and places to see locally since our movements have been restricted due to Covid-19. After seeing many photographers that I follow on Instagram post breathtaking images of Humpback whales, Minke Whales, Dolphins and Sea Birds I knew I had to get involved and book a trip with Cork Whale Watch. You can book on their website CorkWhaleWatch.com and find out all the details of what’s involved.

There was the option of booking a morning or afternoon boat trip, so we opted for the morning voyage. I would definitely recommend booking well in advance as it seems to sell out pretty quickly. The skipper, Colin Barnes, confirmed that the sailing would be going ahead two days beforehand, this is to ensure that the weather conditions would be suitable.

What to Pack?

The first thing I consider when planning any trip is what photography gear I’m going to bring. I wanted to travel as light as possible so I packed a Canon 5D Mkiii with a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L ii, a few memory cards and spare batteries. If I were to repeat this excursion I would probably add in my sigma x1.4 teleconvertor with the Canon 70-200mm or else bring my Sigma 150-600mm lens. In hindsight, I feel the extra focal length would have been nice to have, but I made do with the 70-200mm and still managed to capture some lovely images on the voyage.

I would recommend bringing water and a decent lunch as you get quite thirsty and peckish while being at sea for that long. A hot drink or soup in a flask would also be a good idea as it was fairly chilly on the return leg, even though it was a beautiful sunny day, it gets cold out there with the sea breeze.

Don’t forget to layer your clothing so you can easily cool down or warm up based on the changing weather conditions. Sun cream, lip balm, a hat and sunglasses were also a must have for me. 

Canon 5D Mkiii Camera and Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 Lens

Getting to Reen Pier

Based at Reen Pier, near Skibbereen, West Cork, it took approximately 1hr and 30min to drive from my home town of Crosshaven Co.Cork. It was very easy to find using Google Maps, but I would definitely allow at least another 30min to get there in time and allow for any last minute equipment checks. This was my first time being to Reen Pier and I definitely want to return in the near future as it boasts many more photo opportunities. Near the pier there was enough room to find parking easily, there was also a coffee trailer and a Kayak rental service.

The Whale Watching Boat Trip

We were happily greeted by Skipper Colin, our hands were sanitised, and we were welcomed aboard to take a seat on the ‘Holly JO’. Colin, a veteran of these waters, gave us a very clear safety briefing and also a very interesting introduction to the type of marine life that we may encounter throughout the morning.

We set sail out of the harbour at 10am sharp for the 4hr whale watching adventure and I couldn’t have been more excited. The spectacular views looking at Galley Head Lighthouse in the far distance and the flat clam seas set this up to be a great day from the very beginning. 

Galley Head Lighthouse from sea
Galley Head Lighthouse pictured at sea

Marine Life and Oceanic & Coastal Sea birds

Gannet seabird mid flight
Gannet Mid-Flight
  • Finn Whale
  • Humpback Whale
  • Minke Whales 
  • Common Dolphins 
  • Bottle nose Dolphins
  • Harbour Porpoise 
  • Killer Whale
  • Basking Shark
  • Common Seals
  • Atlantic Grey Seals
  • Seagulls
  • Gannets
  • Kittiwakes
  • Storm Petrels
  • Razorbills
  • Puffins
  • Guillemots 
  • Cormorants
  • Various Sheer Water Birds
  • And much more

From the very beginning until the end of the whale watching trip we saw endless amounts of oceanic and coastal sea birds. When we got further out to sea and there was a lull in whale and dolphin activity, Colin prepared some fish liver which he threw overboard, this he informed us was to attract Storm Petrels, a seldom seen seabird, unfortunately, they did not seem hungry. Thankfully it did allow us to get an up close look at some of the other bird species.

Puffins

Puffins at sea
Three Puffins Enjoying the Calm Sea

Half way into the journey we saw some Puffins relaxing and enjoying the calm seas. This was the first time I had seen Puffins in nature. This is where the 150-600mm Sigma Lens would have come into great use to capture these exotic looking birds in greater detail.

A good time to see Puffins in Ireland is generally between late April and August, during this time they are usually busy feeding their chicks.

Photographing Puffins up close is next on my list and I hope to do this at the Saltee islands off the coast of Wexford or the Skellig Islands off the coast of Kerry, these are two of the best known nesting locations for Puffins, along with the Cliffs of Moher in Clare, but as you can imagine, photographing on a cliff face provides many challenges.

Sea gull in flight
Seagull in flight

Dolphins

The Dolphins, primarily Short-beaked common Dolphins, were definitely the most fun and playful of the species that we encountered. Being so close and watching them swim alongside the boat was enthralling. They were abundant throughout the majority of the voyage and they seemed to enjoy our company just as much as we were enjoying theirs. The large pods of Dolphins and their persistence in following us meant that I had loads of time and numerous opportunities to capture them jumping from the water.

Two Dolphins Jumping out of the water
Apod of dolphins jumping mid air

Seals

During the introduction, Colin informed us that we may see Common or Harbour Seals and Atlantic Grey Seals throughout the day.

Two Seals Swimming

The seals were incredibly inquisitive and as soon as they saw the boat they began swimming over to take a closer look. I felt that these seals were definitely playing to the crowd and were very used to having their photo taken, in fact, I think they were posing for the camera. Seals are more agile in water than on dry land and when they dive they usually stay underwater for between 5min-15min before returning for air.

Seal Pups relaxing on rocks off the coast off West Cork
Seal Pups relaxing off the Coast of West Cork

Minke Whales

While cruising roughly 10km from shore, we were lucky enough to spot some Minke Whales. These were very tricky to photograph as they can stay underwater for up to 20 minutes and when they resurface for air it’s only for a short few moments before submerging again. I did manage to capture one photograph of a Minke Whale breaching the surface after a few missed attempts. It can be hard to photograph them as you’re waiting and trying to guess where they will appear the next time. Patience and having an understanding of their behaviour definitely helps.  

Minke Whale West Cork
Minke Whale, West Cork Whale Watching. © 2021 Shaunagh O’Connell Photography

Minimalistic Seascapes

Last but not least, there was a fantastic opportunity to capture some minimalistic black and white Seascape images. These types of images are something that I personally love to photograph and there were countless opportunities around the harbour, these were taken at the beginning and at the end while exiting and entering the harbour.

Camera Settings Used

The weather was very nice on the day, but as any photographer knows cloud cover is always welcomed as it can make shooting outdoors much easier. In this case with open water, the sea acts as a giant reflector so I was definitely grateful that it was a little overcast and cloudy. I took all of these images using a Canon 5D Mkiii and a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L Mkii at 200mm and I shot in manual mode. The conditions stayed pretty consistent throughout the day so for the majority of the images my camera settings remained the same.

ISO: 320 | Aperture: f/5.6 to f/8 | Shutter Speed: 1/2500 | Focal Length: 200mm

If I were to go on this excursion again I would definitely bring a lens with a longer focal length and also a polarizing filter to help with the water reflections. I would highly recommend the Cork Whale Watching experience to anyone, it gets a 5 out of 5 star rating from me.

Seals on Rocks off the cost of West Cork
Seals on Rocks, West Cork. Ireland. Image by Shaunagh O’Connell

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