In Conversation with
Irish Whale and Dolphin Group
30th of November 2022
“Ireland is one of the best places in the world to see whales and dolphins, especially because we can see them quite coastally. You don’t have to go hundreds of miles offshore or you don’t have to go on a boat to see them” Sibéal explained. Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) is an environmental non-governmental organisation that aims to “better understanding and conservation of cetaceans in Irish waters”. Sibéal Regan, education and outreach officer in IWDG, discussed in an interview with STAND News, how research and outreach combine together to protect cetaceans and their habitats.
Twenty-six species of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) have been recorded in Irish waters. Several species, such as humpback whales and fin whales, are migratory. These species come to Ireland to feed for part of the year before journeying to warmer tropical waters to breed and give birth to their calves. Other species are more permanent residents, for example common dolphins, minky whales and harbour porpoises, and can be seen year-round along Ireland’s coasts. Sibéal has a particular interest in sperm whales, which a deep-diving offshore species. Sperm whales “are the loudest odontoceti or toothed whale. They are also the only whale and dolphin species that can fully turn off their brain when they sleep. Sperm whales are the least sleep dependent mammal in the world. They’ll only sleep for ten to fifteen minutes at a time”.
Sibéal has been involved with IWDG for over a decade, progressing through different roles within the organisation. Sibéal began as a volunteer during her time in secondary school and “when [she] was in transition year, [she] was able to get out and do some surveys with Doctor Joanne O’Brien on Celtic Mist, which is the IWDG research vessel”. Sibéal later completed a Bachelor of Science in Freshwater and Marine Biology at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. Afterwards, Sibéal joined IWDG full-time working as education and outreach officer and she has now entered her fourth year in the role. As Sibéal comes from an inland town, she emphasised that “a lot of people don’t believe that these things are accessible to them If they didn’t grow up near the sea. The good thing about the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group is anyone and everyone can get involved. There are different things for different age levels, different abilities, different interests.”
Sibéal is also a marine mammal observer with IWDG and is often at sea. This fieldwork includes “monitoring whales and dolphins, doing field surveys and then writing up data, analyzing data, crunching some numbers”. The whales and dolphins can be surveyed in two ways, either “visual surveys, which is looking out in good conditions during the day” or “acoustics, which is listening to [cetaceans] with essentially big microphones called C pods and F pods. [IWDG] can leave them in the water for a few months if [they] want or tow it behind a boat and listen”. The microphones provide the additional advantages of being able to monitor over a longer period of time or in dark places.
“You know all of our actions do in some way come back to the ocean” Sibéal explained, and climate change through rising ocean temperatures is affecting the prey distribution for whales and dolphins in Ireland. “Fish are not arriving when they used to arrive in Irish waters. They’re moving to different locations that they might not have before. This is really impacting the whales’ migrations”. The changing arrivals of fish means that “the whales come here to feed. They need to build up those blubber resources before heading back to the breeding grounds because they don’t feed when they are mating or giving birth” and there is less food available for the cetaceans to feed on. Another impact can be seen on the habitats whales and dolphins are choosing to inhabit. For example, “in the last couple of years, the last decade [IWDG has] seen a massive distribution change in common dolphins. Common dolphins would normally be considered as a pelagic (open ocean) offshore species, but they’re becoming increasingly more and more coastal. They’re following the fish”. The common dolphins’ unusual behaviour has knock-on effects including “increased rates of entanglement in fishing gear, increased bycatch or accidental catch up by fishers and increased live strandings”. Sibéal drew attention to why live stranding rates are increasing for common dolphins in certain areas such as in Mayo and Kerry, “these areas are quite sandy and because common dolphins should be an offshore species, they get confused in these sandy areas. They basically get caught out on the tides and this can be fatal”. IWDG has a trained network of volunteers that can assess the condition of a stranded whale or dolphin and hopefully re-float them.
Sibéal, within her role as education and outreach officer, has a diverse range of responsibilities. She is involved with research, policy, outreach and advocacy. IWDG is a member of Fair Seas (a coalition of Irish environmental non-governmental organisations and environmental networks) and Sibéal has recently helped to complete a report of areas which identified “areas of interest that [FairSeas] would like designated as marine protected areas”. FairSeas offers an opportunity for anyone to “get actively involved in ocean advocacy and conservation”. Sibéal also creates educational content and organises training events from primary school children through to third level education. A particular highlight for Sibéal was the opportunity to write a children’s book entitled Ireland’s Blubber Book. The book contains “all of the cool whale facts that anybody would want to know about”. This book for Sibéal marked both a personal and professional achievement, as “those kind of resources simply weren’t there when [she] was younger, so that was quite nice for [her] younger self”.
IWDG is involved with several research projects to learn more about and monitor cetaceans and their habitats. The longest running project is the Shannon Dolphin Project which focuses on a bottlenose dolphin population in the Shannon Estuary. These dolphins are genetically distinct to any other bottlenose dolphins in Ireland. This population has been monitored for thirty years through a non-invasive method called photo identification. Sibéal explained “we basically take photographs of individual dolphins when we’re surveying, and then we can match them to an individual level. We can track calves from birth to their mothers and their grandmothers, all the way through and really assess how that population is doing”.
Another project that IWDG is conducting is WhaleTrack. This research identifies large baleen whales (humpback and fin whales) in Irish waters through photo identification. Pictures are taken of the underside of an individual whale’s tail, and as every tail underside is unique, each whale can be identified and monitored. Patterns of migration can be analysed from the data collected and members of the public can participate by sharing any pictures they take with IWDG.
Two other projects which the public can participate in are the sightings scheme and strandings scheme. The sighting scheme allows the public as “citizen scientists” to report any live whales or dolphins they see and provide information about the circumstances of the sighting and any pictures taken. The stranding scheme allows for dead stranded animals to be reported and to monitor the situations resulting in strandings. Whales and dolphins can often be sighted from land, so access to a boat or going out to sea is not required to become involved. If someone is going out onto the water, necessary safety requirements should be taken, and any animals sighted should not be disturbed unless they choose to interact.
Sibéal encouraged anyone that is interested in getting involved with IWDG to visit their social media pages, look at the website or to contact her at education.iwdg.ie. IWDG is bringing research and outreach together to protect cetaceans and their habitats in Ireland.
Thank you to Sibéal Regan for her support in this article.
Featured photo of a bottlenose dolphin and calf by Sibéal Regan.
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