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Whale & Dolphin Watching on the Wild Atlantic Way



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On the surface, the crystalline coastal waters of the Wild Atlantic Way are calming, exquisite and make for some incredible views.

Dip a toe and you’ll quickly find them invigorating and life-affirming too. And beneath the surface? There’s another world altogether.

 

 
 
Whales spotted on Cork coastline
 

Almost one third of the world’s species of whales, dolphins and porpoises - collectively known as cetaceans - have been recorded in Irish waters. The waters of the Wild Atlantic Way boast all manner of marine life, from famous friendly dolphins to enormous majestic whales and many a fin and flippered creature in between. In 1991, the Irish government declared Ireland’s waters a whale and dolphin sanctuary – the first of its kind in Europe – putting the Wild Atlantic Way at the very heart of some of the best places to see these beautiful creatures for yourself.

 
  • Humpback whale, County Cork
 

UNDER THE SEA

Cetaceans tend to prefer wild and pristine habitats, and whales and dolphins around these shores are no different. The bountiful waters along this 2,500km coast provide both year-round sanctuary for some species and a seasonal refuge for others migrating through.

Of the impressive 25 cetacean species that have been recorded in Ireland, a hefty 17 have been seen along the Wild Atlantic Way, with eight considered either common or occasional visitors. These often-spotted species range in size from the small harbour porpoise to the planet’s second largest animal, the glorious giant fin whale. And the eight most likely to be seen in those crashing Atlantic waves? The harbour porpoise, common dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, Risso’s dolphin, killer whale, minke whale, humpback whale and fin whale. That’s quite an underwater crew.

Naturally enough given their size and majesty, many spotters are particularly interested in sighting the larger whales, namely the fin whale, with its recognisable slender body and the unmistakeable humpback with its rough skin and pectoral fins. While these fellas can be seen from June onwards along the Kerry and Cork coastline, trends suggest that they are more common off County Kerry between July and September and off West Cork between October and December.

These coastal waters are also among the best in the world for sightings of the planet’s second largest fish, the plankton-eating basking shark, which arrives in late spring, but can be seen throughout the summer in settled weather. So it certainly pays to check the calendar.

 
 

1. COUNTY DONEGAL, NORTHERN HEADLANDS

Top Spots: Malin Head, Fanad Head, Bloody Foreland, Dawros Head, Malin More Head, Sliabh Liag, St. John’s Point.

Take a trip on the Bundoran Star, Tor Mor or Donegal Bay Boat Charter.
 

2. COUNTY SLIGO, SURF COAST

Top Spots: Mullaghmore Head, Aughris Head.

Take a trip with Sligo Boat Charters from Rosses Point.
 

3. COUNTY MAYO, BAY COAST

Top Spots: Kilcummin Head, Downpatrick Head, Erris Head, Annagh Head, Achill Island, Old Head/Clew Bay.

Take a trip with Leneghan Ferries on Achill Sound.
 

4. COUNTY GALWAY, BAY COAST

Top Spots: Killary Harbour, Aran Island Ferry.

Take a glass-bottomed boat tour with Letterfrack Bay Water Tours.

 
 
Whales on the East Cork/Waterford coast
 

5. COUNTY CLARE, CLIFF COAST

Top Spots: Black Head, Hag's Head, Kilkee cliffs, Loop Head, Shannon Estuary.  

For a tour, see Dolphin Discovery, based in Kilrush. Sails daily from April to October. Or Dolphinwatch in Carrigaholt. Tour season runs April to October.


6. COUNTY KERRY, SOUTHERN PENINSULAS

Top Spots: Ballybunion Cliffs, Kerry Head, Brandon Point, Slea Head Peninsula, Blasket Islands, Bray Head/Valentia Island, Skellig Island.  

Take a tour with Blasket Islands Eco Marine Tours, based in Ventry. Daily tours from April - October. Or Dingle Dolphin Boat Tours. Tours operate all year round.


7. COUNTY CORK, HAVEN COAST

Top Spots: Dursey Island, Sheep’s Head, Mizen Head, Cape Clear Island (Gleann Loop), Baltimore Beacon, Toe Head, Galley Head, Seven Heads, Old Head of Kinsale.  

Take a tour with Whale Watch West Cork in Baltimore, or Cork Whale Watch, Ireland’s longest established whale watch operator based on Reen Pier, near Union Hall, which operates all year round.  


Check the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group online to learn more about which species can be seen, where and when. Discover what other fascinating marine life lies under those Atlantic waves and see just what adventures await on one of these captivating islands. Dive in!