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Buried Treasure off the Wild Atlantic Way

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The Wild Atlantic Way’s breathtaking landscape provides visitors with stories that last a lifetime, but what about what lies beneath the crashing waves, surging tides and tranquil coves? The waters are alive with all kinds of marine creatures with their own interesting stories to tell...


Character lives and breathes on the Wild Atlantic Way. Marine life of all shapes, sizes, textures and colours are known to migrate up the West coast while an impressive variety of fish species come inshore during warm summer months via the Gulf Stream. The unique islands of the Wild Atlantic Way help compose a thrilling concoction of sensory experiences for everyone to enjoy, not least in part to the colourful population off its shores. Think of an amazing sea creature and chances are you’ll find it beneath the surface. We spoke to two marine experts to bring you key insights into your next trip along Ireland’s West coast.

Five Wild Sights to Look Out For

1. Spider Crab

Spider Crab, Achill Island
Spider Crab, Achill Island | Image Credit: Richard Thorn

“One of the largest crabs found in the coastal waters of Ireland”, notes Matthew Hawkins, Aquarium Manager at Galway Atlantaquaria. “They’re generally found in weed or rock sea beds. Achill Island is a popular haunt. Their hard carapace (shell) is often covered in weed, giving the crab a great camouflage that makes it look like a rock. Like other crustaceans, the spider crab must moult its shell to grow. The shell cracks open at the back and the whole crab climbs out. Over the next few days it expands and finally the shell hardens again with the crab considerably larger than before. When held upside down the crab will curl up into the shape of a ball for protection." 

2. Crayfish

Crayfish, Sligo
Crayfish, Sligo | Image Credit: Richard Thorn

The crayfish is similar in appearance to lobsters but with smaller claws and larger antennae. “Crayfish are generally found in rock substrate where they feed on shellfish, sea urchins and crabs”, says Matthew. “They will pick up food with their claws and use their mouth to break into the hard shell or exoskeleton. They have a great way to deter predators. By rubbing their antennae on their exoskeleton they can produce noise to scare away anything too close.”

3. Velvet Swimming Crab

Velvet Swimming Crab, Sligo
Velvet Swimming Crab, Sligo | Image Credit: Richard Thorn

“Also known as ‘The Devil Crab’”, nods Matthew. “They have very distinctive red eyes and their body is covered in fine hairs that give off a velvet feel and their name. The last pair of rear legs are flat, giving the ability to swim off the seabed unlike many other crabs. A very aggressive crab that will take on an opponent much larger than themselves including aquarium staff!”.

4. Anemones

Anemones and Feather Stars, Cahirciveen
Anemones and Feather Stars, Cahirciveen | Image Credit: Richard Thorn

“Many species of anemone are found around the Irish coastline. They are related to jellyfish but whilst the jellyfish swims, the anemone is found attached to the seabed. Although they appear to be a beautiful part of the marine life, they hold a dark secret. Their many tentacles hold ‘stinging cells’ with a hair trigger. Anything touching the hair will be injected with venom. This is a great way to catch food but also great for protection”.

5. Wrasse

A cuckoo Wrasse off Donegal Bay
A Cuckoo Wrasse off Donegal Bay | Image Credit: Richard Thorn

“One of five species of wrasse commonly found around Ireland. Found in rock and weed where they feed on crustaceans such as shrimp and crab. Females are generally pale in colour with black and white stripes near their tail. Males are very bright in colour often orange and blue. Wrasse are very territorial and will defend their patch of seabed. In the aquarium this means that we don’t put more than one male cuckoo in a display tank to avoid fights! Female wrasse can change sex if there are very few males in a location.”

Quite a cast of characters then. Thanks to such regular and interesting sights, the Wild Atlantic Way is widely considered as something of a treasure trove for anyone looking to explore the exciting world of marine life.
“The whole coast is a diver’s and other seafarer’s paradise”, says Louise Overy, Animal Curator at Dingle Oceanworld Aquarium. “The changing geology means that every new stretch of the coast offers new underwater adventure, from caverns and arches to fantastic kelp forests. If diving and snorkelling are not your favourite pastimes, then we are blessed with a plethora of marine mammals and not to forget basking sharks and sunfish.”
With such richly populated waters, Louise reckons a boat tour is a must.
The Blasket Islands are not only renowned for diving but an eco marine trip out there will almost guarantee to pick up seals and dolphins, if not minke whales. If you come at the right time you may even be gifted by the presence of humpback whales or basking sharks. Orcas have also been seen to pass by.”

Two Humpback Whales West of Three Sisters, Dingle Peninsula
Two Humpback Whales West of Three Sisters, Dingle Peninsula | Image Credit: Nick Massett

Is there anything special worth checking out on the other side of the peninsula?

“Absolutely. The Shannon bottlenose dolphins are a group of resident dolphins that will not disappoint as they range from the River Shannon down to Brandon and the Maharees. And you can’t forget the flying variety of marine life, either. The whole coast is home to a huge array of seabirds with many only coming into nest before spending the rest of the year at sea. The Skellig Islands are home to one of the largest breeding colonies of gannets with around 26,000 pairs.
“Many of the offshore Islands are fantastic breeding sites for the vivacious puffin while the Blasket Islands and Skellig Islands are popular spots to visit these colourful characters. So whether you are an avid bird watcher or wildlife enthusiast, the Wild Atlantic Way will not disappoint. From storm petrels to choughs, the rugged landscape down the West of Ireland has it all!”
If you’ve never dived before and fancy getting up close and personal with the likes of the striking creatures mentioned above and more besides, Louise has some simple advice. 

“Do it! Get in contact with a dive centre and they will take you to a whole new world, quite literally! I would personally recommend some wreck diving and I’ve heard the Brandon Point cliff dive is not to be missed.”
To explore more coastal experiences, check out Islands of the Wild Atlantic Way. If you’re enjoying our Shaped by the Sea series, continue on to Sounds, Sights, and Tastes

Header Image Credit: Raymond Fogarty


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