Whale watching on Ireland’s newest coastal route

Ireland’s southwest coast is one of the easiest places on Earth to see whales, porpoises and dolphins in the wild – and no one knows it yet.

When I saw the first roll of dark skin emerge from the water, I knew we weren’t alone. I was on a boat with Whale Watch West Cork less than a kilometre off the coast of Baltimore, a village on Ireland’s southwest coast, and the captain, Nic Slocum, had just spotted a menacing shadow creeping up from the depths below. He switched off the engine. A moment later, the 10 Spanish, British and German travellers on deck started to shriek: next to our drifting tugboat was a 7.5m-long, bullet-headed minke whale, capable of knocking us sideways.

The whale-watching trip was my first experience on southwest Ireland’s new tourist route the Wild Atlantic Way. The world’s longest uninterrupted coastal drive – beating out California’s Pacific Coast Highway, South Africa’s Garden Route and Australia’s Great Ocean Road – the trail runs 2,500km from the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal County to Kinsale in County Cork. It officially launched in February after years of planning from Fáilte Ireland, the National Tourism Development Authority, joining adventure tour operators together to create a gigantic eco-tourism network promoting every kind of seaside activity, including sea kayaking, hiking, fishing, surfing, foraging and whale watching.

Ireland’s southwest coast is one of the easiest places in the world to see whales, porpoises and dolphins in the wild – but few tourists seem to know it yet. Attracted by plankton, krill and large shoals of herring, minke, fin, humpback, and the occasional killer whale habitually pass through the briny coastal waters between Donegal and Cork City. They can eat up to 2,000kg a day, and during the annual herring run in November – when the fish return from the sea to fresh water in order to spawn – many of the whales can be seen breaking and breaching the surface. Unlike other areas famous for whale watching – including Patagonia, Mexico and Hawaii, where the mammals come to breed – in Ireland, they come to eat. “That means we have fewer whales spread over a larger area,” Slocum said. “But we still manage sightings nearly every day.” The frequency of sightings is particularly impressive since whales spend 80% to 85% of their time underwater; some can hold their breath for up to an hour.

From Baltimore, I took a short 23km drive east, past farms and guesthouses that dotted the headlands and fields, to the village of Union Hall. Rumoured to be the most beautiful sea kayaking spot in the country, the small fishing village on the west side of Glandore Harbour has a secluded beach cove and a network of around 10 sea caves and inlets. The visibility of the water reaches 12m, allowing crystal-clear glimpses of shoals of Atlantic fish and billowing seaweed. About 300m offshore, there are two windswept islands to explore, so small they are unnamed and both home to an undisturbed nursery for seal pups. Amazingly, the sea caves, beach coves  and islands all lie within an easy 15-minute paddle of the nearest pub.

It is in Union Hall that I met Atlantic Sea Kayaking’s Jim Kennedy, one of the principal forces behind the new tourism venture. “Ireland is under developed and the coastline is very intricate, which gives it an unbeatable appeal,” he explained. “There is a lyrical beauty to the ocean around the Irish coast, but what also makes it so special are the people and experiences – they are different all the way from Donegal to Kinsale. Even the rain is different.”

One of Kennedy’s favourite kayaking trips involves exploring the inland seas of Lough Hyne Nature Reserve, an 18km drive to the west, close to the town of Skibbereen. In a marked change from the brilliant blue of the morning, the weather had turned rough, with bruised skies and choppy swells putting a hold on our kayaking adventure. As Kennedy joked, at least the coastline lived up to its monikor Wild Atlantic Way.

“Wet and wild afternoons like today mean we can recharge the batteries a little” – like in an Irish pub, Kennedy said, with a mischievous glint in his eye. “Plus there’s always our famous Irish hospitality. How about a pint of Guinness?”

As I left Lough Hyne to continue my journey along the coast, I knew I had to return to Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. From Kenmare to Kilrush, from Shannon to Sligo, there were kilometres and kilometres of adventure yet to explore...and hundreds of sea creatures yet to see.