Seafaring is in Nic Slocum’s blood. A native of the great English harbour town of Portsmouth and a passionate sailor, he has been based in west Cork for the last 20 years.
For 18 of those years, he has been bringing eager tourists out from Baltimore Harbour to see the whales and dolphins that feed off the south-west coast.
“I came over here because I was sick of commuting in to London and I had a young family,” he told me.
“When I came to Ireland and set up Whale Watch West Cork we found there was a ready market for people who wanted to go out.”
A genial character with a quirky sense of humour, Nic’s enthusiasm and depth of knowledge were evident from the moment we stepped onto the deck of his twin-engine catamaran, the Voyager.
“It’s all about nutrient upsurge,” he explained, when I asked why West Cork is such a whale watching hotspot.
“The Gulf Stream is bringing nutrients up from the deep, which is good for the plankton, which is good for the little fish, which is good for the whales.”
Besides Nic, there were 12 of us on board the Voyager – six Irish, a pair of Germans, and four French visitors.
We chugged away from Baltimore across a calm, slate-grey sea, with the afternoon sun doing its best to break through the clouds.
Flanking us was the Liscannor Star, the other boat used by Whale Watch West Cork, its own cargo of whale spotters in the capable hands of local man J J Cotter.
We passed between Baltimore Beacon and the craggy southern shores of Sherkin Island and on into the open sea.
Nic instructed us to keep our eyes peeled for birds flying round a particular area or diving out of the sky, any dark shapes coming up out of the water, or any splashes that we thought looked out of place on the surface.
25 different cetacean species have been recorded in Irish waters, but we were looking in particular for the relatively common minke whale, which appear in Irish coastal waters during the spring.
“Big Whale Season” when the humpbacks and the mighty 90 foot long fin whales come in to feed on the continental shelf, comes later in the year, from the late summer on.
Nic told me that sightings of minkes and humpbacks have been up in recent years, but fin whale sightings have crashed, a state of affairs that he blames on ruthless over-fishing of the sprat, which are a key component of their diet.
We were only a mile or two out from Sherkin Island when I heard Nic’s cry of, “Minke! Minke!” A young minke whale had appeared off our bow, apparently observed by everyone except myself.
He did not pause to socialise, and for the next half hour or so there was nothing to see except the flights of brilliant white gannets that passed overhead and the little shearwaters that darted over the surface of the water.
There were more exclamations from both catamarans when dark dorsal fins began to break the water around us, and before we knew it, we found ourselves in the midst of a large school of short-beaked common dolphins, delightful creatures who flung themselves out of the water all around us and took turns riding the bow waves created by our boats.
Each one that showed itself was greeted by a pointed finger and a yell of “There!” from my daughter Fleurette, who was scarcely less enraptured by her twentieth dolphin than her first.
While all this was going on, a minke whale appeared just in front of the Liscannor. The glimpse I had of the sinuous dark-grey form arching gracefully through the waves lasted no more than six or seven seconds, but it thrilled me to the core.
Playful dolphin pod
We cruised on toward Cape Clear Island, passing lonely little rocky outcrops where cormorants spread their wings to dry and grey seals watched us incuriously.
Displaying the expert knowledge of the sea you’d expect of someone who grew up on a Tipperary sheep farm, I identified another whale on the approach to Cape Clear, only to have Nic patiently explain that what I was hailing so excitedly was actually the waves breaking over a submerged reef.
During a brief and welcome sojourn at the North Harbour, we bought tea and toasties from one of those island shops that stock everything from canned goods to woolly hats to coils of rope, and then voyaged on once more around the westernmost tip of Cape Clear.
Nic did his best to find some basking sharks, the second largest fish in the world, but unfortunately the weather conditions were not conducive to a sighting.
“The trouble is with baskers is that we’re reliant on really good strong sunshine pulling the phytoplankton all the way up to the surface,” Nic explained. “They’re here and they’re feeding; they’re just not feeding at the surface.”
There was more than adequate compensation to be had from our second encounter with a playful pod of dolphins, distant glimpses of harbour porpoises, and another thrilling sighting of a minke whale.
Nic invited Fleurette to take the wheel of the Voyager and pilot us home, which may just have been the crowning moment of her life to date.
Our nine year old skipper had us safely back at Baltimore by 6.30pm, and we thanked Nic and clambered up the steps to the pier, French and German and Irish sea-farers all well satisfied with our adventure.
A voyage with Whale Watch West Cork is not a trip to the zoo. You set out in search of wild creatures in their natural habitat, in weather conditions that are never entirely dependable.
The whales that feed off Ireland’s south-west coast may not feel the need to show themselves for your delectation. When they do, it is an experience never to be forgotten.
Weather permitting, Whale Watch West Cork runs two tours per day from Baltimore Harbour, at 9.30am and 2.15pm. Tours last approximately four hours and are priced at €55 per person. Nic Slocum can be contacted at 086 120 0027 or by email at email@example.com or visit whalewatchwestcork.com