Nature sets the pace in this beautiful southwest corner of Ireland – stretching from the historic port of Kinsale to the three rugged westerly peninsulas reaching into the wild Atlantic. You’ll find more open spaces, scenery, and tranquillity than is possible to take in during one visit. Some of the highlights in this incredible landscape include Lough Hyne sea lake near Skibbereen – an internationally important site and Ireland’s first Marine Nature Reserve with a unique habitat and rare marine plant and animal species. While Courtmacsherry Estuary is designated as a Special Area of Conservation for its birds and dune system habitat.
However, the big draw for wildlife watchers is the incredible marine life in the waters off the coast. In the 1990s the Irish Government designated the coastal waters of Ireland as a whale and dolphin sanctuary. The first of its kind in Europe, this has set Ireland up as one of the best places in Europe to see cetaceans. To date, 24 of the world’s whales and dolphins have been recorded in Irish waters. And over half of these have been seen in the clear, unpolluted West Cork waters. This makes them one of the best areas for whale and dolphin watching in Ireland. If you head out to the seas here you can expect to see humpback, fin, and minke whales, common and Risso’s dolphins, basking sharks, and even puffins!
Average rating: 5.0 (very good)
Average cost: whale watching trips cost around $58 per person for a 4-hour trip. Visits to islands like Sherkin, Cape Clear, and Garnish (nicknamed seal island) cost around $12 each way.
Best time to visit: whales can be seen year-round but the best chance of seeing them is from April to November, with a peak in May, June, and July. If you want to see basking sharks head for April to June.
How to get there: you can reach West Cork in 45 mins by car from Cork Airport or 1.5 hours by bus from Cork City bus station. The two key hotspots for whale watching are Courtmacsherry and Baltimore Harbour. Both of which are an easy drive.
Typical activities: boat trip, kayaking, hiking, whale watching
Number of reports: 2
Last update: 2021
WILDLIFE IN West Cork
According to reports submitted to WildSide, the most popular species that can be seen here are:
Humpback whale – 0% OF WildSide Users (0/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The star cetacean visitors to West Cork are undoubtedly the humpback whales – although they can be slightly more elusive than some of the other whale species in the area. You can easily tell them apart from other whales by their distinctive body shape, with long fins and knobbly heads. What really sets them apart, however, is that they are also the acrobats of the whale world. You have a good chance of seeing humpbacks tail-fluking, lob-tailing, fin-slapping, spy hopping, lunge feeding, bubble netting, or even leaping clear out of the water! You can see a great video of this incredible behaviour here – filmed on a whale watching tour leaving from Courtmacsherry.
Basking shark – 100% OF WildSide Users (2/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Alongside whales and dolphins, West Cork is visited by the second largest fish in the world – the basking shark. These ocean giants can grow to up to 8 metres long, with mouths that can stretch up to a metre wide! Despite their enormous size and fierce appearance, they eat plankton and are harmless to humans. They are relatively easy to see on whale watching tours from April to June. There’s some great footage of one spotted off the coast of West Cork here.
Common Dolphin – 100% OF WildSide Users (2/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Common dolphins are West Cork’s most frequently observed cetacean – and you can see them on most trips no matter what time of year. It’s not uncommon to have hundreds of common dolphins escorting your boat, and providing spectacular views of their acrobatic behaviour. There’s a great video of a super-pod of dolphins here taken on a whale watching trip from Baltimore Harbour. They are easily recognised from other dolphins by their unusual colouring. Their backs are typically dark with white stomachs, and on each side, they have an hourglass pattern that is coloured light grey, yellow, or gold.
Fin whale – 50% OF WildSide Users (1/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The waters off West Cork are home to the second-largest creature on Earth – the incredible fin whale. Seeing these animals up close in their natural environment can’t help but take your breath away. They are relatively easy to spot on whale watching tours off West Cork, appearing later on in the season than humpbacks and minkes. Besides their size, you can recognise them by their tall spouts, long backs, prominent dorsal fins, and two-part colouration. There’s some great footage of an enormous fin whale passing under a whale-watching boat that set off from Courtmacsherry here.
Risso’s dolphin – 0% OF WildSide Users (0/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Risso’s dolphins are one of the rarer and more exotic visitors to the waters off West Cork. You can see them in the summer months of June and July although you need a bit of luck on your side to spot them. Interestingly, they have been seen travelling with fin whales in the area – the only place where this has been observed in Irish waters. Risso’s dolphins are easily recognisable by their unusual, bulbous heads. They are often a dark black colour with white scars that cover their bodies, to the extent that older dolphins can appear mostly white.
Minke whale – 100% OF WildSide Users (2/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Minke whales are the most common species of whale that are found in Ireland, and the seas off West Cork are a fantastic place to spot them. They start to arrive in April and can be seen up to October. If you head there in season your chances of spotting one are pretty high. There are plenty of whale watching tours in the area. Cork Whale Watch leaves from Baltimore Harbour and gets great reviews on TripAdvisor – as well as plenty of minke sightings. Numbers of minkes are increasing in the area – with record numbers of up to 50 whales at a time being recorded recently! Minkes are a black, grey, or purple colour on top and white underneath. They can be distinguished from other whales by a white band on their flippers.
Puffin – 100% OF WildSide Users (2/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Ireland’s rugged coasts are home to large numbers of Atlantic puffins. Spending most of their lives at sea, they come ashore during the summer months to breed and raise their chicks (or pufflings!). The breeding season starts in March/April and ends by July/August. So if you want a chance of seeing them make sure you visit during this time. When they are breeding, puffins look for cliffs, craggy headlands, and rocky sea stacks away from predators and humans. Islands off the coast are usually the best places to spot them – and the remoter the better! Cape Clear Island is a good spot for puffin watching – ferries sail from Schull. Or you might get lucky – like we did – on one of the whale watching tours.
Photo credit: Alph Thomas under a Creative Commons licence from Flickr