Sunfish (Mola mola)
The Ocean Sunfish is a magnificent creature, and the largest of all the bony fishes, weighing in at an average 1,000 kilograms and usually reaching around 2 metres in length and 2.5m in height. This friendly giant is unmistakeable in the water, using its dorsal and anal fins to swim at a calm and steady pace. Though they are able to travel to great depths (up to 600m), they are often found here in Dingle rising to the surface waters in order to bask in the sunshine. Their primary prey item is jellyfish, though they aren’t picky, and will eat a variety of other organisms too. Being mostly solitary animals, only lucky divers will be visited by a pair or a group, usually when visiting cleaning stations around kelp forests, in which the small resident fishes will clear the sunfish of all its skin parasites.
This underwater giant is the second biggest fish on earth, after the Whale Shark, and like the Whale Shark, has adapted to a life of filter feeding. This is good news for divers for two reasons. Firstly, plankton are most prevalent at shallow depths and so, when feeding, Basking Sharks will rise to surface waters and grace us with their presence. Secondly, larger animals are not suitable prey items, and so divers have no reason to fear the Basking Shark.
Adult Basking Sharks are usually 6-8m in length, with the largest recorded individual more than 12m long (which is almost as big as the largest recorded Whale Shark!). They migrate to the great depths of the ocean throughout the winter seeking plankton blooms, but in summer they return to the surface waters of temperate areas. This makes summer the best time for viewing Basking Sharks in Dingle, where they are often found in small groups. It has also been reported that these sharks are capable of breaching entirely out of the water, what a sight that would be!
The mesmerising Blue Shark is one of Ireland’s most beautiful sea creatures. It has a navy coloured complexion and haunting black eyes that, like the Mona Lisa, seem to stare into yours from every direction. They grow from 2 to 3 metres in length and can be easily identified by their long pectoral fins, long caudal fin, and big black eyes. This species is much sought after in sport fishing, for their size and beauty and also in commercial fishing, primarily for their fins. It is, however, not considered endangered at the time of writing and is currently classified as near threatened.
Skates and Rays
There is an incredible diversity of Skates and Rays throughout Southwest Irish waters. Many skate species in particular, can be found around the Dingle Peninsula. Skates are a family of Rays called Rajidae, and can be differentiated from other Rays (such as Stingrays, Electric Rays and Eagle Rays), by their swimming style, where they tend to create a wave motion in the pectoral fins. They also differ in that they lay eggs in the form of a “mermaids purse”, as opposed to other Rays, which typically bear live young. Also, Skates have no stinging barbs in their tails like other Rays! Instead they rely on small thorns on the back for defence. Some of the most common Skate species found around Dingle are the Thornback Ray (Raja clavata), Blonde Ray (Raja brachyura), and Small-eyed Ray (Raja microocellata).
Other Ray species that are less common, but may be encountered in the Dingle waters, are the Common Stingray (Dasyatis pastinaca) and the Electric Ray (Torpedo nobiliana).
There are two species of seal found around Dingle, the Grey Seal and the Common/Harbour Seal. The Grey Seal is a protected species and the Irish population is important for the conservation of this species. The two species can be distinguished by the head: the grey seal has a flat forehead in profile, while the harbour seal has a more rounded head that looks very small compared to its body. The Common Seal also typically has more white spots on the body and more “V” shaped nostrils.
Seals feed mostly on fish, but, interestingly, Grey Seals have been reported to also feed on Common Seals, though this is relatively rare. Both of these species are skilled swimmers and may spend multiple days at sea in search of prey before returning to land. Both Sharks and Orcas prey on Seals, and so sustaining the seal population is important for the conservation of these species, especially the Orca, for which (in some populations) Seals make up a significant proportion of the diet.
Many species of Whale pass through Irish waters to feed, most commonly the Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) and the Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata). Other notable giants include the Fin Whale and the Sei Whale, which typically reach 22 metres and 18 metres in length, respectively. The Fin Whale is known for its incredible speed, being able to swim at a constant pace of 40 km/h. Although these animals are massive and fast, we have no reason to fear them in the water, as they feed on Plankton using the baleen plates in their mouths.
Dolphins and Porpoises
At least six species of Dolphin pass through Irish waters, with the most common species found around the Dingle Peninsula being the Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis) and Risso’s Dolphin (Grampus griseus). The Orca (Orcinus orca), which is actually a type of Oceanic Dolphin (despite the name Killer Whale), is also sometimes found off the Irish coast. Dolphins feed mostly on fish and squid, except for the Orca, which also feeds on small mammals, such as Seals and even juvenile Whales! Dolphins will most often be seen from the boat, and despite their friendly reputation, divers should be carful of swimming with Dolphins when they have young with them, as they may act defensively.
The Harbour Porpoise, which can often be mistaken for a Dolphin (but can be differentiated by their shorter beaks/mouths), is fairly common around the Dingle Peninsula, and can either be found alone or in small groups. This species can grow up to 2 metres long and weigh up to 70kg. Like dolphins, they feed mostly on fish.
The Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) is a truly spectacular seabird to lay eyes on, and can be found visiting the Blasket Islands in summer time. Throughout the rest of the year puffins live mostly solitary lives out in the open ocean, feeding primarily on fish. During the nesting season (spring/summer), adults return to the nesting site from whence they came and carry on the circle of life. Some of the largest colonies in Ireland occur in the Southwest, and so for ultimate Puffin viewing one can take a trip to the Skellig Islands, the Blasket Islands or Puffin Island.
One of the biggest threats to the Puffin populations around Kerry has been the introduction of the American Mink, which has been sighted on Great Blasket Island. Puffins choose to nest on Islands in order to escape predation, which would threaten their own lives and that of their young. Before settling on a nesting site they will spend some time searching the island for potential predators. As a result, Puffins may choose to relocate from the Blasket Islands if they see the American Mink as a significant threat.