GEOFF and Sue Magee double over, laughing at the memory. Thirty years ago, the husband and wife transported a pair of caravans to Carrigaholt from Cork. They lived in them in nearby Kilcredaun before buying and refurbishing the late Delia Carroll’s house in the same townland.
“We arrived in two barrel-topped wagons. We caused a stir alright,” Sue recalled in the office of the couple’s Dolphin Watch and Nature Boat Trip company in Carrigaholt.
Originally from New York, Sue moved to Ireland in the late 1970s. She met Geoff, then a fisherman, in Dingle. He’s from Lancashire in England, although his parents are from Cavan and Leitrim, where he spent his childhood summers.
After marrying, they moved to the US for a couple of years. Geoff fished in Alaska but they wanted to settle permanently and Carrigaholt beckoned. Geoff had already visited, moving a boat with John Mellet and the picturesque fishing village had left an immovable impression.
“We came and visited John [Mellet]. We went into Jim Fennell’s pub. Jim was the estate agent,” Geoff recounted. Jim was clearly an able estate agent because he sold a plot of land in Kilcredaun to Geoff and Sue.
“We liked it because it was off the beaten track. Dingle in 1982 seemed very busy to us,” Geoff said.
Although the Magees had land, which had a ruin on it, they couldn’t live in the ruins. So they lived in the caravan, which similar to their neighbours’ houses, didn’t have running water or electricity.
Life has changed considerably for Geoff and Sue in the intervening 30 years. One of their children, Daithí, got married last Sunday, while their company, Dolphinwatch Carrigaholt is now 20 years in existence. For most of their first decade in the village, the Magees made their living from fishing until they hit upon what has proven an inspired plan.
“We started to see that fishing was becoming, even at that stage, less sustainable. We weren’t getting any younger so we decided we would look for another source of income. What we were seeing every day out there was the resident group of bottlenosed dolphins. We didn’t know that they were resident at that stage. It wasn’t until 1993 when UCC did a study and came to the conclusion that yes, they were,” Sue explained.
“There’s about 140 of them in the mouth of the Shannon and they know that because each fin on an adult dolphin has markings, scrapes, dents and nicks from life in the water,” she added.
Incredibly, the current pod of bottlenose dolphins off Carrigaholt are descendants of dolphins, which have swam the same waters since the last Ice Age.
“Scientists think they might have been here since the last Ice Age,” Sue confirmed. “It’s a good location for them. In local history and living history memory, people would have known about these dolphins being here, although they might not have always called them by the right name. Some people thought that they were porpoises. The local name was sea pigs. They were taken for granted a bit. I even heard it said that they were a sign of bad weather,” she revealed.
Therefore, when the couple established Dolphinwatch Carrigaholt in 1992, the local reaction was somewhat muted.
“There wasn’t a lot of faith in it. People were wondering ‘who would want to go out and see those old sea pigs anyway?!’ But now they can see that we bring in visitors from all over the world to go out on one of our trips. Our initial market was a few curious Irish but mainly German and English visitors who had heard about it,” Sue remembers.
The pod of dolphins have been individually identified.
“They are identified through the marks on the dorsal fins. Some of them have very distinctive marks but other marks are more superficial. They might only last six months or so. The Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation (SDWF) out of Kilrush have been carrying out studies for a few years now,” Geoff Magee noted adding that Simon Ingram, a UCC PHD student in 1997 identified 120 dolphins as part of his studies, while SDWF carry out regular research work.
“We see new calves every year and that’s a great sign of a healthy population. I think we’ve seen more new calves this year than any year,” Sue added.
The average lifespan of a dolphin is between 50 to 60 years, while the size of the dolphins off Carrigaholt are huge by international standards.
“These are the biggest bottlenose dolphins in the world. They’re four metres long and are twice the size of the same species in the tropics. We’re at about the northern limit for bottlenose dolphins so they have to have a bigger body mass to cope with the colder waters than they get in more southern waters,” Geoff told The Clare Champion.
While the local waters are colder than dolphin-rich Florida, Geoff points out the Shannon Estuary is laden with marine life.
“What’s better than Florida is the richer waters. We’ve a lot of fish, a lot of sea birds. Dolphins are top of thefood chain. It’s really rich in comparison to Florida. We’ve got a lot going on. All you need to do is dress up for it,” he said, acknowledging that it can get a bit nippy on the two-hour dolphin-watching trips, which leave from Carrigaholt Castle.
Almost 100% of trips come across the dolphins but Geoff stressed how important it is that they are treated with respect and sensitivity.
“We have to be careful not to over watch them. We limit ourselves to approximately 30 minutes maximum around any one group because they are wild animals. They’re protected under the EU habitats directive and this is a special area of conservation because of the dolphins. Dolphins won’t always come rushing over to see us because they’re wild animals. They’re not domesticated. Sometimes, they will and they want to spend a lot of time around us. Other times, they’re hunting fish, resting, socialising or travelling. They’re not always there to play,” he said.
“It’s a great privilege to be able to get so close to a wild animal. To ruin our interaction with them by blackguarding them would be wrong. People that come across them should maintain a steady course at a slow speed. That’s the best way to get a look at them,” Geoff advised.
Some of the dolphin-watching trips head south to Kerry or north towards Ballybunion or Beale, while trips west take in Kilbaha and Loop Head. Althoough visitors are primarily interested in seeing dolphins, they are also accorded some stunning views of cliffs and seabirds.
“There’s a few geological features we can point out as well, which are quite striking. Then earlier on in the year, we have the nesting sea birds. The fulmars are just finishing up now. They’re the last ones to go. Through July, we have a lot of birds to see during their breeding cycles on the ledges. It’s fascinating and it’s not what people are expecting. They just think it’s about dolphins. We try to underline that the dolphins are just part of the eco system,” Geoff stated.
The trips generally start in April or May and conclude around October.
“What you’re seeing in April is the sea birds coming back to nest in the ledges, building their nests up or mating. Dolphins are in flux with the kind of fish that they’re eating at that stage. The herrings are leaving, the mackerel are coming in as are sprats. You get the sense that there’s more hunting behaviour going on. As the season progresses then the nesting sea birds are more prevalent, like all of the sea birds that are out at Loop Head, including the guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, of which there are thousands of pairs. The bird activity is fantastic to watch. You get pelagic [ocean-going] sea birds coming in as well,” Sue remarked.
Recent recipients of gold eco certification from Eco Tourism Ireland, Geoff and Sue have felt the benefits of increased visitors to Loop Head Lighthouse, though their primary aim is to operate a sustainable enterprise, in tandem with the local eco system.
“Even during these tough times, we feel that the domestic market has got stronger. People want to do something that’s outdoors, a little bit adventurous and educational,” Sue feels.
Every night since the couple settled in Carrigaholt, they head home to Kilcredaun. They have yet to tire of the view across the estuary, while their proximity to the water also has practical advantages.
“It’s still very handy for us because we can look out the window and see what conditions are like for a trip. We’re looking out on the theatre of operations. That’s very useful especially if conditions are marginal. That’s what drew us to Kilcredaun and the fact that it’s off the beaten track,” Geoff said, clearly still in awe of his adopted townland, 30 years after settling there.