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At the Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife centre, Katharina Reusch and Meadbh Quinn. Photograph by Arthur Ellis

Not enough of a splash about Shannon Dolphins

THE founder of the Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation (SDWF) has claimed West Clare tourism interests have failed to capitalise on the “unique resource” of the family of 140 dolphins that populate the Shannon Estuary.
Dr Simon Berrow says this is despite a “20-year head-start”, while he is also fearful about the future of the dolphin monitoring centre in Kilrush, which has been operating for 22 years. The centre receives no funding, although it did in the past.
“As a region, I think we’ve failed to make the most of what, to me, is a completely unique resource. Loop Head Tourism has done a fantastic job promoting Loop Head but the area doesn’t look any different to me from 20 years ago. The lighthouse is the lighthouse. It’s not unique. They are packaging it together in a lovely package but I still think the dolphins are our unique product. Nowhere else in Ireland has dolphins that are so accessible. Very few places in Europe have this level of accessibility. I think we could do more as a tourism product. If this was any other county in Ireland, this would be squeezed as a product.”
“It’s our unique tourism product. Lighthouses on Loop Head aren’t; fishing isn’t; sailing isn’t. These are all add-ons. I know the dolphins feature in the West Clare tourism brochures but it’s very low-key. My understanding of tourism is that you identify your unique product and you wrap things around that. I still think that’s the dolphins in this case. We are pretty confident that we are not over-exploiting the dolphins. The weather will always put a cap on it and it’s a pretty short season. Our priority is to make sure that we’re not over-disturbing them and we’re not,” he added.
Dr Berrow, who also lectures at GMIT, believes tourism interests in Kerry will better market the estuary’s dolphins.
“I find it very frustrating that, 20 years on, we’ve not exploited the full potential of the Shannon dolphins. We’ve always said that if there was a non-tidal harbour on the Kerry side, they would be Kerry dolphins. There is no doubt about that. If they could find a way of getting in on the Shannon dolphins’ act, they would. If they do, within years, it will be a Kerry tourism product. A 20-year head-start in West Clare won’t be enough,” he warned.
Although the SDWF in Kilrush is one of the longest-running centres of its type in Europe, Dr Berrow is not confident regarding the centre’s long-term future.
“I’m starting to feel now that I’ve failed. We were on a roll maybe 10 years ago. Whether you lose momentum because you lose political support or whether we lost momentum because I get pulled in different directions, I don’t know. In the past we’d always get a bit of money from the Wildlife Service but that ran out a few years ago. I was in despair thinking, ‘how am I going to keep this thing going?’ I think it was three years ago now that [PHD student] Isabel Baker came here and took on the monitoring. She is very well organised and efficient. Without her, I think I’d have thrown the keys into the marina by now and walked away. We all reach a stage where we’ve pushed things as far as we can and you try and give it a platform for the next generation, who are younger, better qualified and far cleverer than me,” he said.
The centre cannot even afford to repaint the dolphin mural on their building, which would cost €2,000. “That shouldn’t be such a struggle but I don’t really know who to go to. We need to have a long think here about how we run the centre and how we can sustain it. Every year it’s a struggle. In terms of support to the Shannon dolphins and the monitoring, which is what we do, it has gone backwards very rapidly. A lot of that would be me taking my foot off the accelerator but I just can’t sustain it. Shannon Development were very supportive in the early days and one of the big reasons we lost our momentum was when John Quinlivan retired; nobody really had the same interest as he had. I don’t know who you’d go to now,” Dr Berrow admitted.
As regards tourism development in West Clare, he said, “I would fear for West Clare. Loop Head has had two fantastic summers and Loop Head is very popular but somewhere else will be the next popular place and all the media will switch to North Tipperary or West Donegal. We’ve had a really good run of it in the last couple of years and I hope that the tourism providers back west have done well because it’s only going to get harder. I think West Clare has to be far more strategic and has to work together,” he maintained.

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