Kevin Corbett spoke with members of the Burren Sub Aqua Club about their fantastic experience with Clare’s famous dolphin Dusty on a dive off Miltown. See our video below
TEN days on from their magical underwater encounter with one of Clare’s most famous marine residents, Jennifer and Jessica Smith are understandably still buzzing.
The sisters, from Sixmilebridge, found themselves on RTE news last week after their interaction with Dusty the Dolphin was filmed while on a dive off Miltown Malbay with Burren Sub Aqua Club.
Escaping the exam pressure that May typically brings, Jennifer, in her first year of mechanical engineering in Galway, and Jessica, a Leaving Cert student in St Caimin’s, Shannon, took to the pristine waters for a bit of relaxation with dad Finbar and other members of the club.
Then, quite literally out of the blue, who should appear but Dusty the Dolphin.
Jessica told The Champion, “We’ve only ever seen her once prior to this, the week before, on the Friday we were doing a snorkel, because before you begin diving each year you have to do three snorkels to prepare.
“We were in the same place, White Strand and were snorkeling when she swam up to us, so we know each other a little bit.”
Describing the experience, Jennifer said, “It was unbelievable, she came up so close to us, she had just approached us out of the blue and stayed with us, it made us feel special, to be honest, that she spent the afternoon swimming along with us.”
The dive lasted 50 minutes and Dusty swam alongside the company for pretty much the duration of the expedition.
The dolphin who has been frequenting the Clare coast for over 20 years has something of a colourful history herself and came by her name thanks to Eugene Phelan, former Limerick Leader editor, and long-time visitor to Lahinch.
Eugene recalled how one week at work, the brother of the recently deceased singer Dusty Springfield arrived into the Leader’s office, saying some of his sister’s ashes were to be sprinkled off the west Clare coast, a place she loved dearly. Eugene duly filed the story which proved extremely popular with the national papers, after the Leader had had its turn.
A week later, he was down in Clare chatting with locals in Doolin who pointed out a playful dolphin swimming around the pier.
The Leader reporter even got in himself for a swim with the friendly whale, observing that it was attracted to brightly coloured wetsuits.
With Fungie-mania in full swing at the time, Eugene was not slow in dashing a few lines off to the national news desks and when pressed for a name, he went for the alliterative ‘Dusty’ – the memory of the Springfields still fresh in his mind.
Dusty’s encounters with humans down the years haven’t all been as pleasant as that experienced by the Burren Sub Aqua club divers last week, however.
She has on occasion exhibited aggressive behaviour including in 2013 at Doolin Pier when, according to the Irish Times she attacked a woman in the water.
The perils of interacting with wild animals were underlined at the time by leading dolphin expert Dr Simon Berrow who said, “We drafted a poster recommending people do not swim with Dusty, but if they must, then they should respect her as a wild dolphin and not grab, lunge or chase after her. If she shows aggressive behaviour or is boisterous they should leave the water.”
That all said, it has been a very long time since any negative reports of interactions with Dusty have been received and many pleasant encounters have occurred in the interim.
Whether this is down to a change in the dolphin’s behaviour or greater sensitivity and awareness on the part of people who come across her is a matter of speculation.
Burren Sub Aqua Club’s John Underhill told The Champion he has been diving with Dusty for years, but, until last week’s episode had never filmed her.
Capturing her on camera was part of the plan last week, he admits, as they embarked on their dive amid perfect conditions.
“We knew the sea had settled, and sediment had settled and there are lovely arches off the coast here. So, we planned a shore dive, eight of us, and we were sort of hoping Dusty would turn up,” said John, who is the club PRO.
“She hears the divers, their tanks, the air coming out of them. That’s my theory anyway.”
A plausible one given the acoustic world that dolphins inhabit, navigating as they do by sonar.
“The minute we got in, we could see things were perfect, I had said to the lads, if the Dolphin turned up it would be a dream, to film her in the arches. I knew the sea conditions were really good and it was sunny, so there was plenty of light, so it all came together nicely. The minute we got in she turned up.
“I remember diving near Fanore, I knew she had been in Doolin pier and one of the lads joked ‘I wonder will Dusty turn up’. Four minutes in, a diver tapped me on the shoulder and there she was in front of us.”
As can be seen on the video that accompanies this piece on www.clarechampion.ie Jennifer and Jessica exhibit the correct behaviour when meeting Dusty, waiting for her to approach them and not pursuing her.
They were rewarded with a magical and memorable experience as Dusty swam alongside them for the duration of their dive. The sisters have also done a cage dive in South Africa where a Great White Shark was present, something they describe as a “pretty amazing experience”.
They have also dived in the Maldives where the water was some 21 degrees warmer than what we have off our coast.
Cool temperatures notwithstanding, the diving off Ireland’s west coast and especially Clare and the Aran Islands enjoys a superb reputation globally.
Snorkelling ticks all the boxes this summer where the government are encouraging us to socialise outside. So much to see here and explore in our own country #staycation #snorkelling #clare https://t.co/7huVWVMTV1
— Burren Subaqua Club (@BurrenSubaqua) May 9, 2021
“The diving around here, in Clare and the Aran islands is second to none, when the conditions are right,” said John.
“The reefs are full of life and fish and colour, the waters are pristine, it’s world class really and it’s something of a secret almost.
“People who come here to dive who have dived abroad go ‘Oh my God, this is amazing!’ When it’s right, it’s very right. The reefs off Quilty and Doolin are amazing, the arches are fantastic.”
His enthusiasm is echoed by the Smith sisters who highlight Quilty as having some amazing spots while they also swam with seals at the aptly named Seal Rock.
“And there is a place near Inis Oirr, called Finnis Rock, and it is amazing the reef there is so full of life, there are so many species there, it is really cool. We’re so lucky the other members of the club have shown us all these amazing spots, because they know them so well,” says Jessica.
Not surprisingly they are all evangelists for the experience that diving has to offer and full of praise for the senior members of the club.
“The members are some of the nicest people I’ve met in my life and the senior members are search and recovery divers and volunteer so much of their own time and honestly, they’re true heroes of our coastal county,” said Jennifer
Her dad Finbar, training officer with the club said, “The senior members donate all their time to training, it’s all done for free, they train all the younger members.
“We have 10 or 12 very highly trained instructors in the club and they take it in turns to instruct the younger members.”
And while you have to be 16 to actually scuba dive, you can see just as much snorkeling in some areas like Quilty, which has some of the best rock pools, teeming with life, that you’re likely to see anywhere.
John said he is delighted that diving is open again and the club can promote the activity for younger people.
The club, which is going since 1992 is a member of The Irish Underwater Council, an affiliate member of CMAS, the international umbrella organisation for recreational diver training organisations.
With training provided free by members the possibility of accessing a sensational sub-aquatic world is tantalisingly close for everyone in Clare.
Covid restrictions curtail dives from the club’s eight-metre RIB, but that constraint will soon hopefully be a thing of the past.
“We’re all looking forward to getting back in the water,” admits Finbar.
“Just join the Burren Sub Aqua Club,” the girls chorus.
How could you resist?
You can contact the Burren Sub Aqua Club via email at email@example.com; on Instagram @burren_sub_aqua_club; Twitter, @BurrenSubaqua; Facebook, Burren Sub Aqua Club and the club website is www.burrensubaquaclub.com