Ireland is a small island at the edge of Europe with a many thousand kilometres of coastline. Being an island this small means you are never too far from the sea. And so, you are never too far from pristine beaches, captivating coastal views or activities such as, surfing, sailing, sea-kayaking and seaweed foraging.
With the ocean an ever-present feature of life in Ireland there are a variety of marine habitats to learn about and explore. One example are estuaries, filled with brackish water and home to an intricate ecosystem. The most famous being the Shannon Estuary in the southwest and the Sligo estuary in the northwest.
As well as this, there are a great number of bays and reefs dotted along the coastline – great places for small crustaceans, shellfish and shallow-water fish. Further out in the open Atlantic Ocean you’ll find larger species such as Fin Whales, Basking Sharks and Common Dolphins. These cetaceous species are said to widespread and abundant in Irish waters.
The cliffs and rocky outcrops of the mainland and many islands off the coast offer sanctuary for seabirds, such as Puffins, Gannets, Guillemot and Fulmars.
Want to know more? Until you can SEA for yourself, read on to learn about the marine creatures and wildlife our waters and coastline call home.
There are several species of Dolphins living in Irish waters, such as the Bottlenose Dolphin, Harbour Porpoises, Risso’s Dolphins, and Common Dolphins.
Dolphins are naturally curious, often more intrigued than scared of humans and are known to venture close to boats and the shore. They can live up to 30 years, sometimes longer, and live in pods up to 15.
Until recently, Ireland’s most famous dolphin, Fungi, lived in Dingle Bay and came in close contact with humans and boats whenever he saw them. Sadly, Fungi went missing in October of 2020 after being first sighted there in 1983.
Learn more about whale and dolphin watching here.
Harbour Porpoises and Common Dolphins can be seen all year round. Sightings are most frequent in Spring & Summer, tapering off in Autumn and Winter.
Common Dolphins tend to group together close to shore, sometimes in large numbers. It’s best to spot them on calm days when there is little or no swell.
The Harbour Porpoise is shyer and harder to spot. Keep an eye out for its distinctive triangular shaped fin peeping out from the water.
Although the seas around Ireland are abundant with Dolphins, the west and south coast are more likely to produce sightings than the east coast.
There is a resident pod of Bottlenose Dolphins in the Shannon estuary that are regularly spotted. And boats off the North Antrim Causeway Coast regularly report sightings of dolphins swimming alongside them.
Now that Kerry’s Fungi the Dolphin has moved on, Dusty the Dolphin has become a more popular feature frequenting the Doolin area of County Clare.
Ireland is a pretty good place to spot whales – one of the best places in Europe, actually. In 1991, Irish waters were designated Europe’s first whale and dolphin sanctuary to protect the many species in waters around the island.
Species of whale found here include Minkes, Fin Whales, Humpbacks, and even Killer Whales. As well as these, Blue Whales (the world’s largest mammal), Sperm Whales, Pilot Whales, and have also been sighted here. In fact, up to 25 species of cetacean have been recorded on Irish shores.
If you’re looking for a show, Fin Whales make the biggest “blow”, expelling water from their blowholes. While Humpbacks also “blow”, they are most likely to be seen lifting its tail-fluke out of the water compared to other species. Humpbacks and Minkes are the only species here that breach, which is an amazing sight to behold.
While Whale-watching from a boat might be the easiest way, you can also spot them from land if you grab yourself a good pair of binoculars.
Find a decent vantage point, such as a coastal headland or cliff and stock up on snacks & patience. As with Dolphins, it’s best to spot them on relatively calm days with little to no swell. Keep an eye out for splashes, ripples, or diving sea birds – or even the tell-tale “blow” of water!
West Kerry is the best place to spot Whales, with Ventry Harbour on the Dingle Peninsula a hive of Whale activity in the summer months.
During Spring, the most common whales you might spot are Minkes, though there are increasing sightings of Humpbacks during this time as well, largely in the south.
July is the start of “Whale season” – this is the time of year when you are mostly likely to glimpse a massive Fin Whale, the world’s second largest whale. Particularly in the south east, where they follow the shoals of fish.
Basking Sharks are the largest of the Atlantic Shark family and second largest in the world (after the Whale Shark). Don’t be fooled by the their size, as Basking Sarks are gentle giants. They spend their days floating around drinking in seawater to filter out the tiny plankton.
In fact, they are so docile that diving with Basking Sharks is a popular activity the world over. If you don’t fancy diving into the cold Atlantic water, these splendid giants can be sighted from the shores.
The largest basking shark ever recorded was 12 meters or 39.5 feet, though on average, a basking shark measures between 6-9 meters (19-26 feet) long, and weighs up to 7 tons!
Want to learn more? You can report sightings (or strandings), check recent sightings by others or learn where this year’s hotspots are on the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group’s page.
Basking Shark season runs from April until late July, peaking in May. In fact, this is one of the best places to spot them in all of Europe.
The ideal time to watch is in calm weather after a period of sunshine. It teases them out to break the water and feed on the surface.
Although, catching a glimpse isn’t always easy, they often venture quite close to shore. Again boat trips and coastal headlands are ideal spots to watch from.
The sea around Rathlin Island in Co. Antrim is brimming with life during the Basking Shark season. The coastlines of West Cork and Loop Head, Co. Clare are also great places to watch out for them.
There are two species of seal in Ireland, Grey Seals and Common Seals. Though protected, they are not endangered as they sea and waterways here are abundant with seals.
Both are “true seals” instead of being “eared seals”. Unlike eared seals, true seals are much more awkward on land, using their bellies to bump and bounce along the ground.
Common Seals are smaller, and they pup earlier in the season, usually from May to August. Grey Seals are larger, and they pup later, usually over autumn and early winter months. Grey Seal babies are born with the adorable white fluffy coats designed to keep them warm until they need to lose it in order to swim properly.
Both species have similar life spans, from 25-35 years. Grey seals almost went extinct in Ireland in the 1900s, but have bounced back due to better protection.
Learn more about seals at Seal Rescue Ireland.
Seal colonies can be seen during most seasons on Irish coasts, but it is during pupping season that we see an increase in activity. So, from October to February for Grey seals and May to August for Common Seals.
Mothers will give birth on beaches, attempting to stay away from humans. If you see a mother and pup on a beach, you’re welcome to observe them from a distance, but do not intervene, even if you think the pup is abandoned – likely mum is just fishing!
On the islands of Kerry you will often witness hoards of up to 50 Seals coming to shore during stormy weather out of a sea. It’s an amazing sight!
Irish coasts are home to about 8,000-10,000 Grey Seals and up to 4,000 Common Seals. Therefore, you have a fairly decent chance of spotting seals here.
Sligo City has a playful group of seals who live in the estuary. And, the bays of Donegal are perfect spots to relax and count how many seals you see peeping up above the water. A Kayaking expedition or a boat trip will get you close to these bobbing beauties.
Puffins are just one of many marine birds that inhabit the coasts of Ireland. But they are certainly the most famous, and probably the best-loved.
The adorable little black and white birds congregate on Ireland’s shores in spring and early summer to find mates. They are incredibly adept at swimming and diving, spending the rest of the year far at sea.
During the winter months they shed the beautiful colours of their iconic beaks, making it easier to spot them in summer when their colours are showing.
Though they can live on any shores in Ireland, there are a few places that are best for puffin spotting, such as:
Skellig Michael featured in scenes of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The weren’t permitted to mess with the Puffins during filming. To deal with this, the Puffins were included in the film as Porgs!
June & July are the best times to see Puffins as this is when they will be feeding their young.
Great Saltee in Co. Wexford is a good place to see Puffins. The Cliffs of Moher, in County Clare and Horn Head, in County Donegal, are also great sites.
Puffins are the most famous seabirds that we have along Ireland’s coasts. But they are far from the only ones!
Bird watchers should note there are many other interesting seabirds in Ireland, like Gannets, Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Manx Shearwaters, Fulmars, Guillemots and Gulls. These birds all rely on the Irish coasts, cliffs, islands and waters for food, protection and breeding grounds. Ireland is a great place for keen ornithologists.
Though not coastal dwellers, you’ll see a lot of inland water birds too. The most famous are probably the swans – helped along by the appearance of swans in Irish Mythology, like the story of the doomed Children of Lir), ducks, and geese.
Some birds are present during specific intervals – Kittiwakes are present only from March to October, the Razorbill are here from March to July, while Gannets are present in every season but winter.
Many other species however are present in Ireland to some degree all year round. So you’re sure to see plenty of interesting things while out bird watching at any time of year.
Nearly all of Ireland’s shores are great for bird watching. Cliffs and headlands in particular are ideal as birds find protection in these high, hard-to-reach vantage points.
Note-worthy locations for bird-watching include the Saltee Islands in Wexford, the Skelligs in Kerry (particularly for Puffins and the massive colony of 70,000 Gannets on Little Skellig!), the Causeway Coast and of course the bird sanctuary on Rathlin Island.
Unlike in other parts of the world, Ireland has just one species of otter which occupies a range of habitats: from lakes to rivers, streams and even the coast. These happy little creatures live off of various kinds of fish, though salmon and trout are their main food source – occasionally crayfish, frogs and eel too.
Otters are the only amphibious members of the weasel family, and they are well adapted to living in aquatic environments. They are elusive and not generally easy to spot, despite being widespread.
While otter populations across Europe have declined in the past century, the Irish population has remained stable. They are mostly nocturnal, particularly active at dawn and dusk, though coastal otters forage based on tides rather than daylight.
An otter might control several kilometres of territory – usually smaller swathes of just two or three kilometres for otters living on the coast. While otters living along a stream might need upwards of 20km of territory.
Otters are hard to spot. As nocturnal creatures, they sleep during the day curled up in their dens. Their peak activity time is usually dawn and dusk, when they come out to forage or hunt, making this your best chance at spotting one.
Your chances of spotting an otter are not huge. They tend to live in lakes, rivers and streams, and sometimes along the coast. Food remains or “spraints” (ie their droppings left to mark their territory) are the best indicators of an otter presence.
Along the coast, your best chance is to watch out at low tide where Otters go to forage the rock pools for fish and invertebrate prey.
As an island, we have plenty of water in which plentiful weird and colourful sea creatures live. Though the waters may be cold, there are plenty of opportunities to spot a variety of fish, making a Diving expedition worth it!
Some underwater creatures living off the coast of Ireland include everything from Dogfish (which look a bit like sharks) to Sunfish, Crustaceans like Lobster and Crabs, as well as Scallops, Conger Eels, Wrasse, Pollock and Mackerel.
Ireland is also home to the Nudibranch, a species of weird and wonderful molluscs known for their vibrant and unusual colours. Watch out though, Irish waters also contain jellyfish.
Please note that we aren’t wildlife experts – the information shared here has been collated from various sources specialising in whales, dolphins, seals, seabirds and other marine wildlife.
From the wild rocky Skelligs far at sea to the remote islands off southwest Cork, this trip offers plenty of time in and around the sea. The Skellig islands are one of the single best places to spot seabirds, especially puffins, who inhabit the islands. The longer boat ride out to the islands offer chances to spot whales and dolphins. On the gentler beaches of some of the islands closer to the the mainland, such as around the Dingle Peninsula, keep your eyes out for seal basking along the beaches or swimming in the waves.
Plenty of seabirds live on Ireland’s west coasts. Many of the islands visited on this trip like Inisbofin and Clare Island are small and less-travelled, making them ideal for spotting wildlife. Clare Island, as well as the Cliffs of Moher, have been known to host puffins. The cliffs also offer a vantage point out to the sea. In Killary Fjord, learn more about the region’s aquaculture, or oyster farming. While not exactly akin to spotting humpback tails, shellfish have been an incredibly important part of the west coast for millennia.
While not exactly an island hopping trip, this bike trip includes two nights on the Aran Islands. While a popular day trip destination for visitors to Galway, few stay overnight, and the islands become a very different place when the ferries are gone. This is a great way to enjoy island culture as well as to keep an eye out for wildlife. The trip also includes biking along the shores, and a visit to the Cliffs of Moher, a Special Protected Area for seabirds.
This trip spends a lot of time on the coast – often from high vantage points that are great for spotting marine animals like whales and dolphins – northern Donegal is even known for its occasional basking shark! An island hopping trip over to Rathlin Island includes a visit to the seabird centre there and ample chance to spot the birds that call the island home. For spring and early summer visitors, your chances of spotting puffins are quite high!
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