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NATURE Storms, sand and seachange

Outdoor Living
Winter visitors and new discoveries on west Mayo shores

Marine Life

John Paul Tiernan

Strikingly similar to last year, November kicked off with oversize swells, renewed respect for high-tide and small reminders from the Atlantic of its never-too-distant potency. Territory, such as well-intentioned beach car-parks, was reclaimed furtively with angry deposits of sand and stones in the middle of the night, while wintertime walkers on the shore noted how many new large rocks there are on the strand. They were always there of course; the phenomenal amount of water movement in such a swell strips the sand away which builds up gradually during the summer, revealing ‘new’ shore features.
Such swells are normally goaded on by gale-force winds but at the height of this one, the wind did an unusual thing; it dropped. The sea regained its shape except for those areas where the heaving waves felt the sea floor and broke. Miles from shore, out in what Islanders call ‘the middle’ a wave impossible to measure rose over a deep-water reef and pitched forward; a perfect wave on a reef I didn’t even know existed.
Probably rising to within 15 or 20 metres of the surface at low tide, the cryptic reef required the 40 or 50-foot waves to reveal its location. Fishermen however would know such places. Such reefs are usually focal points of marine life, relative to the deep water around them, as the currents created by their presence fill the surrounding waters with nutrients, and thus, fish.
When the storm eased, other signs of early winter were apparent on the recently landscaped and now busy shore. Activity increases here in October and November as various species of waders including dunlins, sanderlings and sandpipers arrive to spend the winter there. Difficult to discern from each other, they all dart about at the waters edge using their long thin beaks to pluck invertebrates and worms from the wet sand and the scattered seaweed.
Inside the shore, whooper swans not long back from Iceland beat a low flight-path twice a day at dawn and dusk across the duach as they alternated between lakes.
Days later when the sea eased back to an even stiller state, I spotted a dolphin out in the middle, not far from the now-undisturbed deep-water reef. With him there were three or four at the surface (and anyone who has been in the water with a large pod will know that there are ten times that number beneath). The surface in this tiny area resembled water boiling which indicates the presence of a baitball – a tight pack of fish, herded to the surface by the dolphins working closely below.
The keenest fishers of all; their knowledge of the deep-water reefs and the marine life that they support off our shores is envied by fisherman and biologist alike.

John Paul Tiernan
a marine scientist, runs, a website dedicated to awareness of our marine life. Hi is also currently teaching in West Mayo.