Where the whales are

It’s 1973. An Irish television presenter in an interview with film director John Huston has just said the wrong thing

A humpback tail fluking provided by Whale Watch West Cork
A humpback tail fluking provided by Whale Watch West Cork

Presenter: “I think this is the first time you have actually shot any part of your films in Ireland…”

Huston: “Oh no, Seamus. Have you forgotten? A big piece of Moby Dick was shot in County Cork… in Youghal.”

Questioning Huston’s affection or promotion of Ireland was a sensitive issue. This was a man born to a father of Scots and Irish-Scots heritage, a man who settled himself in County Galway in 1952 and received Irish Citizenship 12 years later.

He was just as proud of filming in Youghal, as the town was to have him. 

A whale of a time

Picture postcards are tailor-made for places such as Youghal, with its red and white fishing boats, breezy promenades and lines of Victorian town houses.

Imagine what Gregory Peck thought of the place when he arrived here in 1954 to play the lead in Huston’s film adaptation of Moby Dick?

His Sunset Boulevard was now Main Street, the Clock Gate Tower trumped the Hollywood sign and Chateau Marmont was replaced with… well, a pub.

A whale of a time

It’s safe to say that Moby Dick’s pub in Youghal was not so named when Peck and Huston arrived. What they saw, though, they clearly liked. The pair lodged there for the duration of filming.

The pub’s walls are an ode to the time Melville’s classic came to town. Peck wears a cheeky grin under his shaggy Captain Ahab locks, and black and white shots show just how a Hollywood film crew fitted into a small Cork town. Any air that sneaks through the open window is heavy with salt.

You should know, though, that Youghal doesn’t just do imaginary whales. It does real ones, too.

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It’s fair to say that Nic Slocum of Whale Watch West Cork knows about whales. He’s also pretty knowledgeable about seals, dolphins, and even Moby Dick. (“Yes, I have read Moby Dick. I can't see any resemblance and would not want to be compared with the good Captain.”)

But he really, really knows whales.

The basics

First off: why do whales find the Cork coast so much to their liking?

“There are two things that interest whales: sex and food. We don't see any overt sexual behaviour, so we can be confident that the main reason they move into Irish coastal waters is to feed. Also, the south coast of Ireland is very close to the drop off from the continental shelf into the deep ocean.”

So we have an idea why they come here. But how does Nic know when they’ve arrived?

“We have a network of people along the coast who look out for these animals,” Nic explains, “and we hear quite quickly if animals have been spotted off the coast. Baltimore is a fishing port, too, so any sightings by fishermen, Irish navy fisheries protection and customs boats will be reported very quickly.”

And when they do arrive, is it as good as it looks?

Will she won’t she

“It is 10 times more exciting than it looks. The sense of anticipation and drama on the boat when waiting for a large whale to surface is palpable. The wait, knowing that one of the largest animals ever to have lived on the earth is swimming around in the ocean beneath the boat.

“Cameras are at the ready for an animal that may weigh upward of 60 tonnes to surface, exhale and sink back beneath the water. Will she come up again? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s easy to get carried away just imagining it.”

Why imagine?

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