I arrived down at the beach in the late morning and spotted something really unusual in the distance, close to shore to the south. At first I thought it was some flotsam but as I moved closer it looked like a large triangular fin. I began to march south along the beach hoping that what I was seeing was the dorsal fin of a huge Basking Shark – Cetorhinus maximus. They are often seen in the vicinity of Wicklow Head in the summer months, and you can clearly see Wicklow head to the south in this photo:
I zoomed in on the image, and for a moment I was delighted that what I was looking at was indeed the huge fin of a shark. Here’s a close-up from the above photo:
If you look closely on the left (front) of the ‘fin’ you will notice a slight indentation with a dark line running verticle through it, and below that a circular notch. It wasn’t a fin at all, the verticle line was a closed eye, and the notch and ear-hole – the side profile of an enormous bull Grey Seal (Halichoeris grypus) asleep in the sea with his huge nose in the air. This is the largest carnivore that comes onto land in Ireland, although even bigger Walruses have been known to swim past, including one that swam south along the Wicklow coast in the summer of 2011. A bull Grey Seal like this commonly reaches about three metres long (about 9 ft), but can be as much as four metres (c. 12 ft) long. They also have enormous claws on their flippers that rival those of any bear. But thankfully they are not aggressive mammals, although they should certainly be shown respect befitting any large carnivore. Anyhow, I moved south along the beach and got the sun behind me, and got a decent shot of the unperturbed bull seal:
As I write this Wicklow is half-an-hour from sunset on Midsummer’s Eve. Sunset on Midsummer’s Eve is traditionally Midsummer’s Night, a time when magical beings of all kinds are said to emerge in the wild places until sunrise the following morning, and when bonfires were (and still are in some places) lit on hilltops and mountains to keep evil spirits at bay. And it is a short night in Wicklow, as the sun sets at just before 10 pm and rises at 5 am. So keep your eyes open tonight because you never know what you might see, and I might even have something interesting to show you in a few hours time.
Today I witnessed one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. I was walking along the beach after an extremely high tide (in fact, it was only just ebbing away) when I spotted an extremely fresh-looking mermaid’s purse. For those who don’t know what that is, it’s the name given to the egg-case of sharks, rays and skates. It does look like a little purse. But this one was different – a baby shark’s head was sticking out of it. It might have hatched too soon, prior to term, but I’m not sure as there are several factors and it depends on the species.
It was like a large pink tadpole, but with blue around its eyes. I thought it was dead, but suddenly it began sliding out of the egg-case even further, and then its little pectoral fins (the main fins at the sides of a fish’s body) began moving. I had already started taking my photo, and finished doing this, running down to the sea to get some badly need water over the dogfish’s gills.
These egg-cases tend to belong to smaller shark species. The smallest sharks are the so-called dogfish, now usually referred to (ironically) as cat sharks due to the fact that their eyes have elliptical pupils like the eyes of cats. In older times all sharks were known as dogfish on account of their carnivorous nature.
Loads of people will have been down at the beach over this warm sunny long-weekend. The shore is a strange place, a part of civilisation,of course, but only a few feet from a world completely beyond human control, a true wilderness. A few days ago I found a Lesser Spotted Dogfish just beyond the receding tide. It was unusual primarily because it had two massive holes punched through it, one exiting on the other side of its body. By the distance between both puncture marks I realised this was almost certainly the work of a large seal.
In olden times, centuries ago, almost all sharks were referred to as ‘dogfish’. Ironically, the only sharks to retain this name belong to a family known as ‘cat sharks’. The Lesser Spotted Dogfish is now sometimes referred to as the Lesser Spotted Cat Shark. The following day I spotted the enormous head of a Grey seal bull near the shore, and immediately realised it must have been the killer of the dogfish, the huge puncture wounds having been caused by the seal’s awesome canine teeth. Dogfish have skin like sandpaper, and are virtually indigestible if eaten whole by any animal, except another shark, so this explains why it was left relatively unharmed and intact, despite its violent death.
As I walked along the shingle beach, shortly afterwards, I was astounded to find a Common Starfish, still alive, trying to crawl back to the sea, which was ebbing down the beach. I have found starfish often, but never alive on the shingle in Wicklow.
I lifted the little creature up on the palm of my hand and found it was clinging to small pebbles. However, I soon returned it to the sea, where it hopefully managed to settle on the sea floor safely once again.