A fishy Tail!

It was a March evening in 1993 and my brother Robert had joined me with Pat Moran and Dermot Kavanagh as they sorted oysters on the back of a trailer in the Mount Avenue car park.  It was promising to be one of those frosty evenings, dry and cold and very still.  We had chipped in to help the lads grade the oysters in terms of shape and size, some going to a fish box for dumping, others into buckets to be bagged up for replacing on the trestles on Woodstown beach to grow on.

As we worked and chatted away Pat heard an odd sound and stopped work to investigate.  We gathered round him to see what was going on.  Nothing as it happened for a short time, but Pat was watching with a keen fisherman’s eye at a point across the river at Great Island Power Station. Suddenly a great spout of water shot into the air, whilst at the same time a dark form came into view.  It was coming from the waterline near the mud below the jetty of the power station.

Robert ran to get binoculars off our father and when he returned and looked through them, he was puzzled.  He handed them round and we each took a turn, and all took turns speculating. We were joined by our Father Bob who was of the opinion it was a whale, and Anthony Rogers who had seen something similar to a whale in the river earlier in the day, but had dismissed the idea.  Always a man of action Pat announced a sortie, and we ran to get our boots and joined Pat on the Mount Quay where his boat was moored and Robert, Pat and myself headed over in the direction of the disturbance.

Approaching the scene, we were cautious to keep a safe distance.  A grey shape like a torpedo was lying in the water just off the mud bank.  There was a small fin showing well back.  There was a dividing line running the length of the body, white beneath and grey above.  Folds of blubber were lying in the water beside, where it was pressed to the surface by the grounded body.  What looked like a blow hole was facing us.  It could only be a whale!As we stared at the hulk of a body we heard a whoosh of air emitted and then the air was filled with a distinctive fishy smell, but it hadn’t come from what we thought was the blow hole, which turned out to be an eye socket, and when he opened the eye it was a dark pupil surrounded by a yellow pupil and seemed to draw us all in.

The whale was about ten feet outside the waterline and inside the that, about thirty feet away, was a thin seaweed strip of shoreline which then raised up an embankment of ten feet beyond which was the site of the power station.   As the tide was rising (coming in) the distance was narrowing all the time. 

Pat put the boat ashore and Robert jumped onto the mud and walked down towards the shape.  In length it must have been ten feet that we could see shaped like a gradual hill in the water.  Robert had brought a pole from the boat to keep him steady on the soft mud.  He approached and was again drawn to a very large eye that seemed to be watching him.  Meanwhile we had pushed off and were floating close by.

An intelligent looking eye.  Photo via Anthony Rogers

As Robert approached from inside, the snout of at least seven feet raised out of the water.  It brushed his knee as it rose.  Another step and it would have risen between his legs!  Robert stumbled back, with I guess a mixture of shock and disbelief.  Next moment a tail broke water at least ten feet away from the body and began to splash and churn water.  Shocked ourselves by the size and might, we hardly noticed that a ton of water had covered us and we were wet to the skin.

At this point a car turned on the roadway on the embankment and flashed a light at us.  Robert walked in to join them.  On his return he was able to say that the incident had been reported and that a team was being dispatched from some organisation from Dublin who would be experts and who would take charge.  Discussing it, we greeted the news with some relief but said they had better hurry.  We realised that as the tide rose on the mud, each time the whale started to struggle it was to push itself further onto the mud.  The nature of the beast was trying to free itself, but was in fact further beaching and getting further away from the safety of deep water.  Not alone was it pushing forward, but at times, maybe in frustration, it’s whole body turned and turned, an incredible feat for such a heavy creature.  Pat was of the opinion that if we could get some rope around the snout that maybe we could hold the creature back and make it easier to be refloated.  So Robert hopped ashore with instructions to keep well back and we returned to the Mount Quay for a length of rope.

On our return however Robert was dejected with the news that the cavalry had rung to say that they would be along in the morning when they could see what they were doing!  Apparently they were of the opinion that the whale hadn’t a chance and it would be futile to try.  We knew that once the tide started to drop that the Whale would be beached and the weight of its body would crush it to death.  The cavalry would arrive to a corpse.

Robert trys to get a rope under.  Photo via Anthony Rogers

Pat was of the opinion that if we could get the rope around the long snout of the whale we might be able to swivel him about on the soft mud.  He had noticed that the nature of the beast was to push forward, and his plan made sense, however unlikely.   In the deepeening gloom we set about paying out the rope which Robert then tried to lasso around the snout .  Several times he succeeded but as we began to put weight on it as we towed away at an angle from the whale, the rope either slipped off or the whale twisted or turned out of it.  We then changed tack.  We kept one end in the boat while Robert took the other.  We were upriver and Pat steamed out around the whale whilst I held the rope and we took it downriver where we met Robert.  We took the other end from him and then hauling on both ends of the rope drew them together and managed to get them down onto the head of the whale, significantly further than we had managed before.

We twisted the ends of the rope around the after thwart and Pat gunned the engine.  Miraculously the rope held and we could feel the tension take on it.  Measuring our progress against the lights on the shoreline we could see that we were inching along.  Pat slowly altered course bringing the bow of the punt further away from the shore but suddenly the whale reacted.  In stead of helping he went against us.  He started to pull away from us and not having any luck, he reacted by turning over and over and somehow the rope snagged.  Rather than us pulling him, the whale, just like a bucket being pulled up out of a well on an axel, we were hauled into the path of the whale.  Too late I reacted by loosening off the rope, as he turned we were dragged into him, then up onto him and the engine was broken off the stern of the boat.  Pat managed to hold on to the engine as we mounted the top of the whale, but for some reason just as we were about to be tossed out into the river, the whale stopped.  the punt slipped back into the river…we were safe, but my legs were like jelly and to be totally honest I wanted to go home.

But then we had a bit of luck.  The rope had stayed snagged.  And although the engine was damaged we now had the rope firmly placed around the body of the whale, it had even shifted further onto the body.  Pat had another idea.  We retrieved a further length of rope and with it I went ashore to Robert.  He had gone up to the men from the power station and they had managed to find extra rope.  We tied the ends together and then joined them on the embankment.  I didn’t know any of them but explained briefly what had occurred and asked would they be willing to try and haul on the rope and it might just turn the whale away from the mudbank.  All were willing and between us we lined up like some berserk tug of war team going up against a ten ton truck. 

Pat Moran hatching a plan, me looking on. Photo via Anthony Rogers

Someone suggested getting a car to tow it, but we were worried about doing more harm and so decided in the first instant to try with manpower.  We began to heave and I have to say I was crushed when the rope just simple came towards us and I was convinced that it had come off the whale.  In the dark we could not really see.  But then as painful as feeling we had failed the whale, came a feeling of pure joy.  The rope hadn’t come away, Pat’s plan had worked.  In the gloom, with only the lights of the station, we could make out the tail of the whale splashing in the water and then the rope started to slip from our hands and incredibly he headed out into deep water. 

A few weeks later the rope we used was recovered by Paddy Duffin when fishing for Salmon down on the mud.  For weeks after we listened to news reports etc but no mention of a dead whale were heard.  Although we would never know for sure that the whale was saved, the only thing we can know for sure is that he didn’t die on our watch.  I never did find out if the cavalry arrived.  No one seemed interested in our story.  But I guess had it happened in daylight the national media would have been there, as would the cavalry…but I wonder would our whale have survived to tell the tale.

Our best guesstimate was that our whale was 30 feet minimum.  In referring to the reference books we considered it to be either a Fin or a Minke whale.  Maybe if the experts had arrived we might have known!

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.
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4 Replies to “A fishy Tail!”

  1. Just like you to remind me of what my forefathers would have done! cut him up and boil him down for oil…oh those were the times!!!!

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