Despite flowing through the heart of Ireland’s second biggest city, the River Lee is full of wildlife – even whales!
It's hard to pick out just one thing about Cork that makes this little Irish city so wonderful. There is music, art, wonderful food, history, and plenty of friendly people. Removing any of those elements would change the character of the place, but probably nothing would affect it so much as the one thing I am coming to realize I love above all else: the river.
Reflectively… ("Reflective Lee"). Ahem. Sorry.
When walking back to my flat for tea with a friend one afternoon, he suggested we turn early rather than continue on our path. "But why?" I asked. "It's faster this way." "But we'll just be walking along some side street, not the river!" Maybe it doesn't mean as much to him, seeing how he is Corkonian, but to me, any chance to spend time next to the water is not to be wasted. You never know when a random wildlife spotting opportunity may arise!
Lovely, color coordinated heron.
More than once, my CouchSurfing guests have looked with some concern into the water as we crossed a bridge to downtown. At first I thought I had a knack for accepting requests from people with hydrophobia – or bridge-o-phobia – or maybe vampires who have trouble crossing water. Turns out they were concerned about the low level of the river, having noticed that it had been nearly touching the sidewalks earlier in the day. With a broad, reassuring smile, I explain that twice daily the water level is at maximum, and likewise twice daily it is at a low ebb, for the mouth of the Lee is an estuary.
I then wait patiently for this to elicit an answering smile in return as relief washes over them. Several times I have ended up with aching cheeks as the moment awkwardly extends into silence. They know I've said something to set their mind at ease, but it seems "estuary" is not a word that comes up in most English language classes unless one is also a student of marine biology. (Even native English speakers get tripped up on this one.)
This handy cormorant drying rack is only visible when the tide is out.
Before the silence gets too uncomfortable, I explain that the water level is, in short, affected by the tide. This is the place where salt water meets fresh, not to worry, just wait a few hours and the shopping trolleys, rusty bicycles, and seaweed garlands along the banks will be hidden as the water level rises once again. The relief of my guests is nearly palpable – whew!
The River Lee is what attracted the Viking founders to this spot so many years ago. Not only was there easy access to the interior of the country, but the huge natural harbor of Cobh ("cove") was nearby, the river provided fresh water, and the sea regularly came to kiss the shores of the marshy islands that made up ancient Cork. Riding the tides made the delivery of goods both to and from the city quite handy.
Informative yet colorless model of the city. Needz moar green.
Although there are really only 2 primary channels of the river remaining today – one passes north of the center, the other south – it was once a large marsh made up of many tiny islets. If you didn't know this, you might wonder what the heck the city council was thinking with their street plan. Why is Patrick Street, the main thoroughfare through the center, so curvy and meandering? Think of it as a smaller, paved version of the Grand Canal in Venice.
That bridge behind the bird lights up at night in a "Billie Jean" kinda way and follows your steps.
Unsurprisingly, the most common wildlife sightings are of the feathered variety. Not being a member of the Audubon Society, I don't know that much about the types of herons, cormorants, ducks, gulls, swans and other water birds as I might. I have noticed that there are different varieties of seagulls here than on the west coast of the US. Having grown up with the large, lunchbox dive bombing types of Southern California, I noticed that one of the local varieties is rather petite in comparison. Pretty cute, really!
Not as cute, but perhaps more intriguing, was a jellyfish invasion I witnessed. Alas for me, I did not have a camera with a polarized filter, so the photos and videos came out rather glare-y. If you squint, you can see a ghostly white shape in the lower third of the frame.
Fish and ships.
Speaking of ghostly white shapes, the critters seen around the Lee range from those with no bones at all to those that are made of nothing else. The annual Dragon of Shandon Samhain Parade doesn't just make use of the streets of Cork, but the waterways, too. I was eerily surprised and delightfully shocked to discover bony fish boats appearing as part of the festivities. Brilliant!
I have seen a rather large river otter heading downstream, making brief and curly displays as it passed through town, like a furry sea serpent. Though I missed it, a trio of dolphins put in an appearance a couple of years ago, as well. Over a decade ago, three orcas showed up to say hello, wow onlookers, and lodge firmly into local folklore through song.
Can't see the video? Watch it on YouTube: http://youtu.be/orjqBF1y8UM
My favorite personal sighting so far has been the seal. Now, I suppose there are many seals who might potentially swim up the river from Cobh. Yet whenever I've mentioned this particular episode to a friend, it seems there is a belief that it is the same one, a repeat visitor, "The Seal." Rumor has it that she's female.
I get the impression that she makes her appearances in approximately the same place, so one must presume there is either good fishing or that she likes an appreciative audience. If you are so inclined, watch the full 1 minute 44 seconds of video to see an entire fish eaten, start to finish. I've made use of YouTube's free music option in order to spare you my inane chatter. It came up under the search term "Irish" and is a cute and lively dance number. I imagine the seal enjoyed the dance quite a bit more than did the fish.
The weather has recently changed from warm-ish summer (it's all relative) to carrying a distinct autumn chill over the last few days. I am glad to live close enough to the river that I can nip down for a bit of flowing water therapy and just as quickly nip back home for a cup of restorative tea. I wonder who is visiting today…
What critters have you spotted lately?