Cork Harbour is the second largest natural harbour in the world and Ireland's second largest port. The harbour entrance is a narrow channel at Roches Point, 2.5 kilometres long and some 1.3 kilometres wide. Geologically, Cork Harbour consists of two large areas of water in a limestone basin, separated from each and the sea by ridges of Old Red Sandstone. That area closer to the harbour mouth is known as the Lower Harbour, whilst that closer to Cork City is called the Upper Harbour.
The Lower Harbour is a vast expanse of water, surrounded by rich agricultural lands and magnificent scenery. Popular as a residential area, Crosshaven is on the southwestern shore, Carrigaline at the head of the Owenabue River estuary, while Ringaskiddy, Shanbally, Raffeen, Monkstown and Passage West are all on the western shores. Whitegate and Aghada are the principle settlements on the less densely populated eastern shore. Cobh, situated on the harbour’s largest island, stands over the entire Lower Harbour like a matriarch. The village of Ballinacurra, now almost a suburb of the busy town of Midleton, is at the head of the Owenacurra River estuary. Cork City is located 14.5 kilometres upstream on the River Lee. Many of south Cork’s most popular residential suburbs lie on the shores of Upper Cork Harbour.
The tidal rise at Cork ranges from 3.4 metres on neap tides to 4.4 metres on spring tides. At the harbour mouth, the depth of water is almost 13 metres. Above the Spit Bank, near Cobh, dredging maintains the depth at 11.2 metres. Upstream of Passage West, the shipping channel is maintained to a depth of 6.5 metres, while there is depth of 5.2 metres from Tivoli to the City Quays.
The five largest islands in Cork Harbour are Great Island, Fota Island, Little Island, Haulbowline Island and Spike Island. All, with the exception of Spike Island, are now connected to the mainland. The headquarters of the Irish Navy is on Haulbowline Island.
Before its handover to the Irish State in 1838, Cork Harbour was also an important base for the British Navy. Many old fortifications dot the hills of the harbour. The construction of these started in the 17th century. Fort Camden (Davis) and Fort Carlisle (Meagher) act as sentinels on either side of the entrance to the Harbour. Fort Westmoreland (Mitchell) on Spike Island has been used until recently as a detention centre. Five Martello Towers were built after the Napoleonic Wars finished in 1815. Three are on the north side of Great Island, one is on Haulbowline Island and the largest is at Ringaskiddy.
Shipping and port facilities in Cork Harbour are run by the Port of Cork Company. The Port of Cork has berthing facilities at the City Quays, Tivoli, Cobh and Ringaskiddy. The port can handle roll-on, roll-off, lift-on, lift-off, dry bulk and liquid bulk cargo. The Port Operations and Information Station is located at Cobh. There is sufficient water for vessels of up to 90,000 DWT as far as Cobh. Only vessels of a maximum of 60,000 DWT can come upstream of Cobh. Vessels over 130 metres in length must be piloted once they have passed within 2.5 nautical miles of the harbour entrance, while pilotage is compulsory for all vessels between the Spit Bank Lighthouse and the City Quays. Piloting facilities are provided by the Port of Cork. The importance of Cork as a port continues to grow: in 2005, total cargo throughput reached a record of 10.42 million tones.
Two ferries operate out of the deep-water berth at Ringskiddy. Swansea Cork Ferries operates sailings every second day from Cork to Swansea, offers holiday packages for stays both in Ireland and the UK and acts as a sales agent for all of the major carriers to Europe by Landbridge. The Brittany Ferries sailing from Ringaskiddy to Roscoff is the fastest sailing from Ireland to France and can be coupled with holiday packages in Ireland, France or Spain served either by the direct sailing or Landbridge routes.
Those entering Cork Harbour by boat are always astounded at the grandeur of the spectacle. Ireland’s only dedicated cruise terminal is at Cobh. Some 36 cruise ships will have berthed in the harbour by the end of the current season, bringing an estimated 35,000 visitors to the Cork region. The islands of the harbour and the tranquil river estuaries are well worth exploring by boat, foot or car. Activities such as sailing, windsurfing, rowing and horse-riding are available. The Royal Cork Yacht Club, now based in Crosshaven, is the oldest yacht club in the world. Every second summer it hosts Cork Week, a major sailing regatta of international significance which brings much revenue to the local economy. Two additional marinas are available in Crosshaven and a third at East Ferry. Launching and mooring facilities at Ringaskiddy, Monkstown, Blackrock, Cobh, Aghada and Ballinacurra are used for smaller boats and jetskis.
The broad expanses of mudflats and salt marsh vegetation make Cork Harbour a hugely significant habitat for birds. Because the harbour hosts the largest number of wintering bird in any area on the east and south east coasts of Ireland, it has been designated both as a Special Protection Area for birds and a Ramsar site of international importance.
Both commercial and hobby fishing is popular in the harbour. The main fishing resources include angling for trout, salmon, cod, coarse fish and sea fish. Oysters and mussels are grown in beds in the eastern side of the harbour and in the Belvelly Channel. The harbour waters supply important spawning and nursery areas for sea fish species.
Cork Harbour is one of the most important industrial areas in Ireland, providing employment both locally and further afield and generating significant revenue to the national economy. The oil refinery at Whitegate is the only one in the country. There are over 100 pharmaceutical firms operating in the Cork Harbour area, centred principally on Ringaskiddy and Little Island. Cork Dockyard on Great Island was the home to Verolme Shipbuilding and, although ships are no longer built there, the dry docks are used for repair and survey work.
Its size and huge diversity of activities mean that the pressures on Cork Harbour are in a continual process of change and growth. Locals and authorities alike are becoming increasingly aware of the unique asset this harbour offers to so many interest groups. Integrated Coastal Zone management which will bring all stakeholders in the harbour together is currently being introduced, led a partnership between University College Cork and Cork County Council and with financial backing from the European Commission. Should this be successful, it will be key to maximising the harbour’s multi-faceted benefits well into the future.
For further information on Cork Harbour can be obtained from the following websites:
Angling in Cork Harbour: www.sea-angling-ireland.org/shore%20-%20cork%20-%20harbour.htm
Coastal and Maritime Resources Centre, University College Cork: www.ucc.ie/research/crc/
Cobh Heritage Centre – The Queenstown Story:www.cobhheritage.com/
Cobh Town Council:www.cobh.ie
Cork Harbour Bird Atlas: http://corkharbourbirds.ucc.ie
Fota House and Gardens:www.fotahouse.com/
Fota Island Golf Course:www.fotaisland.ie/
Fota Wildlife Park: www.fotawildlife.ie/
Midleton Town Council: www.midletonudc.ie
National Maritime College of Ireland: www.nmci.ie
The Cork Harbour Defences: www.palmerstonforts.org.uk/redan/cork.htm
The Titanic Trail, Cobh: www.titanic-trail.com
All aerial photographs courtesy of Robert Bateman Photography