Over the weekend of 25/26th February, crowds gathered off the coast of South Devon where onlookers are hoping to see a humpback whale that was first sighted on Thursday 23rd February.
Despite reports in the press that the whale was distressed, ill or injured, British Divers Marine Life Rescue would like to reassure people that it looks to be quite healthy and is feeding, possibly on mackerel or herring that are known to be in the area at the moment.
There were also reports that the whale had a calf with it, but it is likely that people have been confused by seeing porpoises and dolphins in the vicinity that are also making the most of the good feeding. No calf has been confirmed as being in the area and as new-born humpback whales are around 3 metres long and weigh over a tonne, if there was one there it wouldn't be missed by photographers. The sex of the whale can't really be determined either from any of the sightings unless it is a known individual.
Contrary to some statements in the press from those who may have little experience of these incredible animals, it is not unusual for humpback whales to enter shallow coastal waters to feed on shoaling fish. Currently there are more that half a dozen humpback whales around UK coasts and the charity is monitoring all of them. Of concern though is human activity around them, as any boating traffic could frighten a whale into making a mistake and beaching, or swimming into areas where it could become entangled in fishing gear such as creel pot lines.
In recent years there has been an increase in sightings around the UK. Most of these have been in Scotland where they would be expected, but humpbacks have also been recently spotted off the coasts of Cornwall, Devon, Kent, Suffolk, Norfolk, Yorkshire, Northumberland and the North West. This may be due to a good supply of prey, but also may indicate a recovery of the population since the whaling moratorium in the 1980s, with animals returning to feeding haunts of old.
Most of the 12,000 humpbacks living in the North Atlantic (out of 70-80,000 worldwide) migrate to the warmer climes of the Caribbean in the winter, when pregnant females will give birth and males will battle with each other and mate with females that are not with a calf. In the summer, they return to the cooler, food-rich waters in the Northern Atlantic to feed and renew their resources stored in their blubber as they will not have been feeding in the tropics. A few animals, such as those around the UK, may not take part in this annual migration that can see some humpbacks elsewhere in the world swim in excess of 16,000 miles.
Reports of this particular humpback show that it is swimming strongly and making the most of a glut of food. The markings on the underside of their tail flukes are as distinctive as fingerprints, so it is hoped that the history of this individual may be discovered by checking a worldwide catalogue of humpback whales.
As long as the public remain on land and do not attempt to approach the whale in boats, jetskis or other vessels, it should be fine and move off in its own time. Stephen Marsh, the charity's Operations Manager, says "We would ask members of the public to stay away from this beautiful animal to allow it to feed naturally and not be shocked into stranding". He continued "Disturbing a whale, dolphin or porpoise is illegal in the UK and so authorities are recording any human activity surrounding this whale and will be looking for infringements of the law. It's quite possible to see the whale from the shore and therefore there is no need to enter the water to approach it."
British Divers Marine Life Rescue has specialist teams that have been trained to rescue whales that may become entangled in fishing gear at sea. The charity is monitoring the whale and is in touch with other organisations in case there is a problem, but in most cases humpbacks will return to deeper water quite safely once they have fed sufficiently.
Reports of the whale's whereabouts today suggest that it is already moving southwards. To hear a short 2 minute interview on Sky, please click here.
Update 4th March 2017
There was a reported sighting of the whale off Paignton on Thursday and again today (Saturday 4th March) off Start Point, last seen swimming powerfully westwards about 2km offshore. As it was not seen for a few days since last weekend, it has probably been making the most of the available herring and then moved back and forth following its foodsource without a problem. As yet, the humpback has not been identified as a known individual (IWDG in Ireland have confirmed it does not match any of the 78 humpbacks they have photos of). If anyone has good photos of the underside of the tail then please let us know as we would like to send them to check the American records.
We can confirm that the humpback whale that was in the Den Helder port in the Netherlands for a few days this week is not the same animal. BDMLR were consulted by Dutch colleagues at SOS Delfijn and advised non-intervention for this whale even though it was in a busy port area. We also suggested they requested that shipping activity was reduced and there should be no movement of vessels between the whale and the port harbour exit. This whale moved out of the port last night without a problem and has not been seen today in the surrounding area.
Photos courtesy of Andrew Gilbert. Sound clip courtesy of Sky Sunrise.
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