Humpback Match!

Humpback, 2 Aug 2019

This is just the best story.

It embraces everything that I have always liked about wildlife, and the people who are enthusiastic about wildlife. And you will not find a more enthusiastic person on the planet than those who are fans of the Humpback whale.

‘Once seen, never forgotten’ doesn’t quite do justice to the experience of an encounter with a Humpback. It is complete sensory and excitement overload.

(watch Becky’s double take in this video, as she sees the fin just underneath the kayak!)

Becky and the inquisitive Humpback calf, Antarctica 2020

There are several groups of whale enthusiasts around the UK and Ireland who have set up photo ID catalogues of Humpback Whales. The markings on the underside of the tail fluke of a Humpback give each whale a very individual signature which gives the opportunity of making a match between sightings. The biggest challenge is getting that photograph.

You need a whale for a start. This isn’t a problem in the Humpback hotspots around the world such as Antarctica and California, but it is an issue here in Southwest England, because there are so few about. Just a handful seen around the coast of Cornwall each year before 2020.

I still can’t believe I was lucky enough to stumble across this Humpback lungeing about engulfing huge mouthfuls of sandeels and sprats off the coast of West Cornwall last year. The chances of me being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, three miles offshore in my little kayak, to watch the whale which was only in the area only for a couple of hours, are miniscule.

Penzance Humpback, 2 Aug 2019

I managed to get a half decent pic of the underside of its tail, which I sent in to Emer at ORCAIreland at to see if they might have a match to any of the Irish-seen whales in their catalogue. No, this was a new whale so I gave it the nickname Cream Tea, given it’s Cornish location and colour of its flukes.

Fast forward to last week, and I was contacted by Lyndsay Mcneill from Scottish Humpback ID to tell me that Cream Tea had been photographed again! Just before Christmas in the Isles of Scilly by Martin Goodey. Here’s one of his pics:

Matin Goodey’s pic, Xmas 2020

This is the first EVER match of a Humpback whale in southwest England. On the face of it you might not think that is a surprise for a whale to be seen twice in areas which are only forty miles apart. But if you throw into the mix that these records were sixteen months apart, and getting a decent fluke shot is virtually impossible because there are hardly any whales around and when they do raise their flukes the chances of it being at the right angle for you to snap it is small, this is astonishing.. Not to mention the challenges of photography from a moving boat……or tippy kayak!

Martin, incidentally, named the Humpback ‘Pi’ because of the markings on the base of the fluke that resemble the mathematical symbol. Nice one, rather more carefully thought out than my ‘Cream Tea’….

So what has Pi/Cream Tea been doing in the sixteen months between sightings? You might be tempted to think he/she has been hanging about in the fertile and fish-filled waters of SW England, gorging on the seasonal abundance of various shoaling fish. If that is the case you might have expected more sightings, because Humpbacks quite like to fish close to the shore, unlike most other whales.

And they are a migratory species. The North Atlantic population breed in the tropics during the northern winter, and then swim north to feed up towards the Arctic for the northern summer.

Scottish Humpback ID have matches between Scotland and arctic feeding grounds such as Norway, Iceland and Svalbard, as well as between Scotland and the breeding areas of Cape Verde and the Azores. One whale has even been seen in Shetland and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean.

Migration map of North Atlantic Humpbacks

It is likely that this Humpback was born in the Cape Verdes, so may well have wandered back down there during the time between sightings. Either to breed if it is an adult, or just to socialise if is a youngster. Or maybe, if it is an adolescent, it has in fact hung around the shores of the UK, as some whales are seen unexpectedly out of season. Who knows?

And then….just after Christmas I was contacted by Humpback expert Michael Amos who told me another match had been made.

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group had photographs taken by Nick Massett off the coast of Dingle, Co Kerry, taken in August and October this year that matched Pi/Cream tea! Incredible, because this is the first EVER match made between Ireland and Cornwall.

So TWO match ‘firsts’, both involving the same whale, made within a week or two of each other.

Humpback ‘Cream Tea’ and St.Michael’s Mount

If you are half-interested in marine megafauna the significance of these repeat sightings cannot be understated. They hopefully mean that everybody’s favourite whale, and arguably the world’s most charismatic creature, will now once again be a regular visitor to SW England.

This really DOES seem to be the case because in the last couple of months there have been a couple of Humpbacks regularly seen around the coast of west Cornwall, and up to seven off the Isles of Scilly. Together with several sightings of the giant Fin whales.

So this story is all good, good, and good. A blend of citizen science, dogged detective work and oodles of enthusiasm and excitement from everyone involved.

I have been very pleased to be part of this series of groundbreaking ‘firsts’, and am thrilled that whale-watching from my kayak has progressed from ludicrous (in terms of almost guaranteed failure each time I go out) pastime to having some benefit to science.

Humpback mother and calf. Antarctica Feb 2020 (from the kayak!)

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