N. Ireland produces sightings of killer and humpback whales

15th Jun 2011 The whale watching spotlight is clearly on Northern Irish waters which in recent days has produced multiple killer whale sightings off both Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim and Co. Down, and we're now delighted to be able to add a confirmed humpback whale off Bangor, on the shores of Belfast Lough yesterday afternoon 14/06/11.

The flurry of Ulster activity commenced on 9th June when Stephen Ryan, RSPB observed 2 killer whales off West Lighthouse, Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim. We can now confirm that colleagues of his, while carrying out a bird survey for NIEA, photographed at least 3 killer whales the following day 10th June. (Image below)


But the plot thickens as on the same day, one of our stalwarts from Co. Down, Peter Steele observed 2 killer whales mid-way between the Down coast and the Isle of Man. The images taken from his vessel confirm that one of these two animals was none other than the bull known as John Coe #001, (image below) who is one of the focal animals of the Scottish "West Coast Community" group, who are now regularly recorded in Irish waters. The significance of these sightings is that N. Irish waters on the same day played host to >1 group of killer whales.



There are very few cetacean species that have the charisma to knock killer whales from top billing, but one is surely the humpback whale. And it was with pleasant surprise on opening images forwarded to IWDG this morning, that we learnt that the reports of a minke or fin whale off Bangor, Co. Down on Tues. 14th June were infact of a humpback whale.

To put this sighting into context, this is only the 3rd validated record of this species in Northern Irish waters since...well forever! Despite a decade of large whale research by IWDG, to date we've only identified 14 recognisable individual humpbacks in Irish waters, almost all of which have come from the South coast, reflecting just how uncommon they remain today, after centuries of commercial whaling. This is not to say that sightings are rare, as we do get quite a few sightings, but they are largely repeat sightings of the same few individuals, that remain in a winter feeding area for a sustained period.

We recognise individuals by the unique black & white colouration on the ventral (under) surface of their tail-flukes which can be seen just before they take a deep dive. See the Irish Humpback whale catalogue online on http://www.iwdg.ie/iscope/sightings/photoID.asp?species=2103

So, this latest Northern Irish humpback whale (below) sighting is another important piece of information which with time will help us build a more complete picture as to how important a part Irish waters play in the overall ecology of North Atlantic humpback whales. Until as recently as the 1950's when they gained full protection in North Atlantic waters, it was throught that they were on the brink of extinction by commercial whaling in their Carribean and Cape Verde breeding grounds. So any sighting today of a humpback whale, sends out a very strong conservation message.



Thankfully, through global conservation initiatives, their numbers seem to be on the rise, and they are showing up in areas where previously none were recorded. Perhaps this reflects greater awareness and more people watching for whales, but there is a growing hope among whale biologists and watchers alike that the increase in humpback sightings also reflects an increase in actual numbers.

The last sighting of this animal, which in common with most other humpbacks in Irish waters seems to