Humpback whales still in West Cork waters...UPDATE

17th May 2012 Report V, 17/05/12
We're not sure if this should read as an update on the previous April humpback whale reports, or a new "stand alone" report. But yesterday 16th May local West Cork whale watch operator Colin Barnes had a humpback whale encounter c7-8 miles Southeast of Galley Head outside Clonakilty Bay. Unfortunately, Colin was anchored at the time of sighting, but the series of 3 blows and tail-fluke provided sufficient detail for Colin to confirm species.

Alas, we are not in a position to establish the identity of this individual, and to confirm whether this is a new individual, previously unrecorded in Irish waters, or a re-sighting of one of the 20 humpbacks currently on the Irish Humpback Whale catalogue. If it is a new animal, this will bring to 21, the number of recognisable humpbacks recorded to date in Irish waters. But we can't rule out the possibility that this is either HBIRL18 or 20, who were sighted in the same area around Galley Head in early April and may never have strayed too far from these productive West Cork waters.

Again, it is interesting that just as IWDG are wrapping up this season's humpback whale fieldwork in Cape Verdean tropical breeding grounds, there are also humpbacks present at higher latitude feeding grounds. Each humpback whale sighting that produces useable fluke shots has the potential to unravel the big mystery surrounding the migration of Irish humpback whales.

If anybody is fortunate enough to secure any fluke or dorsal fin images of this West Cork humpback, IWDG would really appreciate an opportunity to view them for matching against the Irish humpback whale catalogue which can be seen on this website at the link below:

Report IV, 08/04/12

We met at Reen pier at 09:30 to join the MV Holly Jo, skippered by Colin Barnes, our research platform of choice in Co. Cork. Simultaneous land watches earlier in the morning off Cloghna Head, Toe Head and as far west as Baltimore had produced no sightings of any whales; we were clearly going to have our work cut out for us. Or so we thought!

Little did we know that within 15 minutes of leaving Castlehaven Harbour that we'd have found our first humpback, which turned out to be another re-sighting of #HBIRL18, seen in January and February off Hook Head, Co. Wexford, and earlier in the week off Galley Head some miles to the east. But this encounter and the fair conditions gave Conor Ryan a great opportunity to secure a biopsy sample, and of course we got a lot of new Photo ID images of this animal. The biopsy technique is carried out under licence from NPWS and is an important research tool in that it will provide us with a range of genetics and pollutant information, which are not possible to obtain any other way from healthy specimens.

But where was the 2nd humpback? All sightings this week have been of at least two animals. With our work on HBIRL18 complete, we left it in search of this other animal. To be fair, it found us. In common with most Irish humpbacks, it looked like a young animal. It also had a white spot on the right side of the dorsal fin, that appears on no other humpbacks on the catalogue, hinting to us that this could be a new Irish humpback. But we needed the all-important fluke image to confirm #20 for the Irish humpback whale catalogue

In the meantime, Conor secured his second humpback biopsy of the day, something never before achieved in Ireland on this species, and after countless close encounters without a single tail-fluke, it finally breached, which kick started a bout of tail-slapping that lasted about 15 minutes, offering us wonderul photo opportunities, but more importantly our photo ID image, that displayed a rather jagged and well-marked tail-fluke. We could now confirm this to be a new humpback for Ireland. Welcome HBIRL20. Let's hope you return to Irish inshore waters for many years to come.

This week's humpback whale activity has never previously been recorded off the Irish south coast during April. So why these 2 young humpbacks are here during Spring, when years of data shows them to be absent in these months is a mystery. But another unexpected find, was they were likely to have been feeding on tiny copepods in plankton rich water, rather than the large shoals of herring that were feeding on the plankton. We have plenty of images of them swimming along the surface, mouths agape and baleen plates filtering the orange plankton stained water. Not too unlike the basking sharks that we saw on the same day. This combined with the fact that their feeding attracted no seabirds, which we'd expect when large whales are feeding on pelagic shoaling fish, suggest they were feeding on plankton.

So despite much heated, but healthy debate, the evidence that these humpbacks were feeding not on fish but plankton is quite compelling, and certainly something none of us have seen before in Irish inshore waters.

Also observed during the day was a tiny minke whale calf, that really ought have had a mother by its side. This calf was little bigger than a bottlenose dolphins, and the difference in size with the larger rorqual cousins was quite a contrast.

By Padraig Whooley
IWDG Sightings Co-ordinator

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