A review of a record humpback summer...Update

10th Nov 2013

Report Update 12/11/2013

The day kicked off with an early morning report by the Irish Naval Service, via Ronan Mc Laughlin of no less than 4 cetacean species in Dungarvan Bay off Helvic Head area, Co. Waterford. Among these were harbour porpoises, common dolphins, fin whales and wait for it a humpback whale. Ronan reports that there were so many herring feeding that the ship's echo sounder blanked out!  At around 13:00 we got a call from Colin Barnes www.corkwhalewatch.com telling us that he was with another humpback whale off the Stags, West Cork. Based on the fact that IWDG has now had humpback sightings from 3 counties: Kerry, Cork and Waterford this week (since 6th Nov), we can speculate that they are widely dispersed along the Munster coastline. Thanks to Jon Hynes, Colin Barnes and Ronan Mc Laughlin for these humpback reports.

 

Report Update 11/11/2013

This article was originally posted on Oct 25th on the IWDG "Members only" section.  We are happy now to release it to a general audience on www.iwdg.ie.  IWDG policy is to make some articles available initially to current members who support out conservation work by taking out membership.   There is very little humpback news to report since this article went live several weeks back, due to poor weather which has ruled out any boat-based whale watching or research trips.  The weather has also prevented monitoring through land-based effort watches, so it is not possible to say with certaintly where the main aggregations of fin and/or humpback whales are along the south coast.  But with more settled weather this week, it shouldn't take long for the IWDG sighting network to spring into action.  Please let us know if you are fortunate enough to spot distant "blows".

 

A record humpback whale summer 

It only seems like yesterday when we were congratulating ourselves because we had half a dozen recognisable humpbacks whales in Irish waters.  We’ve just updated the humpback whale Photo-ID catalogue after a busy few months off the Slea Head/Blasket area with regular sightings since late July until mid October.  This sustained period of humpback action brings the Irish Humpback Whale Catalogue to 28 individuals.  To put this into some perspective, the previous biggest number of additions to this resource were 4 new humpbacks each in 2008 & 2011, 3 in 2012 and 0-2 newbies in other years. So to document 7 new humpbacks with the a big chunk of the season remaining, is we feel quite remarkable. There is no strong evidence that this increase reflects any increase in observer effort, although fine summer weather may have been a factor, and so we can only surmise that it does reflect an actual increase in humpback whale numbers visiting Irish waters.

It’s premature to start predicting what this number might be by the end of the “large whale season”, given that November is historically the peak season for humpback whales off places like West Cork, and this extends into January further east off the Waterford/Wexford coast. But it is entirely possible that by the end of this 2013/14 season we could have a database of 30 recognisable individual humpback whales. That is of course assuming an improvment in the current weather!

All 22 Irish humpback fluke images to date Oct 2013 © IWDGThe composite image (left) shows the 22 available flukes. The remaining 6 animals have been confirmed as new animals based on other unique natural or man-made markings. We have a reaslistic expectation that as the catalogue grows, we will be able to add their flukes to this resource as most of them are are readily identifiable from their dorsal fin or flank markings.

The facts thus far suggest we may need to do some re-thinking about just how large the Irish humpback population is.  An analysis of all validated humpback sighting records on the Advanced Search facility on www.iwdg.ie shows there have been 31 sightings to date in 2013 (map below); this compares with 46 sightings for the same period in 2012 and 33 sightings in 2010. So the interesting part is clearly not the number of sightings, but what they tell us.

For instance the recent West Kerry activity represents what is likely to be the most sustained period of humpback activity ever documented by IWDG, and represents 71% of all humpback whale sightings for the year to date (22 of 31). This situation was monitored by local IWDG contact Nick Massett, whose observations faciliated RIB based photo ID trips around the Blaskets. Of these 22 days among humpbacks we can confirm the presence of the following 10 individuals: #HBIRL 6, 8, 15, 17, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27 & 28. Four of these animals were recorded on >1 day during this episode; and a good example of their site fidelity was demonstrated by #HBIRL23, who was recorded on 4 dates in late July, early August,  through to mid September. Clearly the favourable feeding conditions that existed when the Kerry air “Port Na bPucaí” was first crafted for fiddle centuries ago, remain intact today off the Slea Head Peninsula.

Of these 10 animals, 4 (#HBIRL 6, 8, 15 & 17) have been recorded in previous years. It makes interesting reading to look at some of these re-sightings; #HBIRL6 is a case in point.  HBIRL6 (or Loopy) now joins the ranks of 5 other humpbacks to be recorded over 4 or more years in Irish waters. As he was biopsied in December 2012 by Dr Conor Ryan we can confirm gender. Our first record of him was in Oct 2004, when he was photographed 25 miles northwest of Loop Head, Co. Clare (hense the nick name) by John Leech of the Irish Naval Serice.  Four years later in Oct 2008 I photographed him 16 miles south Mine Head, Co. Waterford, and again several times during December the same year off Galley Head, Co. Cork. After another 4 year gap he was captured (on camera) on 3 occasions between late November and early December 2012 by IWDG members in West Cork. Nick’s latest re-sightings, are our earliest record for HBIRL6 confirming his presence around the Blaskets on 14th Sept 2013. In summary, this individual has now been confirmed using photo ID on 8 occasions, over 4 years in all 4 of Munster’s coastal counties. Map of all validated Irish humpback sightings year to date 2013 © IWDG

Another observation by Nick which is supported by photographic evidence is the presence of 2 probable mother and calf pairs (HBIRL17 & 24 and HBIRL26 & 27) this summer (see main image top). The presence of young that are likely to be in their first year, demonstrates an even stronger argument for their protection.  Behind all of this data there Is a fascinating story, and the more information we can obtain on their spatial and temporal use in Irish waters, the more compelling a case we can make for the protection of this Iconic species.

A huge thanks to our local West Kerry team (Nick Massett, Vera O’ Donovan, Britta Wilkens and Stephen Comerford) for all their voluntary efforts in monitoring this wonderful activity. 

By Pádraig Whooley
IWDG Sightings Coordinator