New "Irish" Humpback whale matched to Iceland

31st Mar 2014

New Irish Humpback whale matched to Iceland.

On 14th Sept 2013 Nick Massett observed a number of humpback whales around the Blasket Islands, Co. Kerry; less than two weeks later, on Sept 25th he re-sighted one of them.  Although it never tail-fluked, we still knew from the dorsal fin images that this was a new humpback for Ireland, and as is standard procedure it was allocated a new reference #HBIRL25 and a sample of Nick’s strongest images of this individual were added to the Irish Humpback whale catalogue on www.iwdg.ie.  Another “Irish” humpback whale snapshot in time….or so we thought.

Last week, on March 13th we received a most welcome email from a colleague, Christian Schmidt, who works as a guide on an Icelandic whale watching boat out of Husavik, on the north coast, on the edge of Arctic Circle.  We’d had the pleasure of meeting Christian at the European Cetacean Society conference in Galway in March 2012, where we discussed the ongoing humpback photo ID work and agreed that it would be interesting to take a look at each other’s catalogues.  The next day we exchanged folders and while It took Christian all of about 10 minutes to go through ours, about an hour later, I was still only half-way through theirs. And no, I’m not a particularly slow reader….the issue is that Christian’s Icelandic catalogue contained hundreds of animals, while ours was somewhat smaller at 18 individuals.

Unique features on dorsal fin confirming the match © IWDGHis email read as follows……. “I’ve attached some pictures of a whale that I photographed off Húsavík on 28/07/2013. I photographed the same whale also during summer 2011, also in Húsavík, and it looks VERY similar to HBIRL25.  Maybe you could just tell me what you think when looking at the pictures…..” 

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind, we had made the first match of an “Irish” humpback whale to Iceland…or should that be an Icelandic humpback whale with Ireland? Of course neither is correct, as they are neither Irish nor Icelandic.

As this international re-sighting follows hot on the heels of last month’s discovery of our first match to a high- latitude feeding grounds in Tromso, Norway of #HBIRL7 (also matched with the Netherlands), it isn’t necessary to repeat the significance of this event here. But it is nice to be able to track the southbound movement of this animal from Northern Iceland to the Southwest tip of Ireland, a minimum distance of 1,100 miles or 1,740 km, over a period of 7 weeks. Given that this represents an average daily progress of c23 miles, we can surmise that HBIRL25 was hardly breaking into a sweat, as when on migration mode proper, humpbacks are capable of travelling distances of up to 100 miles in a day.  So assuming this whale could have covered the distance in as little as 2 weeks, it seems likely that it allowed plenty of time for foraging detours en route.

It’s interesting that for so many years these “Irish” humpbacks went unmatched to any other feeding or breeding ground. Yet, we’ve now linked two individuals to Norway and Iceland in quick succession. Clearly there is some explanation for this shift. One simple fact is that the larger the Irish humpback whale catalogue becomes (n=28) the more animals we have available for matching and statistically with more balls in the air, the greater the chances are of our getting lucky and finding matches. But is this the full picture? HBIRL25's likely southbound  track to Kerry © IWDG

In recent years there has been a growth in the numbers of people engaging in “Citizen Science”. These are the people who live and/or work locally and are participating in and setting up recording schemes and in this instance doing the fieldwork, securing and collating images in a systematic manner and sharing that information with others in the field. So while we are all still sending our images to the curators of the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue in Maine, USA who have an impressive dataset of almost 8,000 individual humpbacks, there is also more cross checking taking place between individuals and groups at a regional level; and this may be making the difference.  

This work has been carried out in Ireland on a voluntarily basis by a small team of enthusiasts, who share a passion for the “Big-winged New Englander ”and a concern for their conservation. Getting the images takes time and effort, but to be honest, finding and photographing humpback whales is both fun and a privilege. The real work begins after the trip: downloading, deleting, sorting, maintaining the database, sharing catalogues and then the matching process itself. This is time consuming work, which continues year in, year out and has gone completely without funding in recent years. It is astonishing to us that a project like this which has in equal measure the capacity to make such important discoveries, as well as inspiring wildlife film makers, researchers and supporting tourism initiatives, can be expected to survive without support.

So, this is a request to agencies, local authorities, institutions, businesses or even individuals who may derive some benefit from supporting this effort, or who may altruistically feel that supporting conservation in Ireland of one of the planet’s most iconic species is a good thing to do.  Please contact us at www.iwdg.ie, if you feel there is scope for collaboration that will help us continue this effort in the years ahead. Photo Identification is an effective, non-invasive way of monitoring humpback whales in Ireland and tracking their progress over space and time, and is surely an attractive project worthy of commercial backing.

HBIRL25 fluke image from Iceland © Christian SchmidtIt is unlikely to have gone unnoticed that the two countries we’ve matched our humpbacks to both have active whaling programmes, and that in 2014 the Icelandic authorities have maintained their quota of large rorquals, (which includes humpbacks) at 154 animals. Bearing in mind that commercial whaling is likely to be just one of many threats these whales face, we have genuine concerns for their safe passage through these waters. Can you help us, help them?

 

Pádraig Whooley

Irish Whale and Dolphin Group
Sightings Officer