Humpback whale update in North Channel area

25th Jul 2014

We’ve written many articles on the “Big Winged New-Englander” on this site and on IWDG publications and magazines since the late 1990’s.  By now it is hardly news that Ireland has gained a reputation, among researchers, film makers and the wider whale-watching community, as a great place to study, film and observe humpback whales. It is also no great secret where the hotspots are and although they can and do turn up almost anywhere along the Irish South coast, it is hard to avoid what the data tells us year after year.  Which is…. if you want to see this charismatic species then Dingle Bay/Slea Head area is the place to go during summer (July to September), West Cork during autumn/early winter (October to December) and then further east along the Waterford/Wexford coast during late winter (January and February). Significantly, Photo Id matching confirms that a high proportion of these sightings (>50%) are of the same individuals moving east, as they follow the migrating herring and sprat shoals towards winter spawning grounds in places like Dunmore east, Co. Waterford.

Historically, sightings outside of this 330 Km stretch of coastline between West Kerry and West Wexford were rare events, and were explained away statistically as mere outliers, or biologically as somehow aberrant animals that should know better!  A quick glance at the humpback sightings data on the Advanced search option on for the North Irish Sea and North Channel area during a six year period 2004-2009 shows that not a single humpback whale record was reported to the IWDG during this period. Then in 2010 something interesting happened, when we had 5 confirmed humpback whale sightings between the North Antrim coast, the Isle of Man and Dublin.  As if to show that this was no fluke (excuse the pun) 2011 produced similar sightings. This has been played out now each year since 2010, and if you plot the resulting 15 humpback sightings along the 240 km stretch of coastline between Rathlin Island and Dublin’s Howth head, the results are rather interesting. (Map above)

Firstly, you get a nice wee map like this one which shows the majority of sightings are in a relatively small area. If Christy Moore’s lyrics are to be believed, it is only 90 miles from Belfast to Dublin, and while I acknowledge that not all the sightings occur along a straight contour, the Isle of Man is little more than a hop, skip and a jump for a seaworthy research vessel like the Celtic Mist. So we are talking about a relatively small area, certainly nothing as long as Slea Head to Hook Head. But also quite conveniently, of the 15 sightings, 14 (>93%) were during the June/July peak, making this the only humpback cluster with an early summer peak.

Now you could argue that I’m “over egging the pudding” a little here, as admittedly we are trying to extrapolate a lot from very little, with a small sample size of 15 humpback sightings in this area for this period, which contrast with 106 sightings from Co. Kerry and 87 from Cork.  But in these early days when we’re trying to ask very basic questions, we can indulge ourselves with a little speculation. 

So, are these northern humpbacks, which we suspect are travelling down the Irish Sea in early summer, the same ones that Nick Massett is seeing around the Blaskets?  While the timing of the Northern Irish humpback peak of June/July ties in quite nicely with the West Kerry August/September peak, we’d reasonably expect if these were the same animals that they’d be detected elsewhere perhaps along the Wexford/Waterford coast as they turned into the Celtic Sea.  But there is no evidence to support this theory, based on hundreds of IWDG land- based effort watches at Ram Head, Ardmore Co. Waterford over many years.

1st humpback fluke shot from N. Ireland, 20/07/14 #HBIRL32, © Lennie Wells

So clearly we now have another humpback mystery to solve.  But this week’s events were an important first step, as on both July 20th & 21st we received three humpback sighting reports with supporting images from three Co. Down sites, one was 8 miles east of Mew Island, another 10 miles east of Donaghadee and the most recent one was 6 miles northeast of the Copelands in the Beaufort Dyke area, and the images confirm that at least two of these encounters were of different whales.  The fact that on the same day July 20th Nick Massett was photographing humpback whales (x3) off the Blaskets in Kerry, would for now anyway, suggest these N. Irish whales are unlikely to be among the same animals turning up in the Southwest.

As always, this is where you the public come in and can help us greatly as Citizen Scientists by reporting any whale sightings to IWDG on and by forwarding any images to us by email to Humpback whales are very charismatic mammals, may approach boats and have a wide behavioural repertoire that should easily distinguish them from the more common minke whale, and the much larger fin whale.  Once you see them lift their majestic flukes clear of the water, then you can be certain that this is a humpback….hold your boat behind the whale and try to photograph the ventral surface (underside) of the flukes.  Contained within every tail-fluke is a secret waiting to be unlocked, and your camera or mobile phone may hold the key. 

HBIRl29 added 17/07/2014, West Cork © Colin Barnes, Cork Whale WatchThis day last week the Irish humpback whale catalogue, curated by the IWDG stood at 28 animals, which means we had at that time high resolution images of 28 individuals, many of whom we have tracked over several years, some have been monitored now into their third decade in Irish waters. Some of these are now being matched with high latitude feeding grounds in Norway and Iceland. Five days later the catalogue now stands at 33 humpbacks, which was just as well, as on the 20th July I couldn’t help notice with some concern that our very first photo identified humpback whale from Northern Irish waters turned out to be #HBIRL32!  I could just see the tabloid headlines….  “marauding Fenian humpbacks!”. So it was with some relief when Rory Jackson produced images from his sighting on the Beaufort Dyke the following day which confirmed a new humpback whale #HBIRL33….phew!


Chronology of a great week for humpback whale sightings in Irish waters

                1.  July 17th, Colin Barnes photographs HBIRL29 in West Cork from the MV Holly Jo (above)

2.   July 19th, Nick Massett photographs two humpbacks in the Blaskets, Co. Kerry, one of which was HBIRL23 who was in the area during summer 2013 and this year was 1st recorded on May 19th 2014 in the area. It is travelling with a new animal HBIRL30.

3.   July 20th, HBIRL23 & 30 are still in the area feeding, but Nick photographs a 3rd animal, HBIRL31, not associating with them.

4.   July 20th, Lennie Wells & Quintan Nelson both photograph a humpback 8 miles east of Mew Island and 10 miles east of Donaghadee, Co. Down. Images can’t yet confirm if these are the same animal, but do confirm it to be a new humpback #HBIRL 32, and significantly is the 1st addition to the Irish humpback Catalogue from Northern Ireland.

5.    July 21st, Rory Flannigan reports and photographs a 2nd humpback 6 miles northeast of the Copelands, in the mid Beaufort Dyke. This is another new animal and is allocated to the catalogue as HBIRL33.

Humpback off Mew Island, Co. Down 20/07/14 © Quintan NelsonPlease continue reporting any sightings of whales and dolphins in all Irish waters to the IWDG who are the All Island NGO dedicated to the study and better understanding of cetaceans in Irish waters. Our sighting scheme receives important funding support from DOE (Northern Ireland) whose conservation staff carry out dedicated monthly land-based cetacean watches at key sites along the Northern Irish coast.

Images off all catalogued humpbacks documented in Irish waters can be found on the Humpback whale Photo ID gallery of images on

Or click on Research tab on home page, then "Search Catalogue" optioin and select "Humpback whale option from the dropdown menu of species.


Written by Pádraig Whooley

IWDG Sightings Officer

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