Humpback and fin whales arrive inshore same week

9th May 2015

#HBIRL23 returns to West Kerry for 3rd consecutive year

On May 2nd a humpback whale was spotted by IWDG personnel off Clogher Head, Co. Kerry amongst large numbers of actively feeding common dolphins, the earliest record of a humpback in Kerry so far. This follows a trend where over the last ten years, since humpbacks have been documented off the Dingle peninsula, first sightings have been consistently (apart from one year) earlier each year on year. 

At a range of approx 5km and with relatively good spotting conditions on the first day it was possible to get good views of the animal with a scope. With a perpetual phalanx of common dolphins bowriding it and following its every move the humpback could also be tracked with ease. Numerous surfacing sequences were observed as well as the all-important tail fluke before a deep dive. It’s not definitive to ID an animal without photographing the detail of its unique fluke but this particular humpback had a couple of distinctive and familiar features; the ventral surface of the fluke was a predominantly all white, type 1, and the dorsal surface had white striped leading edges. With its characteristic ‘go faster stripes’ there was every chance that this was # HBIRL23 the humpback filmed last year for the One Show by the BBC Natural History Unit with IWDG from the Celtic Mist south of the Skelligs.

The all-important image was still required however and so on May 7th, after the animal was observed in the same area again during an early shore watch, the rib Míol Mór was launched. Winds were fairly light but there was a 2m plus swell running making spotting from the rib difficult, with this in mind a spotter was utilised in position on Clogher Head armed with optics and comm’s. This shore guidance proved invaluable when out on the rib and all that could be seen was the next approaching swell. But with the team effort the humpback was found and photographed. No clear fluke shot opportunity materialised in the swell but good dorsal images were obtained. Humpback dorsal fins, like their tail flukes, are often quite unique and can also identify an individual. This dorsal, shaped very much like a porpoise dorsal fin, with its markings was a good match for HBIRL23, the only difference being a couple of fresh barnacles on the top edge.

(HBIRL23 dorsal fin right side)

Dorsal fin right side confirming match, 7/05/2015 © Nick MassettIncluding the two shore based observations this was the 12th documented sighting of HBIRL23 over the last three years in Kerry. These ranging from as early as this sighting in early May through ‘til mid September in 2013. It’s this site fidelity typical of a number of animals that highlights the importance of Irish waters to the ecology of humpback whales. Another remarkable aspect of this re-sighting is that this year's 1st sighting 5th May is within two weeks of last year's 1st sighting 19th May 2014, so not only is it showing strong site fidelity, but also a fair degree of temporal fidelity. These are not chance encounters but part of a trend that we are only beginning to understand. Every documented sighting really is important, tells a story, and makes for fascinating research.

Míol Mór crew Nick Massett, Stephen Comerford, Vera O’Donovan

Shore spotter Britta Wilkens.

Nick Massett IWDG


Editor's note.....perhaps not surprisingly, while Nick and the team were out with this 1st humpback whale of the season in West Kerry, our man in the Beara Peninsula, Patrick Lyne had been informed of a large gathering of whales towards Bantry bay on the 6th May. An improvement in the weather on the 7th May allowed him the opportunity to scope from Black Ball Head area and to his south towards Sheep's Head and across the mouth of Bantry Bay, he recorded upwards of 15-20 minke whales and in among them were the season's first fin whales. His best estimate were 4-5 fin whales, the planet's 2nd large whale. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that both large whale species were first detected by the IWDG Sighting network  in the same week in the southwest of Ireland. It is quite early for both these species. Looks like the 2015/16 large whale season will be an interesting one.

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