Probable “Bowhead” whale off the Stags, West Cork 17th April 2017

18th Apr 2017

Probable “Bowhead” whale off the Stags, West Cork 17th April 2017.

On Monday 17th April morning Whale Watch boat the MV Holly Jo left Reen Pier near Union Hall on a regular 4 hour trip exploring the rich and diverse waters of West Cork, southwest Ireland. An hour in, it was clear that this was going to be a good whale watch trip, given the flat calm sea conditions and good visibility. Mid-way through the venture skipper Colin Barnes had already located 6+ minke whales and upwards of 200 common dolphins along with the usual harbour porpoises and grey seals. So there was plenty of wildlife in the area, but things were going to get a lot more interesting.....

At 11:40am Colin and crew observed a very large animal on the surface, with a very obvious double hump profile, which he felt immediately was something that he’d never before seen, here or anywhere, since he started working in these local waters in the early 1970’s. It was clearly a large whale and although it was only observed over two surfaces, it had no dorsal fin, which left him curious as all the regularly occurring whales in Irish waters such as minke, fin and humpback whales have a dorsal fin situated two-thirds along their backs.

Thankfully, also on board with her camera was Joanne Cardiff from Greystones, an avid whale enthusiast, who has seen and worked on whale projects in both the Azores and Monterey Bay, USA and she obtained images (left & below). Given the distance to the animal and the brevity of the sighting, she did well to capture a suite of images of the whale’s surface sequence and IWDG had an opportunity to view these after the trip, and it seems most likely that this is a bowhead whale, although we can’t eliminate the possibility that it would be Northern Right Whale. Either way, this is an extremely rare whale sighting for Irish Waters, as  to date IWDG has only previously validated one other sighting of a bowhead whale off Carlingford Lough in May 2016. Since IWDG Sighting Scheme commenced in 1990, we have not validated a single sighting or stranding record of a Northern Right Whale; a species that was brought to the brink of extinction in the North Atlantic by early Basque whalers.

The bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) is estimated to live over 200 years and is possibly the longest-living mammal. Their range is restricted to Arctic water’s ice edge where it feeds on krill and other crustaceans and until recently this Arctic vagrant has never been recorded in any European waters, but this all changed in February 2015. Why?

Since February 2015 there has been a series of well-documented sightings of what could be a solitary bowhead whale, but the question remains whether all of these sightings are of the same individual? Photo ID matching does suggest that it is most likely that all these sightings are of the same individual.

  • 20th Feb 2015, St. Martin’s, Scilly Isles, UK
  • 15th May 2016, Marazion, near Penzance, Cornwall, UK
  • 29th May 2016, Mouth of Carlingford Lough, Co. Louth/Down, Ireland
  • 31st Mar-1st April 2017, Ostende, Belgium (images suggest flukes are caught in fishing net)
  • 10th April 2017, Vlissingen, Netherlands
  • 17th April 2017, The Stags, Co. Cork, Ireland

It is both remarkable and somewhat alarming that this individual is likely to have spent over two years swimming so far outside its normal range. It's says quite a lot about fragmentation of Arctic sea ice and how this is impacting on the movements of the “Ice whale”.

Yesterday’s “bowhead” whale was last seen heading west and IWDG have asked bird watchers out on Cape Clear Island and whale watch operators further west to keep a look out for this individual, and to try and obtain any photographs that may help us answer some of the many questions that surround this individual. We’ll keep you posted here on IWDG if we receive any further sightings.

Thanks as always to Cork Whale Watch www.corkwhalewatch.com for their ongoing support for IWDG and cetacean conservation In Ireland and to Joanne Cardiff for sharing her images.

By Pádraig Whooley, IWDG Sightings Officer