First humpbacks of 2018 Whale season....UPDATE

30th Mar 2018

Report II. 31st March 2018

For any wildlife enthusiasts or whale watchers who'd like to try and see these humpback whales, especially if you are already in the Beara Peninsula or West Cork area, they have also been observed in the area off Horn Point, near Crow Head on both Thursday 29th & this morning Friday 30th March. Their strong blows are standing out nicely in the good light. Tomorrow Sat. 31st is likey to be the last opportunity to try and find them, as the weather is due to deteriorate from Sunday 1st onwards for a few days.  Successful whale watching is all about getting the weather right! Good luck and let us know how you get on.


Report 1. 26th March 2018

Guess it was only a matter of time before that sighting email pinged in our inbox, confirming the return of  "Big Wing"  to our inshore Irish waters. This year's first sighting of humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae was reported on Sunday 25th March by Mark Westlake off Crow Head on the Beara Peninsula, Co. Cork, and was interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, they were feeding/foraging so close to the shore that Mark could capture these images below from land, without using a telephoto zoom lens and DSLR. In among the humpbacks were at least 3 minke whales and 200-300 common dolphins. So clearly this aggregation of cetaceans has found plenty of food. But more importantly is the fact that this sighting sees the continuation of a very strong trend of humpback whales arriving earlier each year.  

Equally remarkable is the fact that our 1st validated humpback whale sighting record of 2017 also came from this site at Crow Head, just 11 days later, on the 5th April 2017. Clearly humpback whales are creatures of habit, often appearing in the very same areas year after year.  But one thing that is changing is their arrival date, and the IWDG sightings data is now providing us with strong evidence of this.  The list below shows the locations and dates of their first documented arrival in each of the past 5 years, and it makes for interesting reading.

1. Galley Head, Co. Cork, 17th May 2014

2. Clogher Hd, Dingle Peninsula, Co. Kerry, 2nd May 2015

3. Bray Hd., Valentia Island, Co. Kerry, 9th April 2016

4. Crow Head, Beara Peninsula, Co. Cork, 5th April 2017

5. Crow Head, Beara Peninsula., Co. Cork, 25th March 2018

Clearly, the one constant is their preference for our southwest waters, and sites off West Cork and West Kerry stand out (see IWDG map above).  Does this merely reflect an observer bias in these well watched areas? It's hard to certain, as there are other well-watched sites along the Celtic Sea and west coast, which do not have anything like the same levels of humpback activity as these two hot spots.

If we look at humpbacks' date of first arrival in the 21 years 1990-2011, they didn't arrive on any year between March-April. Yet in the past 7 years (2012-2018), they have done so during this period on 5 occassions (71.4%). This doesn't necessarily mean they are in Irish waters longer each year, as in recent years anyway, there hasn't been the big late season finalé of large whales that we'd become accustomed to throughout the 2000's, between October and November. So it may well be that they are arriving earlier and leaving earlier.

Anyway, they are here now, or at least a cohort are, and that's all that matters and the arrival of several whale species inshore kick starts the whale watching season. There is no animal of any species, order or class that has the potential to inspire and lift the spirit quite like humpback whales; they are quite simply in a class of their own, and we hope that there will be abundant sand eels for these early arrivers, and later in the year, abundant sprat and herring. It is after all these forage fish that attract them to our shores year after year.

If you are fortunate enough to find yourself at sea in the company of humpback whales, please try and maintain a position behind them for a period and at a safe distance and try to obtain images of their ventral surface (underside) of the tail flukes which they regularly lift clear of the water prior to diving.  These images form the basis of the Irish Humpback Whale Photo Id catalogue, which currently recognises 85 individual humpbacks whales in Irish waters. It's an important tool for monitoring this charasmatic species. Thanks to Mark Westlake for sharing your images and reporting your sightings, and we hope IWDG members will have an opportunity to encounter them in the year ahead.

By IWDG Sightings Officer, Pádraig Whooley


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