Our rare marine visitor, the humpback whale.

Our rare marine visitor, the humpback whale.

Published: 21 March 2017

For the past 5 weeks South Devon has been the home to one of the largest creatures on the planet, a humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae. This animal is one we would normally associate with watching in Australia, California and more recently Scotland.

Whilst spending most of its time in Start Bay it did pay Torbay a visit last weekend for 48hrs. On the Monday it gave everyone at Berry Head National Nature Reserve the most fantastic show which will live long in the memory.

It is interesting that the two places in south Devon it has been seen are where two Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ) are located, the Torbay MCZ & the Skerries Bank MCZ.  As with most ecosystems, when a predator at the top of the food chain is present it can indicate a robust & plentiful marine environment.

   

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

The humpback is part of the group containing the largest of the baleen whales, known as rorquals. This group also includes blue whales and fin whales. There are a number of distinct populations across the globe with an estimated population within Western North Atlantic of 11,600. Figures are not known for the Eastern North Atlantic population but are thought to be considerable less. Global populations are approximately 140,000 (source: International Whaling Commission)

Adult length: 10 - 15m

Adult weight: Up to 40 tonnes

Humpbacks are considerable travellers and can cover as much as 26,000 miles pr year, migrating from the breeding grounds around the equator to the polar circles in the summer. There are distinct southern hemisphere and northern hemisphere populations. The image below shows global populations including northern hemisphere migration routes(Image courtesy NOAA)

Whilst humpbacks are rare in British waters, they have become increasingly common with 11 sightings over the last 4 years. Last year an individual was spotted in Scottish waters which was later identified as a whale from the Caribbean.

Why is it here?

It is thought that this particular animal is an adolescent male, due to its size and the time of its arrival. It is approx 10-12m in length and the males will tend to roam more at this time of year. Females will not head north until the water starts to warm especially those with calves.

The fact that it is here proves there is an availability of prey to sustain it. Through out this winter there has been a higher than normal abundance of species such as mackeral, herring and sprats.

Is it okay?

Yes. It has been exibiting normal behaviour from feeding to breeching & fin slapping. All of these behaviours especially breeching are energy demanding and if an animal was ill or injured it would not be doing so.

Behaviour such as breeching, fin slapping and tail slapping is known to be used for communication but a recent study in Australia has shown that it is more complex than that. Breeching is used for long distance communication where as fin/tail slapping is used much more for communicating locally. Both of these types of comms will travel farther than 'whale song' especially when there are higher background levels of noise. Imagine fin/tail slapping is calling across a noisy room and breeching is shouting across a park.

   

Where can I see it?

The best place to observe any cetacean is from shore as that way you are less likely to disturb or distress it. It has been showing well both at Slapton and Berry Head NNR.

IMPORTANT: IT IS A CRIMINAL OFFENCE TO DISTURB, INJURE OR KILL A CETACEAN, EITHER INTENTIONALLY OR RECKLESSLY.

PLEASE DO NOT APPROACH IT IN A MARINE VESSEL UNLESS YOU HAVE READ & FOLLOW THE MARINE CODE OF CONDUCT (See below)

http://www.seawatchfoundation.org.uk/marine-code-of-conduct/

All photographs used courtesy of B. Telford.

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