On a return crossing from Biscay through the Channel September 15, 2008, passengers and researchers were beside themselves with excitement when a Humpback Whale was spotted near the Channel Islands. Humpback Whales are amongst the most familiar to people and yet this sighting in such a busy shipping area is unprecedented, considering how rarely they are observed in the eastern Atlantic.
Humpback Whales are known to be highly migratory, traveling between breeding and feeding grounds annually. They are found throughout the world's oceans, but numbers were decimated by whaling. Whilst the whales seem to be making a recovery in certain areas, sightings remain few and far between around the UK and mainland Europe. Sporadic sightings are reported annually in the Irish Sea, the North Sea and the waters off western Scotland, but there has not been a report of a Humpback Whale in the Channel in recent history.
The whale was initially detected as it created splashes on the surface by members of the Spanish research organization AMBAR. This species is known to be quite acrobatic often engaging in breaching - where the animal leaps clear of the water or crashing its massive tail and large pectoral fins on the waters surface. This particular whale was engaging in such behaviour and was photographed. Biscay Dolphin Research Program (BDRP) on board Wildlife Officer John Arnott, was able to confirm the sighting as a Humpback Whale.
John Arnott commented: "The photographs clearly showed the distinctive dorsal hump characteristic of this species. Many passengers were delighted, having witnessed the blows and splashes from their vantage point on deck 11 of the ship."
BDRP Chairman Clive Martin said: "Our first thought was for the whale's safety and we have alerted the coastguard to its presence and exact location. Being such a busy shipping area, the whale is at risk of ship strike and it is important that vessels are aware and therefore able to take extra care in this area".
It is likely that the whale is undertaking its annual migration from Northerly feeding grounds to warmer equatorial waters and has entered the Channel en-route. It may have been following its fish prey or could have become confused and entered the Channel through the Western Approaches by accident.
BDRP will continue to monitor the Channel for further sightings of the whale, keeping the coast guard informed of its movements.
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