Humpback whale in the Celtic Sea

Categories // Whale & Dolphin General News

Over the Christmas and New Year period, some of our Marine Mammal Surveyors based in Cornwall were lucky enough witness the incredible sight of one of our favourite ocean giants, the humpback whale!

At the end of November, throughout December and even on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, a humpback whale appeared off Land’s End in Cornwall, and has since been spotted everyday just a few meters from shore, and it is rumoured there is more than one – a mother and calf! They both look to be in a good healthy condition, feeding in the shallow waters and moving with the tides. Humpback whales can be individually identified by the markings on their tail fluke, and it is thought one of the whales could be the same one that was spotted nearby over the summer.

The whale has drawn many local residences to the coastline. Below some ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyors have written accounts of their incredible experience watching the ocean giant:

Charlotte Bright, ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyor

Humpback Whales are my favourite, I imagined hours spent travelling covering thousands of miles with perhaps a chance sighting. Never did I think I would see one only two miles from my front door in Cornwall. 

My search started on the south coast of west Cornwall after a drawing a couple of blanks, I travelled to Lamorna where there had been reports of two Humpbacks being sighted. 

I scrambled up the cliff path huffing and puffing to the very top of Carn-Du. There I saw the first blows; the whale came into the bay around 200m offshore. The funniest thing at this point was a fisherman on the rocks at sea level who when the whale surfaced around 10m in front of him did not seem to notice!

I spent three hours watching the whale just swimming around in about 12m depth of water, obligingly when it was time for me to leave the whale left too.

My next sighting of a Humpback was two miles from my front door in Newquay just of off Towan Head. Upon my arrival there were just a few people there watching, this Humpback Whale was further out to sea. The blows were visible but not much of the body was showing and it was too distant to photograph. When it was time to leave I realised just what a crowd of people had gathered!

I was desperate for another sighting hoping to get closer for a better view, then came the ultimate sighting, this occurred on New Year’s Day 2021.

A few days previous there had been sightings of Humpbacks In-between Lands’ End and the Isles of Scilly, this I decided was the place to go.

Not long after I arrived a Humpback Whale appeared 1000m offshore coming in towards me.

This Whale was blowing frequently sometimes in quick succession and showing itself really well. 

Due to an elevated position I could see this whale beneath the surface, at times the whale was only in 10m of water it would roll and then disappear not showing the long awaited tail fluke I so desperately wanted to see, at times it would appear almost stationary just drifting with the waves.

After a couple of hours, the whale began to make its way out to sea, the light was fading fast then as if by magic upon hitting the deeper water it granted my wish a beautiful tail fluke. 

Once home I compared the photographs from the first sighting and this last sighting and they were a match. The same whale with distinctive flank markings, a white tipped dorsal fin and a very white underside tail fluke. 

Terry Carne 1

Terry Carne 2

Photo credit: Terry Carne

ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyor, Ian Boreham

A few of us met at Land's End to celebrate the New Year. We knew 7 humpbacks had been seen at the Scilly Isles that weekend but didn't expect a great sighting of a humpback would happen so close to us. Swimming so close to the shore you could see the long pectoral fins which showed occasionally above the water and large bushy blows as it surfaced. It was amazingly fast at times and for a large cetacean could turn quickly in the water. It was fascinating to watch as the whale seemed to be motionless for a while and then just gently surface.

It stayed near to the land in depths at times of about 10m and circled the area for over two hours. A memorable, brilliant start to the year!

Some amazing footage that Ian captured of the humpback whale can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnX-SQ-Ires and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnX-SQ-Ires&feature=youtu.be

Samaya Reid, ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyor, living on the Isles of Scilly

It is safe to say that this Christmas and New year on the Isles of Scilly is one that we will remember forever.

Late afternoon on Christmas Eve we received a message to say a humpback whale had been seen from a boat between St. Mary’s and Tresco, an exceptionally rare occurrence, so we dashed up to the Garrison with the children in tow in the hope of seeing it. The weather conditions were not great, the light was fading and there was a bitter northerly wind, but then I saw a blow, and through my binoculars I saw it surface - this was the first time I have ever seen a whale, and it was incredible!

We stood and watched it alongside a crowd of other extremely excited islanders for over an hour before the loss of light eventually forced us all to retreat back down the hill in to town. Animals of this size are almost unheard of between the islands, and no one really expected it to be around the following day… fortunately, we were wrong.

Early on Christmas morning, news came through that several locals had seen the whale, this time to the south of St. Mary’s. We headed out and were walking past our local beach, just 70 yards from home, and I saw a blow in the mouth of the bay. It was much closer this time and the weather was perfect; the wind had dropped, and each time the whale blew the spray glistened in the early sunlight.  We continued up the headland and stopped at our favourite spot with a picnic, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, and watching our new visitor. This time our five-year-old son managed to see it and proclaimed that it is the best Christmas ever, and we all had to agree! How could any Christmas ever top this one!?

Remarkably, over the days that followed, we saw unprecedented numbers of greats whales in our waters. On New Year’s Eve, in addition to the original humpback, there were a further FIVE humpbacks and TWO fin whales, and then on New Year’s Day the islands welcomed SIX fin whales and at least one additional humpback. I had gone from seeing zero whale species, to seeing two in the space of a few days!

The first time we saw the fin whales we were walking around the coastal path on Peninnis Head and looked out to see an almighty blow off the south-east side of the peninsula. A further three blows followed soon after, and then nothing. Judging by the size and shape of the blow, and that the spray from the blow lingered for over ten seconds, I was almost certain we were watching a fin whale. Half an hour later my husband called me to say he was watching two fin whales further round the coast, undoubtedly the same animals we had just seen.

Throughout all the excitement, our original Christmas Eve humpback had established a daily routine and remained faithful to the western end of St. Mary’s Sound. Its predictable behaviour allowed anyone who wished to see a humpback whale had the pleasure of doing so, whilst also enabling local photographers to attain some remarkable images. Some of the best early photographs were captured by local birder and wildlife photographer Martin Goodey, who soon noticed that the animal was sporting a unique scar on its right side, just beneath the dorsal fin, which rather accurately resembled the Pi symbol. And so, Martin christened our new resident humpback whale, Pi. 

On Sunday 3rd January I was lucky enough to be invited on a boat trip being run by one of the local boatmen. With only 12 of us on board we idled out to Pi’s favoured area and, after only a few minutes waiting, we saw it blow. As the next hour passed, our views were completely and utterly spellbinding. I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would be on a boat, just a mile from my home, watching a humpback whale swim in the same seas that I swim in (or at least paddle in!) every day. Watching this huge animal gracefully roll out of the water with such ease was incredible and was only bettered by seeing its tail fluke rise before each deeper dive. The anticipation and excitement of not knowing when or where it was going to next come up was thrilling.

The other humpbacks and fin whales passed through and went, but as I sit here writing over two weeks on from Christmas Eve, Pi is still here. It takes a similar route each day, travelling west past Peninnis and round the Garrison, normally ending the day off the southern end of Samson. It has brought so many people together and has wrapped Scilly’s wonderful community in excitement. For so many, it has been something positive and uplifting to focus on during these strange times, and the fact we now see a humpback whale on our daily dog walk still seems rather absurd.

Everyone has been speculating why Pi has stayed with us for so long – Sheltered waters? Good feeding opportunity? Several people have even reported seeing a second, smaller blow within a few hundred meters of Pi. Is she a mother accompanied by a semi-independent calf? As of yet, nothing is certain. Either way, the large pods of common dolphins, seabird feeding frenzies, and recent movement of great whales through Scillonian waters, suggests there is plenty of food available to keep Pi with us for the foreseeable. When the time comes for Pi to leave us and continue her(?) migration, we will all be sad to say goodbye, but the incredible memories and the breath-taking photographs will last a lifetime. Hopefully, regular whale sightings from our islands will continue to increase, and is an extremely positive sign that great whale numbers are rising again.

Credit to Sanaya Skyrme 1

Photo credit: Samaya Reid