Baby whale’s remarkable journey stuns researchers

A 1,200KM JOURNEY by a baby humpback whale through treacherous waters is at the centre of a discovery that has Irish and Dutch whale researchers leaping for joy.

The recently weaned young whale, first photographed by Dutch scientists in the Wadden Sea off the Netherlands on May 10 last, made its way from the North Sea, through the English Channel, and across the Celtic Sea before arriving off west Cork just over a month ago.

It was also photographed on September 28 by an Irish Whale & Dolphin Group researcher on a whale-watching trip with skipper Colin Barnes.

However, neither set of researchers realised they had a match until Wouter-Jan Strietman of the North Sea Foundation in the Netherlands spotted Conor Ryan’s whale images on the website of the IWDG, an organisation that co-ordinates Irish whale and dolphin sightings and strandings.

“This is the first time the movement of a humpback whale has been tracked within European waters,” said a delighted Dr Simon Berrow of the IWDG.

“Sightings of humpback whales are not common off either country, so the match is all the more surprising.”

Padraig Whooley, sightings co-ordinator, agreed.

“Paddy Power wouldn’t have given us any money on this happening.

“It is truly remarkable. Normally you would expect a young whale to remain dependant on its mother for feeding, but he struck out on his own.”

The juvenile humpback, around 16ft-18ft in length, would have had to navigate some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world to make the journey.

Humpback whale sightings, though still a rare occurrence in Irish waters compared to minke and fin whale sightings, have contributed to a fledgling whale-watching industry springing up along the south coast in recent years.

“Recent weeks have seen bumper sightings of between eight and 10 fin whales in west Cork inshore waters,” said Mr Whooley.

Dr Berrow said: “These giants can reach lengths of 60ft-75ft and are second only in size to the blue whale.

“Given reasonable weather conditions, and a good pair of binoculars, fin whale ‘blows’ may be seen with relative ease from watch sites in Courtmacsherry, Clonakilty and Rosscarbery Bay area.

“Since humpback whales were given full protection from commercial whaling there has been an increase in sightings throughout European waters, reflecting that their population is steadily increasing and individuals may be re-colonising areas they used to occur in, or colonising new areas.”

This is the first match of an individual humpback whale moving in European waters and is regarded as an important scientific finding for understanding humpback whale movements around the north-east Atlantic.

* For the latest information on the 24 species of whale and dolphins recorded in all Irish waters, visit www.iwdg.ie

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