Scientists have finally solved the mystery of the birthplace of humpback whales around Irish waters, after discovering they make a mammoth journey here from Africa of nearly 3,000 kilometres.
After 16 years of expeditions and research, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) discovered a breeding ground for Irish humpback whales in the Cape Verde islands.
It had long been suspected that the ten islands around 500 kilometres west of Senegal are a birthplace for the humpback whales around Ireland. They return here year after year, often for many months at a time.
Expeditions to the West African island in 2003, 2006, 2011 and 2012 and 2014 by the IWDG failed to identify any individual humpbacks spotted in Irish waters.
But on an excursion to one of the Cape Verde islands called Boavista in April 2019, marine biologist and IWDG Chief Executive Dr Simon Berrow photographed a humpback whale previously photographed breaching off west Kerry in 2015 by Nick Massett.
“This is the first re-sighting of an individual humpback whale from Ireland to a known breeding ground and, for the first time, locates a known breeding ground for humpback whales in Ireland”, said the IWDG.
It means the creature would have travelled nearly 5,000kms through some of the world's busiest shipping lanes to get to Ireland’s rich feeding grounds.
It is thought the humpbacks born in the tropical waters would make the journey here with their mothers at just a few months old to feed as there is much more food further north.
Humpback whales, found in every ocean in the world, are famous for their giant pectoral fins and their distinct songs which travel great distances through water. They can weigh up to 40 tons and measure between 50 and 60 feet long – about the length of a double-decker bus.
Nick Massett of Ventry, Co Kerry, who photographed the humpback whale off the Blasket Islands in 2015 said it was a fantastic outcome for the IWDG.
“It was born out of the belief that the Cape Verde Islands was the breeding ground for the humpbacks we have documented here off Ireland.
“But it is down to the dogged persistence of the expedition teams that have returned there over the years to prove the theory.
“I am delighted for Simon Berrow that he finally got the definitive proof of this connection and pleased to have played my part in documenting the animal here off County Kerry.”
Dr Berrow said this important find “comes as a relief that we finally find at least one breeding ground for Irish humpback whales”.
“It also raises issues regarding how is Ireland going to use this important finding to enhance the conservation status of this endangered humpback whale population.
Those responsible for marine conservation in Ireland will have to build relationships with, and provide assistance to, the Cape Verde government in their efforts to protect this critically important breeding ground.
The giants of the sea have been increasing in number in Irish waters off the coast since the marine organisation first started documenting them through photo-identification in 1999.
To date, 92 individual whales have been recorded from unique and permanent markings on their tail flukes and dorsal fins.
Eight out of ten of the whales have been recorded more than once in Irish waters with two-thirds recorded over five times and 14% recorded over ten times.
One whale who has become known as Boomerang has been recorded in Ireland on 48 occasions.
Many of these whales are returning each year.
“Over one-half have been recorded in more than one year, with 9% recorded in five years or more and one individual in 13 of the past 20 years”, said the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.
The researchers from the IWDG have found the whales are not just passing through Irish waters but here for weeks and often months during spring, summer and autumn.