Bowhead whale: a new species for Irish waters..update

1st Jun 2016

Report II, June 1st 2016

IWDG's yacht the Celtic Mist diverted to the Carlingford Lough area yesterday May 31st and after a search of the immediate area did not locate the bowhead whale. She then undertook a series of line transects covering both inshore and offshore waters in the area which also produced no sightings. We will continue to search for it today before the Celtic Mist continues on to Ardglass and the Isle of Man before heading south to Dublin on her circumnavigation of Ireland.

A huge thanks to those of you who have spent time in the South Down and North Louth area searching for this bowhead whale. It may show up yet. They can "apparently" be difficult enough to observe due to the absence of a dorsal fin, and they may when swimming on the surface only reveal their large head. It is also unlikely that it will attract much in the way of seabird interest, which is always a useful visual cue;  like we'd expect with more regularly seen whale species in Irish waters. This, combined with the fact that it is likely to be a juvenile with length estimates ranging from 6-8 mts length, but more recent first hand observer accounts from the sighting suggest it may be anywhere up to 12-14 mts in length.  But as it's solitary, this will make re-sightings of this small to medium size whale a real challenge; but IWDG loves a challenge. If you think you've found it, or any whale for that matter, please take any images and report it to us on and call us on Ph. 086 3850568...Good luck.

We're excited about the Celtic Mist coming into Dublin City centre early next week, to help us celebrate the 25th anniversry of Ireland's Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary declaration. Our research boat will be open to the public and we'll have IWDG volunteers and researchers on board to talk about Irish cetaceans and discuss the work of the IWDG. We hope to see you there from Tues 7th June onwards.


Report 1, May 30th 2016

For the first time in 25 years, since the IWDG was formed, we have recorded a new species to Ireland. A bowhead whale, an Arctic species, photographed and filmed in the mouth of Carlingford Harbour. What is this whale doing in Ireland, 2000 miles south of its natural habitat !

IWDG Sightings Officer, Padraig Whooley tells the story of this amazing discovery:

"on Sunday 29th May 2016 at 12:15 pm a pilot boat from Carlingford Lough Pilots Ltd. on a routine job observed, photographed and filmed a whale of unknown species just outside the Lough mouth at the Helly Hunter Rocks. They shared one of these images on Cork Whale Watch Facebook Page this morning. On viewing the image with Calvin Jones, it was clear that this was something unusual and was clearly none of the whale species we see routinely in Irish waters. But the paired nostrils at least  confirmed that it was definitely a whale, and so we could eliminate all other smaller cetacean species".

Padraig Whooley, IWDG Sightings Officer contacted Leo Cunningham of Carlingford Lough Pilots, who has kindly forwarded the IWDG additional sightings information, images and video which confirm this to be a bowhead whale Balaena mysticetus. This is a new whale species for Ireland, as the Arctic Bowhead whale has never previously been reported in Irish waters.

Species identification was confirmed through the shape of its rostrum, extremely arched jawline and white chin, plus the fact that in common with most Arctic species, bowhead whales do not have a dorsal fin and on no images or video footage is there any evidence of a dorsal fin on this individual. So IWDG is confident in confirming this new species for Ireland, bringing our species tally now to 25 species of whales, dolphins and porpoise (cetaceans). By coincidence the IWDG is currently celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary declaration, which was enacted into Irish law on the 7th June 1991. 25 species for the 25th Anniversary, nice ....

The whales was estimated at around c20ft, which is small for this species and clearly a juvenile. It also leaves open the possibility that this could be the same individual observed off Cornwall, off southwest England two weeks ago on May 15th, where it was seen hugging the shoreline. In February 2015, a bowhead was recorded off the Sciliy Islands, which makes this a remarkable recent run of sightings of this very rare species at these latitudes.

A recent email from Carl Chapman, Regional Seawatch Foundation Coordinator in the UK informed IWDG that the Cornish animal had a prominent scar on the dorsal region, which is great news in our attempot to confirm it is in fact the same beast. Many thanks Carl.

Arctic species are known to undergo "eruptions" when species move out of their "normal" range. These include occasional incursions of Walrus into Ireland. Last year we reported a Beluga from Northern Ireland, only the 3rd sighting in Irish waters and earlier this year a Narwhal was washed up in Belguim in April, the first record of this species in the low country. Are these just coincidences or they a sign of disruption in the functioning of the Arctic ecosystem ???

Celtic Mist to go in search of this new species to Ireland

The observations by the crew suggest that the whale was not travelling in any particular direction, so there is a good chance that it will remain in this area. IWDG vessel Celtic Mist was on passage from Rathlin Island to Carrickfergus before planning to head to the Isle of Man but its cruise plan has now been diverted to Carlingford to try and locate this whale. She will overnight in Carrickfergus tonight and tomorrow will head south towards the Carlingford area, where IWDG researchers will attempt to locate and gather further information on this never before seen Arctic vagrant.

This is a fantastic news story and underlines the importance of maintaining the IWDG cetacean recording schemes which monitors cetaceans in all Irish waters. We’d urge whale watchers, birders and wildlife enthusiasts along the Co. Down and Louth coasts to keep an eye out for this whale while sea watching and to report any sightings of a whale in this area as soon as possible to IWDG by clicking the “Report a Sighting” link on

You can also follow the daily blog of Celtic Mist as she circumnavigates Ireland, promoting the wealth of our marine biodiversity to coastal communities on her journey.

All images are provided courtesy of Carlingford Lough Pilots and credit: Patrick Rooney and John Morgan

by Pádraig Whooley, IWDG Sightings Officer


Note on Bowhead Whale

Bowhead whales occur circumpolar in high latitudes of the northern hemisphere. They are closely associated with ice and winter at the southern limit of the pack ice. As the ice spreads southward in autumn the whale moves south with it. It is thought they give birth and mate in the spring, producing a single calf after 13-14 month gestation and born at 3-4.5m in length. This is a small whale but its not possible to estimate its age but is a juvenile as they can grow up to 11.6-12.2m in length, with females larger than males. They feed on plankton, including Calanus copepods, which can be very abundant in Irish waters in Spring.  It is thought there are less than 10,000 bowhead whales worldwide. They live at least 100 years with some individuals estimated to be up to 200-250 years old.

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