We find ourselves in unique circumstances with our lives on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With every day that passes there is a sense that something unpleasant is coming down the line, but the “when’s and where’s” aren’t well understood and this uncertainty is making a bad situation worse. Heck, even getting out to a headland or a coastal vantage point is now a logistical exercise akin to a horror flick, but with the zombie hordes replaced by Covid-19 carriers. Biology and ecology are it seems joining forces to remind us of just how tenuous our top position is on planet earth.
With early signs that our 2020 whale season is just around the corner, we’re wondering whether we’ll be able to get out on the water at all in the weeks and months ahead. We hear from colleagues in the Azores, Cape Verdes and the Caribbean, that the commercial whale watching boats, so important for research are all frustratingly tied up, and hope perhaps in vain that this won’t also be our fate. But for now we just have to come to terms with the fact that we’ll be doing a lot more desktop work than field work, and last night such work yielded another important discovery concerning humpback whales in Ireland.
Lindsey Jones of the College of the Atlantic in Maine, USA who curate the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue emailed to inform us that they’ve just matched a humpback photographed two weeks ago on March 10th off Boa Vista, Cape Verde with our #HBIRL78. This is an important discovery as it means that Simon Berrow’s match in April 2019 of HBIRL55, also off Boa Vista wasn’t (if you excuse the pun) a fluke !!
So the IWDG spent 16 years waiting to match an “Irish” humpback to a known breeding ground and it was really getting to the point where no matter how many fluke captures we obtained here in Ireland and threw at the North Atlantic data-set (over 11,000 flukes), the result was always the same….no match, new animal! When Simon photographed HBIRL55 off Santa Monica on April 23rd 2019, we couldn’t help wonder whether this one animal was simply an outlier, but this 2nd match with Cape Verde suggests we were right to invest our time and energy into this archipelago.
Ironically too, its during the period the IWDG sponsored an Irish scientist to join the local team on Boa Vista for this season to assist in their photo-id work. John Collins had to recently return to Ireland and is in self-isolation, but you can read of some of his adventures at https://iwdg.ie/the-view-from-cabo-verde/. Alas, with the Cape Verdes having shut down any whale watching and very little chance of further fieldwork this breeding season, we may have to wait till 2021 to find further matches to this West African breeding area.
So our #HBIRL78 was initially photographed from the MV Rebecca C skippered by Martin Colfer (RIP) on 4th Jan 2017, 3 miles southeast of the Hook, Co. Wexford. Four days later our own Andrew Malcolm was out with Martin and secured a further strong suite of images of this individual, one of which was of a full breach (see image at end). Then 10 months later, in same year but the following whale season, Rónán McLaughlin, then Command Officer of the Irish Naval Service vessel LÉ Orla, obtained further images east of the Old Head of Kinsale, Co. Cork, on 2nd Nov 2017 and although there were no flukes, the strong dorsal fin shots (below) were sufficient to confirm this to be a re-sighting of #HBIRL78.
I was just chatting to Rónán this morning from his home in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the UK to give him the good news, he recalled the day very well. They were on firing manoeuvres off the Old Head of Kinsale and were just about to commence a live fire exercise, when he spotted a minke whale close to the vessel, and in following with protocol he put out a call of “CHECK, CHECK, CHECK” on the ship tannoy, which in layman’s terms means everything must cease immediately. He was glad he did, as a further sweep of the area with his binoculars produced sightings of at least three humpbacks, among which were “Boomerang” (#HBIRL3) and #HBIRL78.
It’s always nice to learn of the movements of our humpback whales, especially long range matches that link them to breeding areas. #HBIRL78 may still be in the waters of Sal Rei Bay, Boa Vista, looking to mate or give birth, and if this is the case, it still has a long 4,250 km northbound journey ahead of it. It could of course have completed it’s reproductive mission, in which case it may be little more than a few weeks away from finding itself within scoping range of our southwest headlands.
Whether of course we’ll be able to get out on boats to photograph it when it does return will be down to a much smaller and far less welcome organism. But given the current Covid-19 environment, I can think of nothing better for body, soul or mind, than to sit on a headland for a few hours and try to spot our returning humpbacks.
A few small weather windows in recent days have given Nick Massett in West Kerry an opportunity to carry out some land-based effort watches off Slea Head, and on each watch he has observed at least one minke whale. So it’s fair to say that our whale watch season is almost upon us. If you are fortunate enough to observe whales or dolphins in the season ahead please report your observations directly to IWDG using the Report a Sighting link on www.iwdg.ie
As always huge thanks to our collaborators and contributors at the Allied Whale (NAHBC) and Bios.CV, John Burke, Andrew Malcolm & Rónán Mc Laughlin
By Pádraig Whooley, IWDG Sightings Officer