Humpback(s) Whales now in Donegal Bay

For good reason it always seems to be humpback whales off the known Cork and Kerry hotspots that make the big news stories, such as the one that featured on the main RTE news last night, but recent humpback whale sightings in Donegal Bay remind us that there may be a bigger picture…..

IWDG have in the past few days received two very interesting sighting reports of humpback whales from Donegal Bay. To give these sightings some perspective, to date in 2019 IWDG have received and validated 98 humpback whale sightings from Irish waters, of which 51 (52%) are from Co. Kerry, 42 (43%) from Co. Cork and one each from Counties Clare, Down and Antrim.  So these two Donegal Bay sightings are important records, as humpback whale sightings from this area are indeed rare events.

In fact this week’s sightings from 22nd September just west of St. John’s Pt and yesterday 24th September, some 6 nm northwest of Mullaghmore, (which can be claimed as a Sligo record), are the first records of this iconic species from Donegal/Sligo since May 2008, when Ronan Mc Laughlin observed a humpback off Ineuran Bay, Malin Head. The previous record was on 26th August 2004, which involved a female humpback that was caught in fishing gear and was found dead the next morning off Greencastle, Lough Foyle. So one could argue that this was a stranding record.  Either way, it’s been over 11 years since our last validated sighting of a humpback whale from any Donegal/Sligo waters, and so this is a great opportunity for whale watchers and wildlife enthusiasts to either spot this animal(s) in Donegal Bay from land based viewing points either from St. John’s Pt. or Mullaghmore Head.

Humpback whale lunging with common dolphins in Donegal Bay, 6 km northwest of Mullaghmore, 24 September 2019. Image courtesy Brian Fowley

Given the closeness in location and timing of these events, separated by two days and just a few miles, these may well be re-sightings of the same individual. But this is where you as citizen scientists can help.  Strong photographs taken with a camera (not a smartphone) of humpback tail fluke or dorsal fin, should help us clarify whether there is >1 humpback currently in Donegal Bay and more importantly whether it (they) can be matched to the Irish Humpback Whale catalogue, which currently contains 96 recognisable individuals.

So please spread the news, just in case this humpback(s) remain in the Donegal Bay area long enough for the current poor weather to pass.  If we knew there was still humpback activity in the bay and had a weather window, we’d be very keen to travel up to document this activity; which is clearly been driven by an abundance of prey, presumably sprat, as both sightings confirm common dolphins and blue fin tuna also foraging in the same area. Let’s hope the heavy fishing by local trawlers on these sprat, ahead of a complete ban within the 6nmls and baseline, doesn’t deplete the food resource for these whales.

In the meantime, IWDG wish to extend a huge thanks to John McKeown, Brian Fowley and Declan Kilgannon for reporting these sightings and forwarding videos and images.  Let’s hope this is not a flash in the pan and that humpback whales become a more common sight in Donegal Bay.

By Pádraig Whooley

IWDG Sightings Officer