Irish Humpbacks on the move…again!

It’s been a very interesting few weeks for humpback whale research in Irish waters, as for the first time we can recall in almost 25 years, the humpback story has had a complete shift from waters of the Irish southwest to those of the northwest. A plot of all humpback sightings on our system produces 11 validated sighting records since June 1st, 2023, (see map) and not a single one of these is from either of the two well-established hotspots in West Cork or Kerry.

All validated humpback sightings June 1st-15th, note none were received outside the northwest, Courtesy IWDG

Of course while the locations may have changed, the players remain the same, as the individuals now appearing in Donegal Bay and Broadhaven Bay, Co. Mayo are among the best known individuals currently on the Irish Humpback whale catalogue. So for instance #HBIRL24 in Donegal Bay, who may also be seem from Mullaghmore Hd., Co. Sligo (with good optics), has now been documented by IWDG on each of the past 11 years, with over 45 sightings/captures between 2013-2023. We are confident that his mother is #HBIRL17 from Nick Masset’s observations of them as a mother and calf pair back in August 2013. He’s grown a lot in the past decade!

#HBIRL24 at Slieve League, Co. Donegal 11/06/2023, © Darren Craig

#HBIRL24, Fluke ID Donegal Bay 11/06/23 with common dolphin doing its best to ruin the shot! © Darren Craig


The story is quite similiar in Broadhaven Bay, Co. Mayo where #HBIRL67 (also known as “Queen Medb” on the Irish humpback Adoption Program) has now been documented by IWDG on each of the past 8 years, over 45 sightings/captures between 2016-2023. During this recent activity she has been confirmed on eight dates in the past three weeks alone, between May 21st and June 13th on the east side of Erris Head. Interestingly, she potentially has a lot further north to go, as in early July 2022 she was photographed off Tromso in Northern Norway, well inside the Arctic circle, making her one of at least five of the Irish humpback population to be matched to Norway’s northern territories.

#HBIRL67 foraging dive, Broadhaven Bay, Mayo, 03/06/23 © Stephen Dunbar

#HBIRL67 Flukes up, Broadhaven Bay, Mayo, 03/06/23 © Tom Breathnach, IWDG

 This is a wonderful opportunity for whale watch enthusiasts living on the west and northwest to observe these magnificent mammals from both land vantage points or boats on your own local patch. That long trip down to West Cork or Kerry to see them, may soon become a thing of the past. That said, the northwest isn’t as well set up as their southwest counterparts in terms of the availability of licenced passenger boats offering whale watching trips, but it’s surely only a matter of time before this too changes and operators start adding whale watching to their portfolio of activities.
If you are going out with a boat, please just check that your skipper is aware of the Dept. of Marine Marine Notice 15, 2005 or the IWDG’s Code of Conduct, which applies to all boats actively involved in whale watching, as while we want you to see them, we are also aware of the potential to disturb them whilst they are actively feeding….and please stay on your boats, as swimming with humpback whales in Irish waters (without a filming or research permit from NPWS) is against the law; a law which is there to protect whales from disturbance and people from themselves.
This is a great news story and while of course those of us in west Cork and Kerry would love to have them back in southwest waters, this is something we have no control over as clearly these individuals and others like them are voting with their fins and seeking out fresh foraging pastures. The data suggests that this is now a trend, as each year we are seeing growing evidence of “range expansion” among the Irish cohort. However, we need to keep this in perspective as the 300-400km distance between the Blaskets to Broadhaven or Donegal Bays is little more than a short 3-4 day add-on to what is already a 4,000km+ migration from the Cabo Verde or 6,000km+ from the Carribbean breeding grounds (Irish humpbacks have been matched to both).
The IWDG “WhaleTrack Project” is delighted to be able to use our network of members, local groups and Citizen Scientists to monitor these humpbacks and track changes in how they’ve utilised our coastal waters over the past three decades, in order to better understand what their future requirements may be in the years and decades ahead.  The Irish humpback photo ID catalogue at time of writing recognises 124 individuals in Irish waters, with many of these returning regularly to our productive coastal waters. An abridged version of which is available on:
Anyone interested in learning more about IWDG’s WhaleTrack Project and the Sightings Scheme which supports it may be interested in the 2nd of this summer’s IWDG residential Whale Watching weekend courses at the CECAS Ctr. in Leap, West Cork on Sept. 22-24th. It’s filling up nicely now, but there are still spaces available for anyone who is interested in Ireland’s marine megafauna and how to observe, identify and report it.  Details on Eventbrite link below or contact us directly on details if you’d like to know more.

                    #HBIRL24 bubblenet feeding, Donegal Bay, 11/06/2023 © Brendan Quinn, IWDG

We extend a huge thanks to the local IWDG groups and members who have been monitoring this local humpback activity initially from the cliff tops, and more recently from research boats thus providing us with the all-important Photo ID data; forgive us if we’ve left anyone out here:
Mayo: Gemma O’ Connor, Tom Breathnach, Cillian O’ Mongain, Marcus Hogan, Brendan Quinn, Miguel Blasques, Stephen Dunbar, Joshua Nueva, Sean Pierce, Angela Kelly & last but not least Brian Wilson.
Donegal/Sligo:Darren Craig & Rossa Meade, Gary McCall, Michal Czubala, M. Hogan & B. Quinn
By Pádraig Whooley,
IWDG Sightings Officer
Contact Ph. 353 (0)86 3850568, e: