One humpback whale, 3 countries, 5 catalogues and one great story.

Our social media team in December were struggling to fill the #11 spot on our “Twelve Days of Christmas” series on the IWDG Facebook page, and then I remembered our famous Wexford whale “Hookie”, #11 on the Irish Humpback whale catalogue, dating back to Jan-Feb 2010, whom in Feb. 2023 our friends at Sea of Whales Adventures in Newfoundland matched over multiple dates between Jun-Aug. in 2018 & 2021 in their area. This was indeed an important discovery as it was not only our first Ireland-Canada match, but it was the first match from any humpback from either Ireland or Britain to North America.

So it was decided to run with this post on Jan 4th and once it was live I tagged our friends at Sea of Whales Adventures on the far side of the pond and this one act seems to have triggered a sequence of events, that has resulted in an even more astonishing discovery. But to tell the story fully we need to go back to early Dec. 2023 when we were approached by Andrew Stevenson of Whales Bermuda, with a request for access to the Irish humpback catalogue.  Given their geography and the fact that Andrew and his team have over the past 18 years collected over 2,100 fluke IDs from Bermuda’s warm waters, how could we refuse?

They did an initial run through and perhaps not surprisingly, there were no matches. You have to remember that we perhaps over-egg  the importance of our own catalogue, but it’s still a small catalogue, reflecting the low numbers of humpbacks visiting our inshore feeding hotspots. So it would have been remarkable, given our low numbers (n=126), had Andrew matched any of our “Irish” humpbacks to Bermuda.  No sleep lost and at least the Bermuda team have the Irish catalogue which they can dip into as and when they find a whale that seems to look like one of ours. The process of making overseas matches is more marathon than sprint.

But Andrew had another secret weapon in his arsenal that came in the shape of a French birder/naturalist called Roger Etcheberry from St. Pierre et Miquelon, which is to be exact a French territory off Newfoundland, a series of small islands on the south coast of Newfoundland.  Just Google it! Andrew asked our permission to share our catalogue with Roger, who is something of a wizard at matching flukes as he had a certain advantage over us mere mortals and any AI matching software known…..Roger has a photographic memory and simply doesn’t forget a fluke image, no matter how far back it goes. Again, how could we say “Non”.

Known locations to date where HBIRL11 “Hookie” has been recorded in the North Atlantic.

So when we tagged Sea of Whales in Newfoundland on our “Twelve days of Christmas” post on HBIRL11 or “Hookie”, they shared it with their French neighbour (Roger) on the other side of Newfoundland and this triggered his curiosity, as he had been given access to our catalogue and the rest as they say is history.  Roger soon found Hookie’s fluke matching to several dates June- July 2013 off St Pierre et Miquelon, but more importantly he also matched the fluke to a sighting by the Whales Bermuda team to the Challenger Bank on the southwest edge of the Bermuda platform on 2nd Jan 2015.


So this latest development means we’ve now matched #HBIRL11 from Hook Head, Co. Wexford to both the Canadian Maritimes and Bermuda and strictly speaking I guess we could include France, given that St. Pierre et Maquelon is French territory!  My initial reaction to this news was that this surely gave us our 3rd Irish link to the Caribbean breeding area, and this is where Andrew had to halt my gallop a little, as he pointed out that Bermuda is NOT the Caribbean but “in the North Atlantic some 900 miles to the east of North Carolina” and some 1,400 km to the NE of any known Caribbean breeding area. But given its location and their matches to date it’s a reasonable assumption that an Irish humpback that has now been photographed at multiple sites on the northwest Atlantic is far more likely to be a Caribbean breeder than from the Cabo Verde population. So the score at time of writng is Caribbean 3 (#HBIRL06, 11 & 15), Cabo Verde 8 (#HBIRL 44, 55, 59, 73, 77, 78, 83 & 84). It’ll be interesting to see as the 2024 breeding season approaches whether these numbers change in any significant way.

But my take home lesson from all of this is to never underestimate the power of either social media tags or the “Twelve days of Christmas”.

There is as I type at least half a dozen fin whales off the Helvic Head area of Waterford and some reports are suggesting a whale in the area that is on occasion breaching……dare we speculate that this is HBIRL11 returning to his old haunts where we first saw him 14 years ago off Hook Head.

Fluke IDs from Ireland (2010), Canadian & French Newfoundland (2013 & 2018), & Bermuda (2015)…some easier than others to match!

By Pádraig Whooley, IWDG Sightings Officer.

This article is available as a podcast in the IWDG Listening Space.