White humpback off Azores, and a season first for Ireland

White whales are for some, the most mythical of creatures; they are the Holy Grail of whale watching.  For the very few fortunate enough to witness such a rarely seen animal, it’s likely to be a transformative experience.

So what do we know of this anonymously pigmented or leucistic humpback whale?  Well to start with, its sighting history suggests it is at least 20 years of age, and so it is an adult.  We also know its gender, as it was biopsied in the Barents Sea off Northern Norway in 2018.  It’s male.  So we know it’s species, age class, gender and unique reference number MN0102168 (allocated by Happy Whale in 2012). But we also know it is white….in fact pure white, and so, unlike any other humpback in the North Atlantic, this individual will stand out, in much the same way an iceberg would be difficult to miss in Irish waters.

Trying to piece together the sighting history of this individual isn’t straight forward, but the first documented white humpback was off Finnmark in Northern Norway in 2004.  Unfortunately, there were no images from this encounter. Then there is an eight year gap until 2012 when a white humpback, presumably the same individual, was photographed in the Northern Norwegian territory of Svalbard and matched by Happywhale ID: HW-MN0102168 . The next sighting puts it off French Guadeloupe in the Caribbean breeding ground in April 2015. In September 2018 it was photographed back up in the Barents Sea northern Norway by Audun Rikardsen during a whale research expedition out of Tromso. It was then captured again down in Guadeloupe during the breeding seasons of 2019 (May) and 2020 (April). This most recent sighting north of Faial, Azores on 16th April 2021 (image above), leaves us with more questions than answers…was it southbound for the Caribbean or northbound post breeding season en route to higher latitudes, presumably in Northern Norway?

The most recent sighting on Saturday provided no insight as to which direction it was travelling, but as the Azores are still c. 4,000km from Guadeloupe it would seem to be leaving things rather late if it’s to have any breeding success this year.  Of course, we can’t rule out the possibility that it’s already been and left the breeding grounds early and is tracking north. We’ll never really know.

But we do know that this morning Wednesday 20th April IWDG validated our first humpbacks of the 2022 field season, which is very much in keeping with our first records in recent years.  This encounter as is often the case was courtesy of Colin Barnes on a regular Cork Whale Watch trip out from Reen Pier, during which he had two humpbacks a few miles apart, 15-20 minke whales, 6-7 basking sharks and 100’s of common dolphin. Another very small humpback reported by Micheal Cottrell of Baltimore Sea Safari near the harbour entrance may have been one of this pair?  So the 2022 humpback season has clearly begun. Fluke ID shots obtained by Colin’s partner, confirm the humpback they connected with today was #HBIRL91, making this the 9th record of this individual since it was first documented in West Cork in July 2018.  Interestingly, this whale has never been seen outside of west Cork, and its arrival date, like so many others, seems to be getting earlier each year, with the following dates of 1st sighting: 11 July 2018, 3 May 2019, 27 April 2021 & 20 April 2022.

HBIRL91, Deep Hole, W Cork 20/04/2022, C. Barnes, CWW

Based on the known sighting history of this white humpback, who is being called the Migaloo of the North, it seems his preference is to feed in Northern Norway and to breed in the Carribbean, where we have yet to match any of our “Irish” humpbacks…thus far!  So the odds of an encounter with this individual in Irish coastal waters are slim, given that we’ve only matched two of our humpbacks (#HBIRL 07 & 43) to Norway and all six of our matches to a breeding ground are to the Cabo Verde.  But as Irish whale watchers, we are eternal optimists and if the sight of a pure white humpback whale doesn’t encourage you to spend more time watching and recording, then nothing will. Who knows, there may well be more than just one white humpback whale out there?

This graphic, courtesy of IWDG, shows all overseas matches among the 116 known “Irish “ humpbacks thus far.  It’ll be interesting to see what this number will be at the end of the 2022 season, and whether among them, there will be a white whale?

Known Int’l matches of “Irish” humpbacks courtesy IWDG

By Pádraig Whooley, IWDG Sightings Officer