Hunting for humpbacks

All eyes look outward, trying to catch a glimpse'Picture by Karl Hansell
All eyes look outward, trying to catch a glimpse'Picture by Karl Hansell
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“THERE was just this explosion of water”, said Bryan Clarkson, recalling a close encounter with a humpback whale, just five miles off the Whitby coastline.

On land, where badgers are the largest indigenous carnivores, it’s difficult to imagine whales the size of buses slipping silently past, almost unnoticed by those who live on shore.

"Whale" is the cry as the first minke is spotted'Picture by Karl Hansell

"Whale" is the cry as the first minke is spotted'Picture by Karl Hansell

Rumours of huge whales within sight of Whitby’s piers have brought me out to sea on a calm and clear Friday evening in late October with a group of eager whalewatchers.

On board the Esk Belle III we head out from Whitby, steaming to a spot around five miles off Staithes, where just that morning Bryan had encountered whales and dolphin.

“When it’s good weather I want to be out here,” he said. “You wait so long for a fine day that I can’t just let a good day go past.”

Almost immediately the wildlife begins to appear, with puffins displaying their brightly-coloured beaks or black-backed and fulmer gulls bobbing on the surface.

Alan Roe keeps watch from the Esk Belle's upper deck'Picture by Karl Hansell

Alan Roe keeps watch from the Esk Belle's upper deck'Picture by Karl Hansell

After just 10 minutes we catch a glimpse of our first sea mammals. Harbour porpoises often frequent estuaries and harbours, but in doing so put themselves at risk as they are susceptible to pollution and injury by vessels.

These two-metre animals are close relatives of dolphins but we are searching for humpbacks.

Until recently reports of these whales were dismissed as misidentified minke or pilot whales, but recent encounters have confirmed their presence in our waters.

In August a juvenile humpback was caught on camera by anglers aboard Paul Kilpatrick’s Sea Otter 2. Other boat-users, including Staithes skipper Sean Baxter of All My Sons, have snapped pictures of the rare baleen whales.

A minke whale arches its back in anticipation of a deep dive'Picture by Alan Roe

A minke whale arches its back in anticipation of a deep dive'Picture by Alan Roe

Famous for their hypnotic songs and the awe-inspiring sight of them leaping out of the air, humpbacks became the posterchild of the anti-whaling movement. They were hunted to the brink of extinction, but now an estimated 80,000 exist in the wild.

Their arrival in our waters is also encouraging for those who have been monitoring the recovery of populations of herring and other fish. With each humpback eating over two tonnes a day, a healthy fish population must be present.

Since herring fishing was banned in 1978, the species has recovered steadily. Recently Bryan has seen shoals of herring over a mile long and 170 metres deep.

Whales hunt herring by diving below the shoal and forcing them to the surface by blowing out a curtain of bubbles. This technique attracts other animals who seek to take advantage of the concentration of food. The tell-tale splash of gannets diving in to the water at up to 100kmh is a sign that herring are at the surface. Suddenly, either by design or due to drifting on the tide, we find ourselves at the centre of all the commotion.

A minke whale (left) and a smaller humpback, most probably a juvenile, beside it'Picture by Alan Roe

A minke whale (left) and a smaller humpback, most probably a juvenile, beside it'Picture by Alan Roe

The whales are here, but we haven’t spotted them yet.

Instead seals stare back at us and a container ship, Orion, steams past on its way north. The same direction the whales are heading as they make their way to winter feeding grounds.

Each small ripple plays a trick with your eyes and from a distance the small dark triangular outline of a bird sat on the water resembles a dorsal fin.

But when it finally happens the sight is unmistakable. Within sight of the chimneys at Boulby mine a huge curving back, punctuated with a small dorsal fin, rises out of the water, before sinking back beneath the surface.

“Whale”, the occupants of the boat cry, pointing off to starboard and letting out a cheer.

A pod of minke whales have arrived on the scene, feasting on the herring as they enjoy an early-evening meal.

A humpback whale with its distinctive 'blow' as it exhales'Alan Roe

A humpback whale with its distinctive 'blow' as it exhales'Alan Roe

A smaller cousin of the humpbacks, minke whales regularly frequent our coastline and one glimpse is quickly followed by another until you realise you are surrounded by an entire family of whales.

“This is typical of whalewatching,” said Bryan. “You tear your eyes looking into the distance and suddenly one almost take out the side of the boat.”

After half an hour with the animals, punctuated by short lulls following a breach that sees the animal’s back arch high into the air as it prepares for a deeper dive.

But it isn’t enough for Bryan, who harbours a deep love for the humpbacks: “I want to see humpbacks. I know they are here. “Once you’ve seen them out the water you’re wrecked, you want to see them out the water all the time.”

But as the sun sets over Runswick Bay there is no sign of humpbacks. The puffins, gannets and gulls have headed back to shore to roost, while the seals float prostrate on the surface after gorging themselves fat on fish in preparation of the lean winter ahead.

So we head back to port, disappointed and cold in the early autumn air. While the table was set and many of the supporting acts were present, the guest of honour chose not to appear, but as Bryan said: “There are no guarantees in nature.”

Other visitors are luckier and just the next day a group of whalewatchers, led again by Bryan Clarkson, spot humpbacks in all their glory, breaching out of the water and thrashing their tails in a mysterious gesture. Huge creatures, not stranded or lost, but comfortable in a healthy environment which they have chosen to frequent.

For a YouTube video by Alan Roe of a humpback slapping its tail into the water near Whitby visit: http://tinyurl.com/9qc7xkb

To report a whale or dolphin sighting contact robin@dolphinspotter.co.uk

Seals check out the whalewatchers'Picture by Alan Roe

Seals check out the whalewatchers'Picture by Alan Roe