125 Individual Humpback Whales recorded in Ireland [March 2023]
Humpback Whale splashing Dingle Bay, Co. Kerry 04.03.2023
Humpback Whale breaching West Kerry 04.03.2023
Some facts about Humpback Whales
125 different individual Humpback Whales now recorded in Ireland [March 2023]
Since the IWDG [Irish Whale and Dolphin Group] first began cataloguing sightings of whales in Irish waters for the Irish Humpback Whale Catalogue back in 1999 ( twenty-four years ago ) 125 different individual Humpback Whales have now been positively photo-identified, averaging five new individuals per year, and five new individual humpback whales have already been identified so far this year off the West Kerry coast!
As more and more data comes in from enthusiastic spotters and recorders and photo-identifiers on both sides of the North Atlantic, a very dynamic picture is emerging of the life-histories and ecology of humpback whales recorded in Irish waters whose north / south range includes the Svalbard archipelago in the far north of Norway in the High Arctic (81º N Latitude) to Boa Vista, Cabo Verde archipelago of islands off the west coast of Africa lying between 14º N and 18º N ; and their east / west range extends as far east as Texel (4.5º E Longitude) - one of the West Frisian islands in the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands - and off Murmansk (33º E Longitude), Kola Bay in the Barents Sea in far north-western Russia and as far west as the Silver Banks (69.4º W Longitude) off the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean and also off the Bonavista Peninsula ( 53.6º W Longitude), Newfoundland, Canada. *
That is a nice large playground / breeding ground [Cape Verde Islands, Africa and Silver Banks, Caribbean] and feeding grounds [High Arctic Norway and Russia; West Greenland, Iceland and west coast of Norway; Scotland and Ireland (Spring / Summer) and Newfoundland, Canada (Summer) for our "Irish" Humpback whales. They are truly international and inter-continental travellers!
Each individual Humpback Whale has his [her / their] own Tale to Tell.
There are humpback tails (called flukes) and humpback tales (stories / life histories) and both are intrinsically connected. Apart from an experienced observer being able to identify by sight, a calf, juvenile, immature, sub-adult and adult individual whale, it is difficult to identify immature and sub-adult males from females - apart from the breeding grounds where behavioural sexual traits are obvious, and DNA analysis.
But there is an easy way to identify individual humpback whales and that is by the individually distinctive and characteristic combinations of black and white pigmentation and unique patterns on the underside (ventral surface) of the tail fluke which would have the same diagnostic relevance as fingerprints have for humans. The only problem is that you have to wait for the humpback to raise his tail (!) - usually before a deep dive or "sounding" - and get a good enough photo with enough pixels to magnify the image and trace the unique pigmentation patterns and then enter the photographic record with the IWDG who also work closely with the NAHWC [North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue] which is administered by Allied Whale, College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbour, Maine, U.S.A. who have more than 11,000 individual whale flukes photo-identified on their catalogue, including location and date spotted / identified. Also, HappyWhale is an open-source citizen-scientist whale recording forum, with 16 collaborating research partners who "use state-of-the-art image processing algorithms to match whale photos with scientific collections (worldwide).This newly developed efficiency now makes global whale tracking more possible than ever"
With this identification process, and individual numbers assigned to all "new" humpback whales photo-identified, it is possible to log multi-annual re-sightings and also record sightings of the same individual(s) on both sides of the North Atlantic and also in the high and low latitudes. Over the years - 24 years in the case of the IWDG Irish Humpback Whale Catalogue - it is now possible to begin to trace annual movements of whales to and from the feeding grounds and the breeding grounds and this research is the first step in establishing, on a scientific basis, the ecology of the humpback whale in the North Atlantic and the basis for protecting its habitat, food resources and migratory routes.
Unfortunately, despite claims to the contrary by both State and environmental NGO sources, it is at home - in Irish inshore waters - that the habitat of the humpback whale is least protected with the indiscriminate, unsustainable, industrial-scale fishing of the non-quota species Sprattus sprattus (sprat) which is the main food resource of the Humpback Whale in Irish waters and the reason for its presence here, and without the protection of which - as an additional protected species under the Irish Wildlife Act as amended (like the salmon, silver eel and basking shark) - or, at the very least, assigned a sustainable and supervised fishing quota - Humpback whales will no longer continue to frequent our shores and yet again our national wildlife regime and laws will be shown to be totally inadequate when opposed by the few but powerful interests of Big Fishing and Big Farming.
But it is always best to start a story at the beginning, so to get back to our story of HBIRL001 and HBIRL002 and HBIRL 003 ("Boomerang") our most famous trio of Irish Humpback Whales .............................................
HBIRL001 and HBIRL002 and HBIRL003 ("Boomerang")
These three humpback whales were first identified on September 15th, 1999 between two gas platforms in the Kinsale Gas Field, Co. Cork, S.W. Ireland by Eoin O'Mahony, the Chief Officer of the supply ship M.V. "Seahorse Supporter". He managed to get video footage of the animals with an old style camcorder and this subsequently became the basis for the creation of the Irish Humpback Whale Catalogue which to date has 125 different individual humpback whales identified, with the latest five - HBIRL121; HBIRL122; HBIRL123; HBIRL124; HBIRL125 - photo-identified this month, on March 4th, 2023 in St. Fionán's Bay (1); Ballinskelligs Bay (1); Kenmare Bay (2) and Dingle Bay (1), West Kerry.
This is how Eoin described his first encounter with the humpback whales back in 1999 which conveys in simple and unique terms the sense of wonder and excitement on ones first encounter with a humpback whale.
"I felt like one of David Attenborough's camera men at this stage. with the peculiar boiled-broccoli smell of their spent air every time one of the whales would blow. After about 30 minutes one of them "spy-hopped". That is, to take a look around above sea level".
These two whales were further re-identified in 2001; 2004; 2008; 2012 around the same area and on September 18th, 2019 - twenty years almost to the day when they were first identified off Kinsale, Co. Cork - they were identified west of the Blasket Islands, Co. Kerry on an exploratory scientific trip by members of the IWDG including Dr. Simon Berrow. There were other whales in the area at the time and HBIRL003 ("Boomerang") may or may not have been there also.
So they survived together all those years and the various hazards of the ocean, to still swim together off the coasts of West Cork and West Kerry, usually in the fall of the year [September / October / November] when sprat stocks are usually plentiful enough for them to feed and build up their fat reserves before making the trans-oceanic journey to the breeding grounds where they will not eat for up to 2 months while engaging in all the active and well recorded behaviour of mature adult humpback whales and only those with the best conditioning will have the best chance of reproductive success.
THE SONG OF THE HUMPBACK WHALE
In the case of an adult female humpback whale, breeding success involves finding a primary "escort" on the breeding grounds who "shadows" the female while various other secondary escorts compete with each other and the primary escort for access to the female. These competitions involve a fair amount of jostling, butting, tail slapping, breaching and occasionally taking part in a boisterous race - often instigated by the female - to weed out the weaker competition or attract other vigorous competitors apart from the original escort group. The competition for sexual favours from the female also involves singing and the female can judge the suitability of her male suitors from the prowess and variety of the male singing which it is believed has the power to bring the female into oestrus. The successful suitor then accompanies the female humpback whale in a mutually enveloping deep dive where the next generation of humpback whale is conceived which the female will gestate for about 11.5 months.
When we think of animals singing, either to declare a territory and / or attract the opposite sex, we invariably think of birds - like a robin - who are actually the last remaining descendants of the Pterosaurs - (winged) dinosaurs. Just think for a moment, the rather gruesome thought, of a featherless, fully plucked bird like a cormorant or a vulture or even a farmyard hen walking around the farmyard plucked of feathers and "naked" and you can see the type of lineage they represent. [While you are thus engaged in a thought experiment , just think of a group of humans, undressed and trundling along naked through a forest or arboreal setting (while there are still some left) and the ancestral, evolutionary lineage from chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas is easy to recognise]. The thought of a mature adult bull humpback whale, weighing approx. 40 tons singing underwater to a mature adult female humpback whale weighing approx. 50 tons (depending on her reproductive maturity status) may seem a bit incongruous - and especially so having such a strong effect on the female (!) - but it really depends on what your idea of "singing" is.
For cetaceans, "singing" is just part of their vocalisation which is used for many purposes including echo location, stunning small fish and prey, communication over long distances, warnings to other male humpbacks and other intruders and aggressors to stay away, and also unique songs and dialects within humpback whale clans to identify each other, as well as seductive songs on the breeding grounds to attract females. This is no mean evolutionary achievement for an animal that evolved about 34 million years ago from a land based, hippopotamus-like animal about the size of a small deer.. To draw a similar analogy to the unfortunate (plucked) farmyard hen above, if the reader ever stood outside a cow house in the early morning, when the ground is still glistening silver with early morning hoar frost, listening to the cows lowing as they wait for their feed or to be milked, the sound that they make has an uncanny and extraordinary resemblance to some of the sounds made by cetaceans underwater, as picked up using hydrophone. It just all goes to show how connected we all are as species. **
If the humpback whales presently frequenting Irish waters have adequate food resources of sprat and juvenile herring in West Kerry and West Cork, they have a very good chance of having a successful breeding season in the breeding grounds and the females returning with a calf eleven to twelve months after the peak ovulation / breeding period in January and February. They bring their calves back to where their mothers brought them - in this case the lovely shores of West Cork and West Kerry - and their calves in turn will bring their own calves back, when they are mature enough to breed, between 5 - 7 years, and adult female humpback whales usually have one calf every 2 -3 years. But they will only keep returning as long as there is an adequate food resource - sprat - for their needs after their long and dangerous journey from either the Cape Verde islands off the west coast of Africa and / or from the Silver Banks (70miles) off the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean.
For this reason alone, it is imperative to preserve, conserve and protect from exploitation, our invaluable sprat and sand eel stocks for future generations of these wonderful animals, that always inspire joy and wonder in the beholder.
HBIRL003 - "Boomerang" - a returning visitor to Irish Inshore Waters.
Perhaps the most famous individual on the Irish Humpback Whale Catalogue is humpback whale number HBIRL003 who has earned the nickname "Boomerang" as he has been sighted now for 15 different years off the SW coast of Ireland and was probably here on other years when he was not identified, as only a percentage [50% (?)] of humpback whales in Irish waters are actually positively identified every year and the rest go unnoticed and / or unrecorded and their individual tales and life stories untold.
He was probably one of the original trios first sighted in the Kinsale Gas field area in West Cork in September, 1999 and was positively identified in 2001. He is an easily identifiable humpback whale because, apart from his unique ventral (underside of fluke) pigmentation pattern, he also has a distinctly damaged dorsal fin which has healed slowly over the years but is still distinctive enough to recognise him and he also has the remains of a bite mark on his right tail fluke. He was the first humpback whale to be biopsied by Dr. Simon Berrow of the IWDG under licence from the NPWS [National Parks and Wildlife Service] and was identified as a male from DNA skin samples.
Over the years since he was first identified he has obviously grown bigger and is well known to like the company of fin whales, especially off the coasts of Cork and Waterford, as they pursue inshore shoals of sprat and herring. he is known to have a very tall, strong "blow" for a humpback whale and as a result, on occasions , has been mistaken for a fin whale. He regularly makes the newspapers and journals whenever he makes his annual appearances and there is a statue of a whale fluke in front of the whiskey distillery in the local village of Clonakilty, West Cork commemorating the regular presence of "Boomerang" and some of his friends and companions, who can often be seen from the headland of nearby Galley Head.
Irish Humpback Whale number HBIRL017 - "Charlie"
Each one of the 125 humpback whales on the Irish Humpback Whale Catalogue has his (her / their) own tale to tell and as we get more data about them from repeated sightings at various times of the year and in various parts of their range, we can build up a clearer picture of their ecology and relationships with other whales .In general humpback whales do not appear to be monogamous and "the ballroom of romance" in the breeding grounds appears to be based on maximum chance of breeding success and optimum sperm count. The gestation period is 11.5 months and the baby whale (calf) is weaned for approximately 6 months and stays beside the mother for up to one year. During this time the mother whale will try and protect the juvenile whale from predators like Killer whales and show the young calf the route to the familial feeding grounds. Once this period is over, the young calf begins to associate with other juveniles and sub-adults and will do so for a number of years until sexual maturity is reached - about 5 years for females and 7 years for males - when they will retrace the route they took with their mother as calves, in reverse, and head for the traditional breeding grounds. Breeding success is probably not achieved in the first season, especially for males - except by stealth or opportunism - but this will incentivise them to prepare better for the next breeding season by building up body condition which is achieved by access to plentiful supplies of sand eels and sprat - the food of humpback whales.
Just as whale watching tour operators in West Cork have a special affinity for "Boomerang" because of his regular multi-annual appearances there, we have a special affinity for HBIRL017 here in West Kerry as it was the first humpback whale that Blasket Islands Eco Marine Tours got a positive Id for on an evening trip on July 22nd, 2011 with scientist Dr. Conor Ryan on board (then a PhD student) who was looking to get skin and blubber samples (biopsy) from a live humpback whale - under licence from NPWS.
Luckily, we found our whale, west of Inishvickillaun and Foze Rock, the furthest west of the Blaskets, and after we got our id shot and sample of skin and blubber from crossbow shot with blunt hollow suction cup projectile, we decided to call that whale "Charlie" in honour of the owner of Inishvickillaun island - the former Taoiseach [Prime Minister] of Ireland - Charles J. Haughey - who was universally known as "Charlie" by both friends and political opponents. As far as whales are concerned, he was a true friend of the whale, and created a Sanctuary for Whales and Dolphins in Ireland out to the 12 mile territorial limit.
Dr. Conor Ryan got his biopsy sample for his scientific thesis called "On the Ecology of Rorqual Whales (Balaenopteridae) in Irish Waters using Intrinsic Markers" which basically analysed stable isotopes found in skin and blubber tissue to sex humpbacks, and give details of their diet and geographical movements. This showed that humpback whales in Irish inshore waters mainly have a diet of sprat and juvenile herring but unfortunately it also showed that "Charlie" was a "she" and not a "he" (!) but we eventually came to terms with his analysis and although HBIRL017 has not been spotted here for a number of years, we have anecdotal evidence (not publicly verified or released yet) that she may be one of two "Irish" humpback whales recently identified as being on holidays on the Silver Banks off the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean and we live in hope that the next time that we see "Charlie" west of the Blaskets, that she may be accompanied by a young calf. What a reincarnation for Charlie!
Such are just a few of the exciting tales of the lives of individual Humpback Whales in Irish Waters.
* The range of the humpback whales identified off Ireland above, includes a north / south range from Svalbard, Norway to Cabo Verde islands, West Africa of approx. 67º of Latitude in total, which equates to approx. 7,437 km [4,621 miles] at 111km (69 miles) per degree of Latitude [Because the earth is slightly elliptical rather than perfectly spherical, the distance for one degree of Latitude is 110.567 Km at the equator and 111.699 Km at the poles with mean distance of 111.133 Km between every degree of Latitude].
The east / west range from Murmansk, Russia to Silver Banks, Dominican Republic is a total of 102º of Longitude [from 033º Longitude E of Greenwich to 069º W of Greenwich] which equates to 5,565 km [3,458 miles] at average 55.66 km per degree of Longitude [ Distance between two Longitudes is 111.321 km. at the equator (same as the distance between lines of Latitude) and 0 km. at the poles, with mean of 55.66 km taken for transverse migratory north /south path].
Humpback whales take on average about one month to go from the feeding grounds to the breeding grounds and one month to come back (at average speed of 8 kt.) and spend about one month there and rarely eat during this period, so adequate feeding resources at their feeding grounds - e.g. West Kerry and West Cork - so that they can build up their fat reserves, is essential for their survival and successful breeding and reproduction.
** In the taxonomy system of nomenclature, modern humans (last 300,000 years) are classified as the sub species Homo sapiens sapiens, in the Family Hominidae [chimpanzees (2), gorillas (2), orangutans (2) and humans (1 remaining species)] of the Order Primates [animals having five digits on hands and feet with opposable thumbs (thumbs on hands only in humans), and enhanced stereoscopic vision in lieu of olfactory capability and enlarged cerebrum section of the brain, especially in modern humans], in the Class Mammalia (have hair and milk glands), of the Phylum Chordata (with a backbone) in the Kingdom Animalia (capable of auto-locomotion), in the Domain Eukarya [all living organisms having cell(s) with a nucleus (from the Greek words for "good" or "proper" and "nut"), apart from the other two Domains of (cellular) Life - Bacteria and Archaea *** which have no proper nucleus in the cell.
***Archaea (from the Greek word for "ancient") originate from the twilight of primitive organic life on earth and are the original "extremeophiles" capable of living in extreme environments like hot, deep-sea hydrothermal vents and chimneys; underwater cold vents - "cold" only relative to hot hydrothermal vents, with hydrocarbon-rich fluid like sulphide and methane seeping through the surface, creating a temporary, diverse mosaic of life based on chemosynthetic activity; hypersaline and sulphuric conditions; acidic lakes and springs and even in the deep earth, and archaea do not need sunlight or photosynthesis to obtain energy, which they can get from carbon dioxide, sulphur, methane etc.
Photosynthesis uses solar energy to turn carbon dioxide and water into food (sugar) and oxygen as in the formula;
CO2 + 6H2 O > C6H12O6 + 6O2
Chemosynthesis, on the other hand does not need sunlight or solar energy and uses energy released by (different) inorganic chemical reactions to make food (sugar) e.g. at hydrothermal vents (chimneys) bacteria oxidize hydrogen sulphide, add carbon dioxide and oxygen and produce sugar, sulphur and water as in the formula:
CO2 + 4H2S + O2 > CH2O + 4S + 3H2O
Archaea are very versatile and can use different chemical pathways to produce food (sugar) and create different, diverse organic communities.
They are more than likely the first instigators of all organic life on earth, their primordial chemistry, triggered by external environmental factors, initiating a biochemical network and evolution that led all the way to us. When / if all other organic life disappears from the surface of the earth they will more than likely remain as a repository for new life forms to emerge. Also, more than likely, they exist on other stars, planets, meteorites, comets and in interstellar gas and dust clouds from which organic life originated. We truly all come from star-dust whether archaea, whales or humans and hopefully, eventually, we will all return to there..................................................
In the amusement park that comprises organic life on earth, Archaea own the fairground field, and each evolving species briefly enjoys a turn on the merry-go-round before making way for the next evolving one, before the next cycle of total dislocation / extinction, when, hopefully, Archaea will set up the fair field again for the next emerging new species to enjoy.
Mick Sheeran 29.03.2023
Whale Watching Tour Boat M.V. "Blasket Princess"