Posts Tagged ‘Fin Whale


Evasive Action

We saw around 70 Fin Whales last week in the Bay of Biscay. I would add to that 60 something Pilot Whales and maybe 20 or more Cuvier’s Beaked Whales. A decent haul especially when you add-in to that a host of Dolphins; Striped, Common and Bottlenose. However it was one particular sighting that sticks in my mind.

Stood on the upper deck I was conscious of a change in direction of the ship. I was being thrown to the left as the skipper did nothing less than a ‘swerve’ to the right. Clouds were moving fast to the left in front of the ship. I concluded we were about to hit something. Being a long way from land I was guessing a whale had surfaced in front of us. I beckoned those around me to go to the rail on the left of the ship as whatever the skipper was trying to avoid would slide down the port side.

It didn’t take long for two Fin Whales, the second largest animals on the planet, to appear alongside. We were looking straight down their blowholes. Travelling with the ship they rose in unison and blew tall spouts of steam and water, as if to register their position.

A ripple of applause broke over the ship from everyone on deck. Everybody absolutely everybody loves cetaceans. Such a close sighting of these magnificent animals is not usual and always a possibility on these trips.



Big Beasts

Processing the last of the photos from the Biscay trip last month I found this one. Two of the 21 or so Fin Whales we saw. Magnificent beasts!


The day of the Fin Whales

A Fin Whale is around 75 feet long. The normal reckoning is a whale weighs in at a ton per foot. Fin Whales can swim fast too. They’re not called the greyhounds of the sea for nothing. So when I saw six of these creatures swimming directly for our 40 ton boat off the coast of Grand Manan in Canada last month the total mass coming right at us was around 450 tons … at 30mph … I could feel my heart pounding. At the last second the whales slipped under our keel and surfaced behind us leaving us with open mouths and the stench of whale breath.

Fin Whale 1 Fin Whale 2


Identifying Distant Large Whales off the East Coast

If you follow you will know that last Tuesday a large whale was seen off Winterton here in Norfolk. Although the identification was inconclusive it was thought by at least one of the individuals who saw it to have been a Humpback. I attended as soon as I could and spent the rest of the day trying to get a glimpse of the whale … without success. It was not until the following day when the Whale was relocated at Mundesley were sufficient features noted to put its identification beyond doubt.

It’s always difficult when cetaceans are distant to be sure what you are seeing so I thought I’d put down a few pointers of what to look for when faced with a distant large whale in the North Sea. It goes without saying decent binoculars and a spotting scope are essential.

The first thing to consider is what a large whale off Norfolk could be. So what large whales regularly occur in the North Sea? The rouquals (whales with baleen plates in their mouth) Minke, Humpback, Sei and Fin are not adverse to the reasonably shallow waters of the North Sea. Of the toothed whales, Sperm Whales have occurred but are not regular. This list excludes Bottlenose Whale, the Pilot Whales and Beaked Whales as I’m not considering them as ‘large’; though if I was in the water face to face with a Sowerby’s Beaked Whale I might change my mind.

Here are some identification points for large whales in the order of most probability of their occurrence.

The blow of a Minke is very rarely seen except in particularly cold and damp conditions. The dorsal fin is sickle shaped and shows at the same time as the blow. Minke’s rarely breach.

The blow of a Humpback is very visible and bushy. The dorsal fin is squat, rounded and positioned after a bump on the back which gives the animal its name. It’s a performer, often shows its long pectoral fins and flukes as well as often breaching.

A whale to consider that hasn’t (officially) been seen off Norfolk is the Fin Whale. They are large. They are the second largest animal on the planet. They too have a sickle shaped fin but it is set far back on a long body and therefore appears just after the blow. They have asymmetrical colouring on the head. The right side is white. The left is dark. The white patch sometimes extends up the right side in a chevron shape behind the blowhole. The blow is up to 6m in height is narrow and cone shaped.

Sei Whales have never been seen off Norfolk. Intermittent in size between Minke and Fin the blow is seen simultaneously with the fin which is erect and curved on the back edge.

Blue Whales have also not yet been recorded in Norfolk and there are few records from the North Sea. However, they are certainly not strangers to shallow waters. The fin often doesn’t appear until the whale is about to dive and looks small compared to the size of the animal. The blow is up to 9m tall. The colour of Blue Whales is surprisingly ‘bluish’.

In the distant past there is evidence that Sperm Whales have been seen offshore but if they stay they invariably die as they require squid as both a source of food and a source of liquid sustenance. All whales derive their fluid they need from the food they eat. Squid require deep water to survive; far deeper than what the North Sea offers. Sperm Whales have a nobly back rather than a true dorsal fin.

So the features to look for on a distant large cetacean, in order of importance are:

Fin shape

Shape and size of blow

Size of animal

When the fin shows relative to blow

Any breaching

Any colouring seen

Fin Whale

A Fin Whale I photographed in the Hudson River showing the sickle shaped dorsal fin




We had history me and her

There I was staring wistfully from the cliff top out across the sea to the north. I was scanning through binoculars dreaming of seeing a large cetacean surface amid a crash of white surf.

My vision was fully obscured for a second. I dropped the bins expecting to see one of the Herring Gulls that had been floating around. Instead I was being buzzed by a female Kestrel. We stared discerningly at one another for an instant and she carried on quartering the cliff face and I relaxed comfortably back into my daydream of finding a Fin Whale.

On my way back to the Landrover I came across her again. She was perched on a branch over the footpath. The light behind her was blinding. She could easily see me but I couldn’t see her clearly at all. If I was to get a photograph I would need to walk underneath her, turn and raise the camera. She would surely fly off as I did this.

I walked slowly and kept my hands in my coat pockets. Birds don’t like hands. Raise your hands in the air 200m from a roosting flock of gulls and every one will take to the air. I held my breath and as I passed underneath reached for my camera and turned slowly. She was still there. We obviously had history me and her; she knew I meant no harm. The spell was only broken as she glided down to the ploughed field to land on a morsel her keen eyes had picked out among the furrows.



Prospects for 2014

So what prospects herald us into 2014? What’s waiting around the corner to be found, to be seen; to be photographed?

Most of our published tours, including Wales and both tours to Scotland are full with just a few places remaining on others; although a few more tours are yet to be organised. The longer weekend and week tours always turn up something worth seeing.

Bookings for day tours are already well underway.

Norfolk will probably have much to give us during the next 12 months … it normally does. However, what about a few firsts? Lesser Scaup is overdue. A Rubythroat in Holkham Pines during October might be a possibility. Now that would be a turn up for the books but one in the south of the country has to be on the cards. Not a first, but Norfolk’s second Fin Whale hot on the heels of the 2013 Humpback(s) is also a reasonable proposition.

A trip for Sharon and I to California should give us a few things to remember. Grey Whale, an assortment of Sea Lions, Roadrunners and Great Grey Owl among several others are all being targeted.

Photography wise I have set myself a target of getting some shots of Nightjar this year. Seeing one in daylight has always eluded me. Photographing one with a modicum of light rather than in the murkiness of dusk would be a challenge worth the commitment of a little time and patience.

Whatever we find and see it is always a pleasure to share with our customers. Happy New Year.

Nightjar 1


Norfolk Cetaceans

I have started a new website to record cetaceans seen in Norfolk. Appropriately it’s called ‘Norfolk Cetaceans’ and can be found at

The idea is that it is a one stop shop for anyone wanting to know about Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises seen around Norfolk. Help with Identification and Strandings as well as historical and recent sightings are included. I hope if you see any cetaceans you will let me know. The records are passed onto both the County Mammal recorder and the Seawatch Foundation.

Hopefully we’ll see some great creatures of the deep in Norfolk in the future but in the meantime here’s a picture of something you don’t seen often in Norfolk or anywhere else – a Fin Whale doing a roll and showing its pectoral fin in the St Lawrence last week.

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Apr 2023


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