Posts Tagged ‘humpback whale


For Fun

As we get past mid December it starts to get quiet for me. Or at least it does on the tour front. The days are still busy but on catch-up work; admin that’s been in a state of comatose on the edge of my desk for the past season is now resuscitated and given a sharp fist in the chest. However, no matter how busy I am if I sit down at the laptop I can’t help daydreaming and looking at some of the photos I took during the summer.

I came across this one I took in the Bay of Fundy during August. There’s just something wonderful about seeing a humpback breach; throwing it’s entire bulk from the water. How on earth do they manage to do that. I liked the photo not just for the whale and what it was doing but for the setting; the arching spray, a gently rippling sea, blue sky and white fluffy clouds and Grand Manan Island in the distance. It sort of set the scene. It was a good reminder of a special time.

On a recent talk I did on cetaceans for the North East Norfolk Bird Club I was asked, by the youngest member of the audience, why whales breach. It’s difficult to say with any certainty. It could be to dislodge annoying parasites and barnacles. It could be a way of communication with other whales – after all the sound they make on re-entering the sea is like the report of a cannon. It could be part of their display or it could just be for the sheer hell of it … for fun!



Humpback Days

It was just not possible to be disappointed given our experiences in the Bay of Fundy despite not seeing what we went there to see.

Northern Right Whales are among the rarest animals on the planet; with only some 350 alive finding one was always going to be difficult. It was a long shot and despite spending over 27 hours at sea over six days we didn’t have even have a sniff of one. Global warming has made differences of late. Water temperature increases mean the plankton on which the Northern Rights feed is no longer in abundance within the bay and the whales are having to find sustenance elsewhere… I can feel another trip coming on.

In the meantime here are some photos of a few of the many humpbacks we saw. Further insights into what else we saw I’ll let you know of over the next week or so.

Humpback 1 Humpback 2 Humpback 3 Humpback 4 Humpback 5 Humpback 6 Humpback 7Humpback Whale 8


The ultimate photo-bomb

Wilson’s Petrel with Humpback Whale. Taken off Grand Manan in Canada earlier in the month.

Wilsons Petrel and Humpback Whale


Humpbacks and Hoopoes

After receiving information from Ryan Irvine last Wednesday morning I had the time to pop down to Winterton and take a look at the Humpback he’d been watching off Winterton.

An entourage of gannets were feeding above the animal and although the whale was distant their presence always gave the Humpback’s location away. The bushy water spout shot above the waves and was periodically followed immediately by a stubby fin atop an arched hump. All classic signs of a Humpback . Such a wonderful animal and  although it was quite distant I was so pleased to see it on what presumably (if it’s the same individual) was its third consecutive year of visiting the Norfolk coast.

I was out. So why not make the most of it. A deviant route back home via Crostwick saw me standing on tip toe looking over a fence into grassy paddocks. It didn’t take me long to find the reported Hoopoe which was trying to hide among a distant weedy patch. Photographing it though was a different matter. However, it eventually came a little closer for a record shot or two.

I wonder how many people in the UK have seen a Hoopoe and a Humpback on the same day?




Humpback off Norfolk

It always happens when you aren’t there doesn’t it? On Sunday the 12th April as I was stood at the top of Cairngorm watching Snow Buntings and looking for Ptarmigan Kayn Forbes was lucky enough to film a cetacean in difficult windy conditions off Kelling.

Initially the still from the footage broadcast on twitter did look something like an Orca; but the markings and supposed body shading was all wrong for that species. Orca has occurred off Norfolk in the distant past but no proven recent records exist. (two recent records were unproven) Orca is not currently showing on the Norfolk mammal list but on historical evidence it will be shorty … a paper has been submitted for publication in the next Norfolk Bird and Mammal Report giving undeniable evidence of a record in the late 1800’s. Since the paper was written even older records have come to light so Orca must be a distinct possibility again off Norfolk at some point in the future.

Kayn’s video shows a large animal tail slapping at 5secs, 37secs, 1:12secs and 1:59secs. Blue Fin Tuna (very rare now) and Basking Shark (yes they do breach!) can be eliminated as on two occasions (53secs and 1:41secs) in the video a distinct blow can be seen – these things are always difficult to see in strong winds and to be fair Kayn did well to get footage at all given the obvious distance and choppy conditions. A further back arch giving an impression of Humpback can be seen at 1:42secs just after the second blow. Tail shape also seems to give an impression of Humpback and the tail slapping behaviour is quite typical of that species.

Although not definitive I think we can say Norfolk has had a humpback heading west off the north shore this last weekend. Cracking sighting that I wish I’d been there to see.

Back Arch Humpback

copywrite to Kayn Forbes


Too close – too long

We all like to see wildlife close … but the welfare of the wildlife ALWAYS comes first.

I have been asked on several occasions if I will organise a boat trip to see the Humpback Whale. Despite holding a Sea Watch Foundation boat operators certificate I have not done so. The problem I have is that when others see one boat going out they think they have a free reign to do so too perhaps with no training and no regard for the welfare of the whale.

I was watching the Humpback Whale today from the dunes at Horsey and Sea Palling. It was being followed by a zodiac with five or six people on board. The recommended distance for viewing cetaceans at sea is a minimum of 100m and the recommended amount of time with any one animal is 15 minutes. Obviously viewing from the dunes 1 to 2 km from the whale distances between objects can be foreshortened somewhat but I have a feeling that the zodiac was ‘chasing’ the whale and it was under stress. This year and last year up until today I have seen the Whale ‘spyhop ‘ twice. This afternoon I saw it raise its head out of the water and eyeball its observers five times. Others saw an increase in breathing rate – I didn’t – signs of stress perhaps? The zodiac followed the whale for at least two hours. Far, far too long.

I hung around until the skipper came ashore with his passengers and had a quiet word in his shell-like. After explaining who I was and the marine code of conduct he listened carefully while I explained he had been with the animal for too long and maybe too close. I gave him a couple of my cards and explained if he wanted me to send him a copy of the code of conduct all he had to do was send me an email.

The Sea Watch Foundation site has a code of conduct for approaching Cetaceans

Cetaceans are protected by law. If I see any inappropriate behaviour around the Humpback I WILL instigate the full use of that law.

We all like to see wildlife close … but the welfare of the wildlife ALWAYS comes first. The way to do it is to let the wildlife come to you!

Too Close Too Long_Z5A1184



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




The return of the whale

Last year a Humpback was seen off Suffolk before spending some time off the Norfolk coast during October/November. The occurrence in October this year of a Humpback off Minsmere gave hope that ‘Humpy’ had returned and would make his/her way back to the Norfolk coast to feed on the Herring shoals. I spend most of the day on Monday at Sea Palling searching the sea for a possible returning whale.

A large whale was seen yesterday off Winterton. One observer thought it was possibly a humpback. When I arrived at the site there was no sign of the whale. I also searched the Sea Palling and Horsey area to no avail. I did however have the best sea watch I’d had for a very long time. Pommerine Skuas, Little Auks, Little Gulls, Great Northern, Red throated Divers and a host of other species were passing in droves with a backdrop of endless Gannets. I also searched all those areas again today in kinder conditions and was treated to a couple of Short eared Owls coming in off the sea, more Little Auks as well as discovering a Yellow browed Warbler in the dunes at Sea Palling. I returned home for lunch determined to go out again this afternoon and find this damn whale and put it’s identification beyond doubt.

I received a call conveniently just as I was on my way out again. A whale, thought to be a Humpback was off Mundesley. It didn’t take me long to get to the site as it’s only a few miles away, it took longer to pinpoint where the whale was hiding. Followed by an entourage of Gannets a dark shape repeatedly broke the surface with a large bushy blow. The stubbly fin shape was indicative of a Humpback as was the white on the underside of the tail fluke which it occasionally showed. What I did see of the tail fluke pattern, which like a fingerprint is unique to each Humpback, gave me confidence to announce that it was the same individual that had visited us last year despite it being some 5kms distant.

Let’s hope (s)he continues to return and brings others to enjoy the Herring shoaling off Norfolk in the latter months of the year. I do however have great concerns given the extensive amount of shipping passing to and fro using the same area.

Humpback_Z5A0827 Humpback_Z5A0955 Humpback_Z5A0993

An article on identifying distant cetaceans is in preparation for posting in Letter from Norfolk in the next few days.




For the second time in a month I found myself staring along the coastline … waiting. Reminiscent of Glossy Ibis.

Initially we searched for a Humpback Whale to rise above the surf but when it didn’t show our interest in that waned a little when we heard of a Black Brant heading our way. It had been seen flying north within a flock of Brent Geese passing Hopton some 17 miles to the south. A back of an envelope calculation and we surmised it would be passing us in about 30 minutes.

We waited.

An approaching flock of Brents got our shutters firing but alas they were far too early.

We waited.

The first real cold winds of early winter started to nip at our fingers but we persevered. Eventually a flock of Brents appeared around the curve of the coast. Immediately apparent was the broader neck band, paler flanks and darker back of the Brant among them.

After it had passed us we celebrated with a hot drink … now that was worth waiting for!

Black Brant

The Brent is the second bird in the flock.


Humpback Whale off Norfolk

I made a prediction in July. I foresaw that within 5 years we would be watching a Humpback Whale off the Norfolk coastline. Having committed this to print in the latest Norfolk Bird and Mammal Report I was relived yesterday morning when Ryan Irvine called me to say he’d seen one off Hemsby. A first for Norfolk and four and a half years to spare! Good on ye Ryan.

It was later seen further north. I couldn’t make it there yesterday but did make it today and amazingly it was still offshore. Although distant it appeared to be breathing quite well and also feeding accompanied by a flock of diving Gannet.

It was as I was about to move on I noticed the whale had covered an inordinately large distance in a very short time. This of course is possible. They can move quickly. My mind momentarily slipped to asking … ‘could there be two?’ but I dismissed the thought. How ridiculous would that be! I mean two Humpbacks off norfolk … laughable.

Looking at the photos this evening some I’ve taken seen to show classic Humpback features of a lumpy fin with a bushy blow. Some even show the splashguard despite the animal being two to three miles distant. However several shots show some extensive white scaring/calcareous growth on the dorsal fin. This leads me to think I may have been right. There are perhaps two animals.

Most humpbacks are identifiable by the pattern on the underside of their tail flukes; it’s like a fingerprint. Any large whale off Norfolk is unlikely to show its tail flukes often, if at all. The water is not deep enough here for a full dive which is when a whale would show the underside of the tail as it ‘handstands’ prior to submerging.

The scaring on fins is also known to be useful in identifying Humpbacks. Indeed the first Humpback to be named is called ‘Salt’ and is so named because of her white dorsal fin. She returns each summer to the Stellwagen Bank off Massachusetts.

If there are two whales off Norfolk and one has a white fin marking I wonder if we can identify it to an individual?

Please bear in mind how distant the whale(s) were when looking at the photos.

Humpback 1

No white on dorsal fin

Humpback 2

No white on dorsal fin

Humpback 3

Two points of white on dorsal fin

Humpback 4

… and likewise

As an example of white markings on dorsal fins, here’s a photo I took several years ago of ‘Salt’

2009 10 12 Humpback Whale Mass USA IMG_6496


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Mar 2023


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