Posts Tagged ‘Minke Whale


Mammal Tour 2019

The 2019 Mammal Tour is now open for bookings – full details are available to download here

Take a look at just a few of the mammals we encountered this year … and it’s not just about mammals either … some amazing birds to be seen too.

The Scottish Badger is a smaller race than the English version.

We saw two pods of Bottlenose Dolphins on the east coast.

We saw around 150 Common Dolphin – always the most entertaining of mammals and everyone’s favourite – this was taken from the boat before the animal surfaced..

Porpoise were in good numbers around Ardnamurchan. I stopped counting when I got to more than a hundred.

One of seven Minke Whales we came accross

We watched this Osprey displaying with a fish. One of nine birds we saw during the week

The most enigmatic mammal of the Highlands this Pine Marten really entertained us

A surprise interloper at a bait ball we came across was this Pomarine Skua sporting full ‘spoons’ – always good to see.

Prolific in the Highlands we saw some good herds of Red Deer

Never as easy to find during late May as they are earlier in the year we eventually saw a few Red Squirrels

Several Storm Petrels were seen during our boat trip to the Cairnes of Col

One surprise mammal was this male Walrus. Something we REALLY didn’t expect to see.

We saw several White tailed Eagles while searching for the 22 mammals we eventually saw


Checking us out

Think ‘intelligent dog’ when considering cetaceans.

During the UK mammal tour this week we had a rather curious Minke Whale that came to check out our boat. Circling us twice giving superb views down to a few metres – he then continued his feeding. In calm glassy conditions the whole whale was visible under the water. It was even possible to see the pectoral white bands as the animal descended back into the deep.

Full details of next years mammal tour will be available in a few days time.



Looking for Whales and finding butterflies

It’s not every day you get a message stating there’s a whale 14 miles inland. From photos sent to me it was obviously a Minke Whale – maybe quite a young individual and obviously quite dead; although earlier in the day it had been seen alive. Oh what the hell, I needed a few photos of buildings in King’s Lynn to complement the chapter on whaling in the book I’m writing, so a trip to the other side of the county was on the cards anyway. So I might as well go and have a look at this whale in the Great River Ouse at the same time. Perhaps take a few measurements and maybe try and sex it for the records. To be honest I’ve enough on at the moment but it was an opportunity to have a break.

When I got to Downham Market there was no sign of the damn whale. I confirmed with a local chap exactly where it had been the previous evening. Tell me again … exactly how do you lose a whale?

Overnight there had been a hell of a south westerly blowing, it even woke me up it was that loud. Combined with a high tide the wind had obviously dislodged the animal and it was floating free somewhere. The question was, upstream or downstream? The tide was running in and all floating objects were going upstream. However the strong wind had been pushing downstream overnight as had the tide. I decided to check both. I climbed in the car and ventured forth on rolling fen roads for mile after mile. The thing is, fen roads are built on a peat subsoil that absorbs and loses water through the season; so the ground ends up swelling and shrinking. It rises and falls like a bride’s nightgown. You end up travelling on tarmac something akin to the world’s longest fair ride. Anyways, I checked the length of the river from bridge after bridge between Denver sluice and Kings Lynn – nada, nothing, nil! All I found were a swift, which clipped my ear as it flew southwards against the still strong wind, and a Common Seal which was almost as lost as the whale. It stared at me with one of those sorrowful big eyed looks and I’m sure it shrugged its shoulders and raised its eyebrows at one point.

For my troubles I got a good chastising from an Anglian Water worker for parking in a gateway but even that was preferable to the bull which headed at a not inconsiderable pace in my direction causing me to beat a hasty retreat. Next time I see a sign saying ‘Bull with Cows in Field’ I might take more notice.

However, as I was packing up and heading for my photographic foray in Kings Lynn I spotted something small in the grass. It wasn’t a whale. It was a blue butterfly. A Common Blue. Not that unusual sure, but a very contrasty Common Blue. A late one too.

Forever looking for whales and finding butterflies.



Slinky Minke

The tour I run to Mull each year includes a boat trip to the Cairn’s of Coll. This year we had a close encounter with a Minke Whale. It was good to see the expertise of the skipper and crew shining through by not chasing the animal but biding time and waiting for it to come to us … and it did … BIG TIME!

From somewhere around 800m away the animal took a beeline towards us. Like any animal it was pushed by inquisitiveness to investigate. The whale finally surfaced it’s 10m bulk alongside the boat giving us unprecedented views.

In the photos I took it’s possible to see the white pectoral fins below the surface of the water as well as subtle patterning and shading on the back and head. Most people think it is only possible to identify individual animals by their dorsal fins. Some have unique shapes and nicks making re-identification possible. Our Minke had a classic notch-less, some would say perfect, dorsal fin. However, the body marks also enable individuals to be identified too. A good camera and a little patience are all that is required … and an obliging Minke of course.

Minke Whale 1 Minke Whale



A Day on St Martins

I’d been promising the group a day on St Martins since the beginning of the week. St Martins for me is probably the best of the islands within the Scilly archipelago. There’s just something parochial but wild about it. Something familiar but foreboding. I just love the mixture of dunes, small fields, swaths of bracken and wild blue surrounding ocean. It is always on the agenda during our tour to Scillies.

An early boat had left St Mary’s Quay earlier that morning and I knew there had been some good birders on board. Maybe by taking a later boat we could ride on their shirt-tails and pick off what they had found or maybe even find one or two bits ourselves.

As we disembarked at the quay I began familiarising myself with the layout of the island once again. Familiar wonderful hedgerows and tiny charming cottages. Walking from Lowertown eastward and up the island we soon encountered the call of a Firecrest; seeing it however was a different matter. Calling distantly in the thicket above the Seven Stones pub it never did show.

As we walked on a call from the opposite side of a Pittosporum hedge made me jump it was that loud. The caller however once again remained hidden. I heard it fly off as it flew back the way we had come. I commented to my guests “That sounded like a Common Rosefinch”. This sparked a discussion. “What’s a Common Rosefinch look like?” “Where’s it from?” … everyone was keen to learn. A good team this.

I guess we’d walked another 400m when I could see finches flying in one of the tiny roadside fields. It was a marrow field. Some good ones in there too; big and long. The mild climate and rich soil is obviously good for vegetables. I suggested we would perhaps stand a while and go through the finches to see what we could find.

I raised my bins and the first bird I looked at was a Rosefinch. The ‘guide’ tripped in as I ensured everyone got onto the bird. I could then relax and enjoy the bird myself. The more I looked at it the more I started to talk myself out of the identification. A nagging doubt set in. I took some photos. The bird disappeared. I looked at the photos…   The bird was brighter than any Rosefinch I’d seen before. Ever. Not grey but tan. No drab non-descript plumage this. This thing was an avian zebra. I texted an iphone shot of the image displayed on the back of the camera to friend Andrew on St Agnes. He had Brian Bland with him. Between them they would allay my doubts.

I waited for a response. Surely it had to be a Common Rosefinch. I’d heard one call 20 minutes beforehand. It had that beady isolated eye… but it was oh so streaky … and brown. This is Scillies for Christ sake. Had I eliminated all the American Sparrows?

Andrew phoned. “Brian says if it had been greyer he would have no hesitation in saying it was a Rosefinch” – Mmmmmm. Yep, that more or less summed up what was running through my mind.

Other birders trickled by. I showed them the back of the camera too. These were experienced birders too. Lots of scratching of heads and rubbing of chins. It wasn’t until Dick Philby saw the screen that he confidently cast his knowledge … “It’s a Common Rosefinch!” he said. No doubt drawing on vast experiences of seeing variously aged birds abroad. Apparently very young birds can be a little more ’interesting’ than the drab adults.

Every days a school day… and I’m certainly not above learning. I guess looking at the photo below you may be thinking ‘what the hell is he thinking – it’s a Common Rosefinch!’ – Well maybe, but this is Scillies. Anything can pop up on Scillies.

A couple of Lapwings and Skylarks later we called at the bakery and celebrated with cakes and coffee.

I was keen to make the most of our time on the island and wanted to move on towards the ‘Day-mark’; a large landmark on the east of the island. It was here while searching for Lapland Buntings I took a chance peep at the sea. Maybe a whale would pass by?

Bang! – Minke in the scope.

It rose again and at least one other member of the team was on it. Cetaceans are always hard to share with others. Distance is difficult at sea and landmarks (or should it be seamarks) are few but the trailing fin and the arched grey body with the lack of a blow were immediately distinctive and familiar. This was to be the first of two we had this tour.

The day had been a good one. We sailed back to St Mary’s having seen perhaps the best of St Martins. However there was a Short eared Owl and a Blyth’s Pipit to greet us. Only on Scillies … remarkable Scillies.

2015 10 13 Common Rosefinch St Martins Isles of Scilly_Z5A1200 ..



One Day

Those of you that have registered to receive tweets, text’s or mails on the Norfolk Cetacean website will know that recently there has been a young female Minke washed ashore on the coast here in Norfolk this month. Her corpse was swept up the beach at Overstrand but immediately washed back out to sea. Several days later the tides eventually brought her to rest under the revetments in the parish of Paston further to the east.

I went to take some samples of the corpse last weekend for the Natural History Museum under direction from members of the CSIP (Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme)

It was heart-warming to see a steady progression of visitors walking out to see the little girl. No bystanders these. I’ve never been bombarded by so many questions; especially from the children. One young pair of budding biologists come to mind. It was good to see so much interest. All I hope, and I do genuinely wish for them, that one day they will see a whale swimming free in the ocean rather than lifeless on a beach, and it brings delight to them … as it has over the years for me.

2015 10 21 Minke Whale Paston Norfolk_Z5A3012




Cetacean city

On the tour to Scillies last week we saw four species of cetacean: Minke Whales, Harbour Porpoise, Bottlenose Dolphins and some playful Common Dolphins. This individual was lit by the setting sun as we sailed back to Penzance on the Scillonian III. Details for next years tour available soon.

2015 10 14 Common Dolphin from Scillonian off Isles of Scilly_Z5A1720



Don’t you just love Mull

When I awoke the day before yesterday the weather was still fine and calm; not a ripple on the waters of Tobermory Harbour… an ideal morning to go by boat to the Cairns of Coll before the wind got up later in the day.

As part of our trip to Mull we sail out passed the end of Ardnamurchan peninsula to the cluster of islands at the northern tip of Coll – twenty odd miles. This is Gods own piece of water with all the seabirds you could possibly muster coming to feed within upwelling currents. Throw a couple of White tailed Eagles into the mix of two Skua species, four species of Auk and rafts of Manx Shearwaters and you have a cocktail of birds that is difficult to find anywhere else. Before the weather deteriorated the main players came to the party. A couple of Minke Whales. The first small and active; difficult to photograph. The second was a large animal; slower and easier to focus upon. This one showed to all the group.

As the mammal surfaced to breathe it showed its rostrum and splashguard. The dorsal fin had a small nick in the base of the leading edge – if it’s photographed again or has been previously it should be recognisable.

Harbour Porpoise showed briefly but the healthy colony of Grey and Common Seals showed almost laughable curiosity as we sailed between the islands.

We tipped over one hundred species of bird and nine mammals that day with still a few days of the tour and a stopover in Lancashire set to increase the totals by many more. Don’t you just love Mull!

Minke Whale

Minke 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




Minke Whales off Mull

Mull is a great place to see wildlife and on our tour this year we saw two to three Minke Whales. These cetaceans are real show stoppers.



Minke Whale

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Mar 2023


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