Monday 30 April 2012

Humpbacks in April (Pt2)

Firstly it is very important to point out that both humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) and basking sharks (Cetorhinus maximus) are protected under European and UK law, so it is illegal to disturb or harass them.

Second, the trip documented here was a research trip where all necessary licences had been obtained beforehand, so as to carry out the procedures described.

Before you get all excited that there has been another wonderful encounter with humpback whales off the West Cork coast, let me stop you there, as this post is the follow-on that I promised, in part, to Padraig Whooley of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group. I did 'pretty' in (Pt1) and now the 'important' stuff is here in (Pt2) I make no apologies for presenting it in a way that is easily comprehendable for those where science may not come naturally.

The Holly Jo that sails from Castlehaven in West Cork.

Top notch skipper, Colin Barnes of Cork Whale Watch
scanning the sea for indications of whale activity.
Seabird activity points to the shoals of herring and
mackerel that show up on sonar. Food for the whales
and birds alike.
Humpback whale located, Conor prepares
a biopsy dart
...loaded into the crossbow...
...ready to shoot - crossbow & cameras!

Dart hits the target.
Followed by a successful retrieval...
...and successful collection of biopsy sample.

Basking shark also observed.

An unsuccessful attempt made to tag the fish.
Meanwhile, not one to miss an opportunity,
Colin cooly casts a rod over the side
...and easily pulls up a line of mackerel and herring
from the fish-rich sea.

Eugene drops a different line down to listen in on whale conversations.
Sadly, nothing distinct apart from lapping water
on the bottom of the boat
Then another basking shark is observed.

To increase chances of success with tagging,
the pole has a make-shift extension added.

326 had tried to be used on the earlier attempt.
It would be a good end to the day to manage to tag
this basking shark.

Basking shark 326 successfully tagged, fin distinguishing points clearly visible.

The tagging will provide scientists with opportunities to gain information regards the otherwise little known migratory habits of the basking sharks.

The Shark Trust has published a code of conduct to be followed in any basking shark encounter. Key points to note are:
  • Keep your distance: keep at least four metres between you and the shark so as not to startle it. If you are swimming with other people, stay in a group, but don't invite others over to take a look.
  • If you're in a boat, turn off your engine (boat propellers are a major cause of serious injury to basking sharks feeding near the surface)
  • If you have a camera handy, take lots of photos of the dorsal fin and any distinguishable features on the shark, as this may help the researchers identify the individual
  • Move away gently and quietly and report your sighting to the Shark Trust
Similarly, sightings of cetaceans anywhere around UK waters should be reported to the appropriate local groups and in Ireland to the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group

The biopsy samples taken were part of an important research tool where they will provide a range of genetics and pollutant information, and where it is not possible to obtain this data any other way from healthy specimens.

Conor Ryan is currently continuing a period of humpback whale study in Cape Verde and you may like to keep up with the happenings in his blog

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group will be running whale watching weekends on Cape Clear during the summer details are available on their website.

Colin Barnes runs whale and dolphin trips out into West Cork waters. Details on his website.

Again, my thanks to all involved.


  1. Well safely back from my away day (plus skiving lunch) in Edinburgh and you provide me with an immaculate bit of displacement activity now I'm back at my desk! Seriously this is a cracking post on a really interesting trip. Thanks for the blog. Charlie

  2. Thank you Charlie
    Always great to hear that a post has been enjoyed. I wish I had something as exciting every day! Lets see what West Cork might serve up for me next visit.


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