Principal Ecologist, Rachel Saunders, goes in search of the humpback whale off the Norfolk coast
Although fewer in number than in other parts of the UK, sightings of cetaceans are reported every year off the Norfolk coast. Typically, these comprise commoner species such as harbour porpoise but up to 14 different species of whale, dolphin and porpoise have been recorded, either stranded or offshore, including white-beaked dolphin, minke and sperm whale. Recent years have seen an increase in cetacean sightings and real rarities do sometimes pop up (literally) when least expected. In 2012, for example, a killer whale was reported off the Sheringham coast.
At the end of October, 2013, Norfolk received a most welcome guest; a humpback whale. Sightings of this magnificent 50 ft creature off the north-eastern coast were the first on written record for the county and here it remained until at least mid-November.
A long history of over-exploitation has meant that, for half a century, the species was extremely rare in British waters. However, sightings have increased significantly since the 1980s, usually being spotted around the northern isles and south and east Scotland, in the north Irish Sea to west Scotland and in the Celtic Sea between southern Ireland, Wales and south-west England. Sightings off the eastern coast of England are still, however, very rare.
And then, almost to the day in 2014, ‘Scroby Dick’, as it has become known, was back. At least, it is assumed that it was the same individual, no one could be sure, but its appearance at the same time, in the same place, suggests it probably was. Humpback whales are highly migratory creatures, feeding in summer in high latitudes, for example, around Iceland, and calving in winter in warm waters; the eastern north Atlantic population migrating primarily to the West Indies or Africa. They have a strong individual fidelity to feeding areas and it is likely that this individual was taking advantage of the recent boom in herring numbers while en route to its warmer breeding grounds.
Humpbacks are one of the most easily recognised whale species and can be identified by their large flippers which account for almost one-third of their body size, the hump on their backs and distinctive markings on their underside. Having missed seeing Scroby Dick in 2013, The Ecology Consultancy’s Principal Ecologist, Dr Rachel Saunders was keen to get out for a second chance: “As soon as word got round that the whale was back, we decided it was time for some sea-watching. We gathered our binoculars and telescopes and headed out to Happisburgh. A small group of observers were staring intently out to sea and, after ten minutes of scanning, we were all in luck! It appeared briefly under a flock of gannets before submerging beneath the waves again. We watched it surface several times over the next couple of hours before heading back home to warm up”.
A few days later, a pod of long-finned pilot whales was reported off the north Norfolk coast and once again, Rachel headed out, this time to Kelling, to be rewarded by excellent sightings of around 25 of them not far from the shore. Once one of the more commonly sighted species in British waters, these medium-sized whales have become relatively uncommon and have never been a regular visitor to the North Sea. Unlike the humpback, attracted by an abundant food supply, sadly, the pilot whales were likely well off course and did not hang around for long before moving south to Kent and Essex. Unfortunately, at least one of the group stranded on a beach here and later died.
But finally, in November 2015, who should appear for the third year running? Our friend Scroby Dick has, once again, been seen feeding off the north-eastern coast of Norfolk. Rachel’s attempts this year to see the whale were not successful; however, the cold, windswept waters of the North Sea did provide views of a minke whale and harbour porpoise, and the regularity with which the humpback has been making an appearance gives hope that this could be an annual event for some time to come.