25 Feb 2017

25 Feb 17 - Getting The Hump

Checking the pager services on Thurday evening produced an unexpected message of a Humpback Whale being seen off Slapton Ley in Devon in late afternoon, with it still being there at dusk. Over the last decade I have heard of a few sightings in the UK, but rarely are any of them in the South. The most frequent locations seem to have been off the Shetlands or Yorkshire coast: neither of which have been particularly convenient to consider for an on spec trip. So one less than three hours drive on the Devon coast was certainly interesting. It was a frustrating day at work yesterday with a few updates that it was still lingering off the Slapton coastline with one Dorset Birder reporting it down to 20 metres offshore. As always there is the uncertainity of why a large pelagic Whale should be seen so close to the shore. The speculation from the Birders was it was down to close in fish shoals which were also attracting a number of Harbour Porpoise & Dolphins, as well as, large Gannet numbers. All potentially supporting the fish shoals & feeding Cetaceans theory. The local press were in favour of it being of its last legs which would be quite a feasible option, but they didn't seem to be quoting any experienced local naturalists. There was no opportunity of taking a few hours off to head West on the Friday. But there was only one day to last to the weekend. 

The forecast for today was for rain to set in from early afternoon, but that looked long enough to allow an early breakfast & the chance to head West based on early news. There was news by 09:00 & I was quickly heading off, with just a short diversion into Wareham to pick up Peter Moore. By late morning we arrived at the northerly most car park along the Slapton coast. About the first person seen was Julian Thomas who confirmed he had seen it about an hour earlier, but it had gone further North and was perhaps a couple of miles or more further away from where we were looking. Soon after that Julian spotted a tweet of it being off Blackpool Sands (close to three miles further North). Deciding the views would have been too distant from where we were, Peter & I decided to head in that direction. After a couple of miles, we found a small layby with a couple of cars in it & just enough room to squeeze my car on the end. We quickly joined a couple of other people looking, but they had not seen it. But there were Gannets feeding close in offshore & good numbers of Gulls so it was worth giving it some time, especially once I managed to get the car fully off the road when one van left. Ten minutes later we had had some short views of a Harbour Porpoise close in off the layby before it disappeared out of my line of sight around the headland.
Harbour Porpoise: Despite seeing at least four Harbour Porpoises, this ropey photo was the only photo I managed. Later in the afternoon, I saw a Harbour Porpoise fairly close to the Humpback Whale. With the large numbers of members of the public enjoying the Whale, but being pretty clueless, then I suspect this was the source of the news that the Humpback Whale was a mother with a calf
Peter & I split up to try different viewpoints as neither viewpoint allowed a huge amount of sea to be seen. The sea was choppy with breaking white waves to fool me into thinking I needed to check each new set of white waves. Then I checked one of the fresh patches of white waves & there was the Humpback about a half mile out from the layby. Not as close as I would have liked, but even on a brief view I was happy it was a Humpback Whale. I quickly call Peter & various others over, including Sue (the locally living sister of Dorset Birder John Down) & gave them directions to where I had seen it. But it had clearly gone down. After a long ten minute wait it resurfaced & was only 100 metres off shore, albeit we had to add another 100 metres of a dropping down field before the beach. But it was still close & it was on the surface & there was no time to waste to grab some photos.
Humpack Whale: The Herring Gull helps to give an idea of the size of the Humpback. Note, the scars along the side of the body
Humpback Whale: This is my third Whale species that I've seen in the UK, with three Northern Bottle-nosed Whales (two on Skye in August 98 and the Bournemouth Bay individual that subsequenlty died in Sep 2009) and two Minkes heading West along the Dorset coast at the end of a Portsmouth - Bilboa ferry trip in Aug 2000
Unfortunately, the next time it reappeared it was back about a half mile offshore again & kept reappearing in the same area over the the next 45 minutes, before we finally felt it had moved South towards Slapton again. Soon after we heard it was back off the central car park at Slapton agaIn so we headed South again.