Sightings and social media spark British whale-watching boom


When a sick baby minke whale lost its way up the Thames earlier this week, hundreds of people gathered to watch the rescue efforts at Richmond and Teddington over the course of two days.

It was the furthest upriver a whale had ever ventured, a feat so out of the ordinary that the curiosity among the crowds flocking to the weir and those following the whale’s misguided journey on social media was matched by the outpouring of sadness when the little whale didn’t survive.

It isn’t the first time the public has become invested in unusual sightings of whales. Last week, two orcas from the UK’s only resident pod caused a stir when they were spotted off the west Cornish coast, believed to be their most southerly confirmed sighting. And humpback whales around the Isles of Scilly and near the Penzance coastline created a buzz last Christmas. The skeleton of Willie, the bottlenose whale that swam up the Thames in 2006 and died following a rescue attempt, were put on display at the Natural History Museum.

Aquarius, one of two killer whales spotted off the Cornish coast.

The charismatic and socially complex animals have long captured popular imagination, like Knobble the minke whale, who has returned to the Sea of the Hebrides every year since 2006, has his own Facebook page and even inspired a song. And who could forget Benny the beluga, who sparked a tourism boom, merchandise and an eponymous pale ale when he rocked up in Gravesend in 2018.

Marine life charities and wildlife tour operators say a wider interest in and empathy for whales has been growing incrementally in Britain, particularly over the last decade.

“When I first set up a public sightings programme and built an observer network back in the 1970s, very few people were aware that they could see a rich variety of whales and dolphins in the waters around the British Isles,” said Peter Evans, the director of the cetacean conservation and research charity Sea Watch Foundation, which he said had constant requests from the public about ways to get involved in conservation efforts.

“Now we have a thriving whale and dolphin-watching industry that is accelerating and becoming significantly important socio-economically in several coastal regions,” Evans said. “Wildlife-watching is fast replacing fishing as a source of income in some areas, with ecotourism outstripping other forms of tourism.”

The rise of social media and the impact of documentaries such as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet and this year’s Netflix hit Seaspiracy appear to have contributed to a boosted demand for wildlife-watching tours and engagement with citizen science projects. A year of lockdown restrictions has also encouraged people to discover nature on their doorstep and take more domestic holidays.

One example being the fishing port of Whitby, once famed for its whaling fleet that has in recent years has become a booming national whale-watching hotspot built on enterprises mostly run by ex-trawlermen.

“This is usually a quiet time of year for us but we’re now fully booked and getting lots of interest for the summer as well,” said Georgia Bardua of AK Wildlife Cruises in Falmouth. With a lot of people holidaying in Cornwall and some minke whale and basking shark sightings already, “it’s definitely going to be a very busy year”.

To meet demand, Sam Cunningham of Dolphin Watch UK in Brixham, Devon, has expanded his operation to six boats from one last year, and five different species including fin whales have already been sighted locally this season. About half his bookings were from people from London and the north holidaying in Devon, and with more people expected to be out on pleasure boats he anticipates an uptick in reported sightings.

In Northumberland, Martin Kitching of Northern Experience Wildlife Tours has had several boat trips already fully booked this month, a knock-on effect of bottlenose dolphins moving further south. He also coordinates the North East Cetacean Project, mapping the distribution and abundance of whales, dolphins and porpoises off the coast between the river Tees and the Scottish border. Its Facebook group has grown ninefold since 2019.

People watching whales from the coast of Scotland.

“Much of what we know about the movements of whales in the area is thanks to more and more members of the public sending in pictures and sightings every year,” said Lauren Hartny-Mills, science and conservation manager at Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, of growing public enthusiasm for citizen science initiatives like their sight scheme Whale Track.

And the conservation charity Orca, which trains volunteers to conduct scientific surveys, said that over the last 10 years it had doubled the number of research teams it sends out on the ferry trips, driven by increased engagement from the public. During lockdown, demand for its educational programmes soared.

Evans said that when handled with care and responsibility, activities like whale-watching could benefit both people and the natural world. “If you’ve ever taken a boat trip out and had a close encounter with a whale or school of dolphins, you will have seen how it changes lives.

“I’ve known cases of people being cured of depression, giving up unsatisfying jobs and careers to move into a more environmentally-aware form of living and working. That’s something whales and dolphins can do that few other species on this planet have the capacity to achieve.”

A rich variety of whales can be seen around the UK coastline. Some are seen more regularly than others and you can also never rule out the possibility of unexpected visits, such as Benny the beluga who visited the Thames in 2018.

The marine mammals can be seen in British waters all year round but sightings are most common during the summer months between April and November. Hotspots include the islands of northern Scotland, the northern North Sea and the western end of the Channel.

Fin whales, the second largest species of whale, can be seen at various times in the year in deeper waters stretching from Scotland all the way down to the western Channel. Particularly between August and early October they can also be spotted off the Northumberland and Yorkshire coasts, along with minke whales, sei whales and humpbacks.

Orcas, the largest members of the dolphin family, visit northern Scotland all year round and are commonly spotted around Orkney and the Shetlands between May and September. A small pod, known as the West Coast community and the UK’s only resident pod, are usually found in the waters around the Hebrides but have been sighted as far down south as the west coast of Cornwall.

Minke whales are the most common species of baleen whale seen around the British coast, particularly during the summer months off the west coast of Scotland, and can be seen from the shoreline. They are usually seen in the Minches, the waters surrounding the mainland, the Small Isles and other islands such as Mull. They’re also recorded in Cornwall, along with fin whales.

Other species including sperm and pilot whales are seen from time to time, along with more rare visitors such as beaked whales, northern bottle-nosed whales and northern right whales, mostly in the Hebrides and Shetlands. Sperm whales, the largest species of toothed whale, can be seen in deep waters off the west coast of Scotland, along with the occasional beluga.

Sightings of humpback whales are being recorded more in Britain, mostly in northern Scotland. Between May and September, migratory humpbacks have been mostly seen in the southern tip of the Shetland Islands and off the Hebrides, but increasingly seen in the northern North Sea and have also been sighted off the west Cornish coast and the Isles of Scilly.


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