Breeding ground of Irish Humpbacks found after 16-year search

Published by Niall Sargent on

June 4th, 2019

A breeding ground for humpback whales feeding in Irish waters has finally been found after an epic 16 years search by the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG).

During a recent expedition in April to Cape Verde Islands off West Africa, the IWDG photographed a humpback whale that has been seen four years ago off the west coast of Kerry. The islands are identified as the most likely origin of humpback whales in Ireland.

The group said that on a chance excursion off the southwest tip of the Boa Vista island it identified two whales that surfaced near the research boat.

Both whales were photographed and one of these whales was the same individual photographed off the Blasket Islands in West Kerry in 2015.

This is the first re-sighting of an individual humpback whale from Ireland to a known breeding ground, the group said.

Long wait over

The group has previously failed to identify any whales matching those photographed in Ireland in five previous visits to the islands 500km west of Senegal.

Nick Massett of Ventry, Co Kerry, who photographed the humpback whale in 2015 said that he was “pleased to have played my part in documenting the animal here off County Kerry”.

“It was born out of the belief that the Cape Verde Islands was the breeding ground for the humpbacks we have documented here off Ireland. But it is down to the dogged persistence of the expedition teams that have returned there over the years to prove the theory,” he added.

IWDG Sightings Officer Pádraig Whooley, who manages the Irish Humpback Whale Catalogue, said that the find is a “really important missing piece of the jigsaw”.

“But it’s a very large puzzle, which still has lots of missing pieces,” he added, after recording almost 1,000 validated Irish humpback sighting records and hundreds of encounters over several decades.

Humpback off west Kerry August 2015 Photo: Nick Massett
Humpback off west Kerry August 2015 Photo: Nick Massett

Long migration

Humpback whales undergo one of the longest annual migrations of any animal on the planet, travelling from rich feeding grounds at high latitudes such as Ireland to tropical breeding grounds near the equator.

The IWDG is planning another expedition to Cape Verde in September to explore the waters and train local biologists in survey techniques and species recording.

Data collated by IWDG over the past 20 years has shown Ireland to be an increasingly important site for humpback whales.

To date, 92 individual whales have been recorded, identified based on unique and permanent markings on their tail flukes and dorsal fins.

Over 80 per cent of these individual whales have been recorded more than once in Irish waters, with one individual returning almost 50 occasions.

The majority stay for weeks and often months during spring, summer, and autumn, according to the IWDG, with an average of 39 days.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London