Since the 23rd June I have been recording Minke whales as we leave land at Flamborough Head. We reach the area of sea at approximately 21.30 hours out of Newcastle.
People always ask “what time can we see the whales”. As we are dealing here with free-living animals in their natural environment and ones that travel far searching for food it is pretty hard to say. After a while on board I started to notice some short term patterns. These can be affected by the times I am able to get out on deck, weather, how much sleep I have had!, but between 21.30 and 23.00 hours out of Newcastle I started to see minke whales.
The first time there was just one, and then numbers built up to 2 and up to six on a single trip. Whales were seen at other times just outside the Tyne, off Sunderland from the Centre window but mainly they have been spotted as we head seaward.
Last night was THE best sightings yet. Not the most Minkes, but definitely the closest! I told the keen whale watchers to get out on the top deck for 21.30pm and look out to sea. Around 21.45 a minke whale breached the water’s surface and porpoised alongside the boat. This unusual “dolphin like” behaviour caused passengers to stumble on steps, call out and waiters to jump up and down in Bake and Coffee bar. Another 9 metre whale was spotted ahead of this one travelling normally in a rolling“whale like” way. This porpoising behaviour is a whale seriously on the move often being scared by noise. So perhaps we gave it as much of a shock as it gave us.
I left most of the passengers watching the starboard side and went to check port side saying “they may not all be over here”. Arriving across the ship a huge splash was seen next to the ship. Imagine a 4- 5 tonne, 10 m long animals doing a dive bomb into the sea and that is the effect we saw.
What was this now? A dolphin …no a Minke whale was near full breaching out of the sea, projecting its body up into the air, revealing its white underside and extensive throat pleets! Amazing!! It did this two times more and then porpoised across the stern to the other side. Another minke soon followed it. That made 4 whales in a small area. These animals that feed alone or in small groups when their plankton food is plentiful were engaged in some social activities. Why do cetaceans breach? As we cannot read their minds we can only theorise. Maybe it’s to get rid of lice, to feed, maybe its play, it could be a male demonstrating its superiority. My answer is “well wouldn’t you, if you could?”. Using their powerful flukes they can propel their huge bodies upwards into the air and often turn and splash down to the surface. That sounds like fun and it does definitely look pretty cool.
So if these animals are courting at Flamborough Head, is this an important area for Minke whales? A place that may need some form of protection? That is the kind of question that ORCAs long-term scientific survey data could discover. The survey team of trained volunteers go on the bridge from dawn until dusk. This data is available to scientist, conservation organisations, students and government agencies. This information will go towards desperately needed conservation measures for our oceans. If you fancy watching for these animals at sea keep checking the ORCA website for the next training course and get out on one of our surveys.
Meanwhile you can come on board The King of Scandinavia with the ORCA Wildlife Officers. My next task is to try to discover if the whales are still there each crossing. So that’s 10.30pm from Newcastle or 5.00 am from Netherlands!…see you there?
Senior Wildlife Education Officer for ORCA Organisation Cetacea