Posted by: orcaweb | September 4, 2017

Minke or fin??

Welcome back to another week on the lovely King Seaways! To start straight away: We have seen three beautiful minke whales on Saturday evening, somewhere along the English coast after having left North Shields… Or should I rather say fin whales?? You might wonder now what on Earth am I talking about, but I’ll explain it to you in a second.

Around eight pm, as we sailed along the north eastern coast of England, our current ORCA intern Charlie and I spotted a large, dark shape in the water ahead of the ship. Quickly it became clear that it was one of the rorqual whales surfacing in the lovely calm waters we could enjoy that day. Just a few seconds later there was another one surfacing closer to the ship on the port side – and it gets even better – soon thereafter a third one appeared on the starboard side. We couldn’t believe our luck!! And to add to this ‘sighting frenzy’, there was a grey seal popping its head out of the water just behind one of the whales and a little bit later on three more grey seals were spotted. Charlie and I, together with some passengers, were totally awed by these magnificent whales making an appearance.


Dorsal fin of a rorqual, just before it disappears under water

But back to the ‘minke/fin whale problem’. The shape, general appearance and the fact that summer is peak season for minke whales on our route here didn’t really lead us to think about any other whale species than a minke whale. However, later that evening the ORCA Marine Mammal Survey team – who were on board that day to conduct one of our offshore surveys – said they recorded them as fin whales (which are quite rare to be seen here in the North Sea – but possible!). They perceived them to be much bigger than a minke whale. So you can imagine that lead to some interesting discussions.

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Grey seal swimming along

You might also think that it should be quite straightforward to distinguish a whale more than double the size from one that’s a lot smaller. Fin whales can reach up to 26 m; in contrast minke whales only 7 to 10 m on average. Nevertheless size can be quite difficult to judge when you are out on sea – especially if you’re high up on a fast moving vessel. The best way to identify any cetacean is always to combine a variety of different features, such as shape, size, colour, surfacing sequence, shape of dorsal fin, blow and behaviour. Unfortunately though, you don’t always get a good look on all of these or enough features. So to summarize, I can’t tell you for certain whether they were minke or fin whales, as we only got one photo of the dorsal fin, which unfortunately isn’t enough for a positive identification. Anyway, it was a great encounter and as always a real treat to see these cetaceans!!  For now, we will have to record them as unidentified whales.  Who knows, we might spot them again next week!

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Lovely calm seas – great whale watching conditions!

Apart from this very exciting evening the rest of the week was pretty quiet in terms of cetacean sightings, despite having near perfect spotting conditions. However, we were able to share sightings with passengers of seals, harbour porpoises and white-beaked dolphins.


Two beautiful cormorants flying in asymmetry

On Thursday, Charlie and I had another really exciting day, when we visited the University of Newcastle’s Dove Marine Laboratory for their summer school sessions. We had everything packed the day before – including Harry, our inflatable harbour porpoise model – and disembarked the ship as soon as we got into port in North Shields. Our short taxi journey brought us to the beautiful Cullercoats Bay just north of North Shields.  In the morning I delivered an interactive talk about cetaceans, their evolution and common species in the North Sea. Afterwards the 11 to 14 years old pupils joined me outside for some land-based surveying! Although we didn’t spot any whale or dolphin from the shore, we could enjoy some birds swooping up and down the sky, as well as several sneaky gulls trying to steal the lunch off from people who were enjoying a sunny day on the beach.

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On the lookout for some wildlife at Cullercoats Bay

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Explaining the difference between toothed and baleen whales

In the afternoon I gave another talk about ORCA’s conservation work, survey methods, common species and volunteer opportunities with us. This introductory marine science course was aimed at 16+ year olds who are interested in the marine science sector. It was a really fun day and ORCA is very proud to be one of the partners of the Dove Marine Laboratory. It’s fantastic to engage with the local community and to inspire young people about the fascinating marine life that’s out there – on our doorsteps!

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Juvenile gannet soaring in the sky

As always we had a busy and exciting week – there’s hardly ever a dull moment around. This week will be Charlie’s last week on board the DFDS King Seaways, so make sure you’ll stop by next week to read all about how Charlie experienced his four week Wildlife Officer Placement on here. And hopefully we can report on some more mysterious whales by then!

Have a great week!




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