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Thursday 22 March 2018

Once more into the breach for whale of a time

Grainne Cunningham

MEET #HBIRL11! This magnificent whale, captured on camera at the weekend in a rare -- and spectacular -- sighting, is the newest humpback to arrive in our seas.

Just 11 of these beautiful mammals have been documented off the Irish coast and even fewer have been photographed performing their graceful breaching action.

This humpback whale, sighted around Hook Head, Wexford, treated observers to a spectacular display of breaching, exploding out of the water 11 times, perhaps to herald his place in the Irish humpback whale catalogue.

After a number of reported sightings from local enthusiasts, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) chartered Duncannon-based skipper Martin Colfer and his boat 'The Rebecca C ' to investigate further and were richly rewarded with lengthy sightings.

The gnarled state of the dorsal fin also provided researchers with a valuable clue to the whale's gender. According to IWDG sight co-ordinator Padraig Whooley, the whale is probably male as males frequently fight to mate with females, sometimes receiving visible damage to their fins.

"One of the largest creatures on the planet 'exploding' out of the water is truly one of the most remarkable sights in the animal kingdom," he said.

In all, researchers spotted four cetaceans (whale and dolphin) in the waters surrounding the Hook Peninsula, including harbour porpoises, common dolphins, humpback whale and fin whales. The humpback was successfully biopsied by Dr Simon Berrow, IWDG, using a dart gun to retrieve a small plug of skin and blubber - a procedure the whale does not feel.

Analysis of the images obtained of the humpback whale's tail fluke show this to be a new humpback, not previously recorded in Irish waters.

Many of the humpback population are re-sighted on an annual basis, indicating how small the Irish population is.

Humpbacks, which are known for their complex songs, breathe air through two blowholes, releasing a stream of spray that rises up to 13 feet above the water. An adult usually ranges between 12m to 16m long and weighs about 36 tonnes

The new whale has been allocated a identity number, #HBIRL11, and images of his tail-fluke will be sent to The College of the Atlantic, Maine, USA, for matching with a database of over 5,000 recognisable humpbacks.

To date all Irish humpback whale images sent to the catalogue have shown these to be new whales, previously un-recorded. So although the Irish population remains small, it is the only European Atlantic country systematically contributing humpback whale images to this catalogue, which shows the relative importance of the inshore waters along the Irish south coast , Mr Whooley said.

Ross Bartley, wildlife filmmaker from Crossing the Line Films, captured the dramatic action and the footage will be used in the upcoming 'Wild Journeys' series on RTE which tells the story of humpback whale migration.

The latest updates and information on whales and dolphins in Irish waters can be found on

Irish Independent

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