Why we might be seeing humpback whales off Dorset’s shores regularly

Researchers from the Russian Cetacean Habitat Project, directed by Erich Hoyt, photograph a humpback

Researchers from the Russian Cetacean Habitat Project, directed by Erich Hoyt, photograph a humpback whale tail fluke for identification in the Commander Islands. The pattern on the underside is unique to each individual whale © Alexander Burdin 2017, Russian Cetacean Habitat Project (WDC) - Credit: Archant

From whale song to complex family dynamics of a pod, Erich Hoyt is immersed in a world of cetaceans, and he believes that humpback whales may soon be regularly sighted off Dorset’s shores

First the wind slaps my face, then comes the salty smell and damp skin feel of the North Pacific off Canada’s west coast. Killer whales – orcas - have been heard on the camp hydrophone, the underwater microphone just offshore. Minutes later we sight Stubbs’ pod - named after the stubby-finned matriarch of this extended family group. They spout and rest on the surface. We carefully photograph their individual dorsal fin and back markings for identification, record their unique sounds and note their feeding behaviour as they round up salmon. Minutes later, one after the other, they breach and tail lob, before playing at the surface for 15 minutes.

For 40 years now, in what amounts to a revolution in whale and dolphin research, individual identification has been the method of tracking and learning more about whales, dolphins and porpoises - known as cetaceans. The motivation for scientists has been curiosity about species that we know so little about, sharpened by the need to help reverse the extinction path from centuries of whaling and dolphin hunting.

I got involved in whale research in the 1970s and later wrote the first book on killer whales. The final chapter focused on saving their habitat off northern Vancouver Island. We succeeded up to a point but we soon realised that the study and saving of whales had to be a global effort. I have since participated in whale research and conservation efforts in every ocean.

Getting each cetacean’s ID allows us to learn about social behaviour and to track the movements, growth and overall health of the population year-by-year. There are now more than 100 photo-ID catalogues of different cetacean populations, many of them online.

Acoustics came next. Our group recorded orca dialects in the Russian pods, confirming that unique vocal dialects for each pod exist all over the world. These dialects are stable because orca pods stay together for life; some of the females we’ve studied have lived 80 to 100 years.

We found that orcas are “biphonic”, they can make two different sounds at once and that such vocalisations are often heard in large groups or when the members of the pod are spread out. This helps them communicate and keep together over long distances. For close up communication, they use the softer monophonic calls. Fish-eating orcas talk to each other a lot, but the orcas that hunt seals, sea lions and sometimes other whale and dolphin species are quiet when they hunt so as not to disturb the prey.

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In my new book, Encyclopedia of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises, I look at the 90 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises and what we’re learning about them in the wild. This includes the all white or albino orcas - at least five of them so far - that we’ve been finding in the North Pacific. In 2010 we met an all white big bull orca we named Iceberg. We saw him again in 2015 still with his fish-eating family of 13 individuals. The large number of albinos may be due to inbreeding but so far all seem healthy.

Worldwide, of all the large whales, we know the most about humpback whales. The males sing together on the warm water breeding grounds, though we’re still not sure why. They have complex songs with themes and alternating parts to each song lasting up to 30 minutes before being repeated. In each area of the ocean, all the males sing the same song even as it gradually changes during the season.

Researchers have also discovered songs in other large whales, notably the blue whale whose songs sound like monotonous dirges. They’re below human hearing and must be sped up four times to be heard. These low sounds travel great distances, even across ocean basins. Some years ago, researchers listened to a blue whale from a hydrophone off Iceland and then picked up the sound more than an hour later off Bermuda, some 4,600 km away. Researchers now know that there are separate dialects of blue whale songs in every part of the ocean, up to a total of 14 different dialects. These may be separate populations or breeding units.

Some of the work I have collaborated in, talked about in the Encyclopedia, is based in the UK. I have helped to identify habitat for cetaceans in British waters with colleagues from Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC). They have been studying Risso’s dolphins from Bardsey Island in Wales and from Lewis in Scotland. WDC and other studies have also focused on minke whales, harbour porpoises and bottlenose dolphins, especially in the Moray Firth, Scotland, and Cardigan Bay, Wales.

Will whales ever return in great numbers to Dorset and other south coast waters? I believe yes - if we continue to clean up our waters and maintain a fishing policy that doesn’t destroy the ecosystem. The first whales, the pioneers, are already starting to return. Humpback whales have been showing up all around the UK, including off the south coast twice earlier this year. The first known blue whale in perhaps 100 years appeared off southwest UK in 2015.

My fervent hope is some day to watch humpbacks crowd the shores of Dorset, clearly visible from the South West Coastal Path, feeding, breaching and tail lobbing all summer long before they migrate south for the winter.

About Erich

Author and whale researcher Erich Hoyt moved to Bridport in 2013 after 20 years in Scotland. Erich grew up in Canada and the USA. As Research Fellow for Whale and Dolphin Conservation in the UK, he has conducted research and conservation activities around the world. His current work focuses on humpback, Baird’s beaked and killer whale research in the Russian North Pacific and establishing Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs) for conservation in the Mediterranean and South Pacific and Indian oceans. His various awards for his writing, scientific and conservation work include Outstanding Book of the Year from the American Society of Journalists & Authors for Creatures of the Deep and the European Cetacean Society’s Mandy McMath Award for his conservation work on behalf of whales. Encyclopedia of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises published by Firefly is his 22nd book. More at erichhoyt.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ErichHoyt.

What can I see off the Dorset coast?

The three main cetacean species seen from the Dorset coast are the bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin and harbour porpoise. All three can potentially be seen year-round. The best lookouts include Portland Bill (especially along the cliffs), St Albans Head, Durlston Head, Hengistbury Head, and high points from the South West Coastal Path overlooking Lyme Bay, as well as along Chesil Beach at the Portland end.

Other cetacean possibilities include the long-finned pilot whale, Atlantic white-sided dolphin, Risso’s dolphin, minke whale and the humpback whale. Fin whales and even blue whales have been seen feeding in deep waters off southwest Cornwall and southern Ireland.

Cetacean sighting records in and around Dorset are kept by Sea Watch Foundation (seawatchfoundation.org.uk) and Durlston Country Park & National Nature Reserve (durlston.co.uk).


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