When a sick baby minke whale sailed up the Thames earlier this week, hundreds of people gathered to watch the rescue efforts in Richmond and Teddington over two days.
It was the most upstream point a whale had ever ventured, a feat so out of the ordinary that curiosity among the crowds flocking to the spillway and those following the whale’s errant journey on social media was matched by the outpouring of sadness when the little whale didn’t survive.
This is not the first time the public has become involved in unusual whale sightings. Last week, two killer whales from the UK’s only resident pod caused a stir when they were spotted off the west coast of Cornwall, believed to be their most southerly confirmed sighting. And humpback whales around the Isles of Scilly and near the coast of Penzance caused a stir last Christmas. The skeleton of Willie, the northern bottlenose whale that swam up the Thames in 2006 and died following a rescue attempt, has been put on display at the Natural History Museum.
Charismatic and socially complex animals have long captured the popular imagination, like Knobble the minke whale, which has returned to the Sea of the Hebrides every year since 2006, has its own Facebook page and even inspired a song. And who could forget Benny the beluga whale, who sparked a boom in tourism, goods and an eponymous lager when he rocked Gravesend in 2018.
Marine life charities and wildlife tour operators say wider interest and empathy for whales has gradually grown in Britain, particularly over the past decade.
“When I set up a public sighting program and built a network of spotters in the 1970s, very few people knew they could see a rich variety of whales and dolphins in the waters around the islands. Britain,” said Peter Evans, the director of the cetacean conservation and research charity Sea Watch Foundation, who he said received constant requests from the public about ways to get involved in conservation efforts. .
“We now have a thriving whale and dolphin watching industry that is accelerating and becoming very important socio-economically in several coastal regions,” Evans said. “Wildlife viewing is rapidly replacing fishing as a source of income in some areas, with ecotourism overtaking other forms of tourism.”
The rise of social media and the impact of documentaries such as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet and this year’s Netflix hit Seaspiracy appear to have contributed to increased demand for wildlife viewing tours and engagement with citizen science projects. A year of lockdown restrictions has also encouraged people to experience nature on their doorstep and take more national holidays.
An example being the fishing port of Whitby, once famous for its whaling fleet which in recent years has become a thriving national whale-watching hotspot built on businesses mainly run by former trawlers.
“It’s usually a quiet time of year for us, but we’re fully booked now and there’s a lot of interest in the summer as well,” said Georgia Bardua of AK Wildlife Cruises in Falmouth. With lots of people on holiday in Cornwall and already some sightings of minke whales and basking sharks, “it’s definitely going to be a very busy year”.
To meet demand, Sam Cunningham of Dolphin Watch UK in Brixham, Devon, expanded his operation to six boats from one last year, and five different species, including fin whales, have already been sighted locally this season. Around half of his bookings came from people from London and the north holidaying in Devon, and with more people expected on pleasure boats, he anticipates an increase in reported sightings.
In Northumberland, Martin Kitching of Northern Experience Wildlife Tours has already booked several boat trips this month, with a ripple effect of bottlenose dolphins moving further south. He also coordinates the North East Cetacean Project, mapping the distribution and abundance of whales, dolphins and porpoises off the coast between the River Tees and the Scottish border. His Facebook group has grown ninefold since 2019.
“Much of what we know about the movements of whales in the region is due to more and more members of the public sending in photos and sightings every year,” said science manager Lauren Hartny-Mills. and conservation at the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, from growing public enthusiasm for citizen science initiatives like their Whale Track vision program.
And conservation charity Orca, which trains volunteers to carry out scientific surveys, said that in the past 10 years it had doubled the number of research teams it sends on trips to ferry, thanks to increased public engagement. During the lockdown, demand for its educational programs skyrocketed.
Evans said that when managed with care and responsibility, activities such as whale watching can benefit both people and the natural world. “If you’ve ever taken a boat trip and encountered a whale or a pod of dolphins up close, you’ll have seen how it changes lives.
“I have seen cases of people cured of depression, giving up unfulfilling jobs and careers to switch to a more environmentally friendly form of living and working. It’s something whales and dolphins can do that few other species on this planet have the ability to do.
When and where to watch whales
A rich variety of whales can be seen around the UK coast. Some are seen more regularly than others and you can also never rule out the possibility of unexpected visits, like Benny the beluga who visited the Thames in 2018.
Marine mammals can be seen in UK waters all year round, but sightings are most common during the summer months between April and November. Hotspots include the northern islands of Scotland, the northern North Sea and the western end of the English Channel.
Fin whales, the second largest whale species, can be seen at various times of the year in the deeper waters that stretch from Scotland to the Western Channel. Particularly between August and early October, they can also be spotted off the coasts of Northumberland and Yorkshire, along with minke whales, sei whales and humpback whales.
Killer whales, the largest members of the dolphin family, visit northern Scotland all year round and are often spotted around Orkney and Shetland between May and September. A small group, known as the West Coast Community and the UK’s only resident group, are usually found in the waters around the Hebrides but have been sighted as far south as the west coast of Cornwall.
Minke whales are the most common baleen whale species sighted around the UK coast, particularly during the summer months off the west coast of Scotland, and can be seen from shore. They are usually seen in the Minches, the waters surrounding the mainland, small islands and other islands such as Mull. They are also recorded in Cornwall, along with fin whales.
Other species, including sperm whales and pilot whales, are seen from time to time, as well as rarer visitors such as beaked whales, beaked whales and northern right whales, mainly in the Hebrides and the Shetlands. Sperm whales, the largest toothed whale species, can be seen in the deep waters off the west coast of Scotland, along with the occasional beluga whale.
Sightings of humpback whales are recorded more in Britain, mainly in northern Scotland. Between May and September, migrating humpback whales were mainly seen in the southern tip of the Shetland Islands and off the Hebrides, but increasingly in the northern North Sea and were also sighted off the coast west of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.