Could the Norfolk whale make the east coast its home for winter?
- Credit: Archant
The arrival of a humpback whale off the east Norfolk coast has fuelled hope the magnificent creatures could become a more common sight in this part of the world.
The humpback, with is distinctive body shape and long fins, was seen swimming and feeding between Winterton-on-Sea and Sea Palling for the second day yesterday.
Experts confirmed the whale's appearance off Hemsby, near Great Yarmouth, on Tuesday morning was the first ever recorded sighting of a humpback off Norfolk. And it is thought the animal, estimated to be a healthy adult measuring between 10 and 12 metres long, could stick around if the conditions are right and food is plentiful.
Carl Chapman, Norfolk's cetacean recorder and a co-ordinator for the national Sea Watch Foundation, co-authored the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists' Society 2013 Bird and Mammal Report which predicted that humpbacks would be seen off Norfolk in the next five years.
He was not surprised a humpback whale had finally been seen off Norfolk, but admits it happened 'a lot sooner' than he expected. 'It's not a surprise; I predicted this would happen as their numbers increase internationally, but it's certainly a surprise it has happened so soon,' said Mr Chapman, who has looked through records dating back to the 1700s.
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'This is unrecorded in Norfolk. It hasn't happened before.'
With families and children on half- term holiday heading to the coast to catch a glimpse of the humpback – a historic moment for Norfolk wildlife – questions were asked about why the whale had come this far south and so close to shore.
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Humpbacks, which are the fifth largest of the whale species, annually migrate and travel thousands of miles from warm-water breeding grounds in the tropics to the cold-water feeding grounds in the polar regions.
They prefer inshore waters and, because of that, are occasionally seen in the Hebrides as they move from waters around Africa to waters around Iceland and Norway.
Historically, humpback whales were targeted by commercial whalers and their population suffered across the globe. Whaling was a lucrative industry from the 17th century to the mid-19th – King's Lynn was a busy whaling port for generations.
But, with the ban on whaling, the number of humpbacks in the world's ocean has been increasing over time.
Humpbacks still face dangers including collisions with vessels, getting entangled in fishing gear, pollution and reduction in prey stocks, but experts are hopeful that the could be repopulating old feeding grounds.
Mr Chapman said: 'It may even over-winter here. They have done off the coast of Scotland, so it's possible.Internationally, numbers have started to increase since the ban on whaling so this is a reflection of the global picture.'
On Tuesday, the humpback came just 600m from shore in Hemsby and was closely followed by a flock of gannets, suggesting it was sticking around to take advantage of a good supply of fish. It was two to three miles off the coast yesterday, but could still be seen in the distance in the early afternoon.
Emma Webb, area coordinator for British Divers Marine Life Rescue, said humpbacks favour shallow waters but could get into difficulty in unknown areas so she will continue to monitor its movements.
'It's about 10 to 12m in length so could be a sub-adult female or small adult male – it's very difficult to tell at sea,' she added.
'There are records of humpbacks in the North Sea every year and numbers have been steadily increasing year on year as they are off south-west Ireland too.
'It is likely that this is in response to an increase in population size post commercial whaling and the animals are recolonising old feeding grounds.
'They do tend to be seen more in the northern North Sea off Scotland and the north-east. I've seen a mother-calf pairing on Dogger Bank and there are records of them feeding off Whitby, but there is no reason why they can't survive in the Central North Sea as they are a very cosmopolitan species and can be found all over the world.
'Individuals have been recorded off the Dutch and French coast in recent years. However, they are often offshore so it is unusual to see them so close to land.'