Whale Off St Martin’s Was ‘Significant Sighting’


Photo of the whale by Fay Page

The whale seen by Anna Cawthray and Fay Page off St Martin’s last weekend was a young bowhead whale.

Experts from all over the world have been involved in identifying the mammal. It is a significant sighting because this is the first of this species recorded in British or European waters.

The women saw the mammal swimming close to shore off Par Beach last Friday evening.

Afterwards Anna sent images to the Sea Watch Foundation, which records such sightings.

Sea Watch’s Sightings Officer, Kathy James, looked at the mobile phone pictures of the 25ft whale to try and identify it.

One mage showed a distant, curved back with no apparent dorsal fin and Sea Watch say that probably influenced local naturalists to think this was a sperm whale.

The only other large whales without dorsal fins are the near-extinct North Atlantic right whale, the bowhead whale of the high Arctic and the gray whale from the North Pacific.

Believing that the photographs showed something quite special, Kathy forwarded the images to the Sea Watch Foundation’s Founder and Director, Dr Peter Evans, whose field experience of cetaceans goes back 45 years.

Dr Evans said he could just make out that the jaw-line curved downwards somewhat at the base. The shape of the head and jaw-line ruled out sperm whale and confirmed that it was a baleen whale but he still couldn’t be certain of the species.

The pyramidal shape of the head with what looked like a line of callosities along the top led Dr Evans to think it might be a young gray whale. Grey whales went extinct in the North Atlantic in the eighteenth century but in May 2010, amazingly, one was photographed off Israel and then three weeks later the same individual was seen and photographed off Barcelona in Spain.

Three years after that, in May 2013, a second individual was photographed for the first time south of the equator off Namibia, Southwest Africa. These two individuals were both assumed to have entered the Atlantic from the North Pacific via the Northwest Passage now that it has become ice-free at times.

Dr Evans was less familiar with bowhead whale, and seeking further opinion, sent the images to colleagues in the United States – Dr Tom Jefferson from Texas A&M University, Dr Phil Clapham from the government agency NOAA in Washington DC, and Dr Scott Kraus from New England Whale Museum in Provincetown.

They in turn consulted with other colleagues from all around North America, including specialists on particular species – grey whale, North Atlantic right whale, and finally, bowhead whale.

The more specialists that were involved, the firmer the view became, that the animal was indeed a young bowhead whale. It was decided that the apparent callosities on the top of the head were a trick of the light, and one could just make out some black spotting along the top, a key feature of bowheads.

The head shape and jaw-line also fitted the species, as did the light patch under the chin and the lack of a dorsal fin.

Although it is very difficult to estimate size, Anna’s observations and the photograph of herself near the animal suggest that it was a juvenile since the species can grow to a length of up to 65ft.

This extraordinary sighting, the first of this species in the UK, has not been recorded elsewhere in Europe. Bowheads normally live in the high Arctic.

Heavily exploited by whalers in the Arctic Ocean, in Baffin Bay off Greenland, and the Barents Sea north of Norway, the population seriously declined during the early twentieth century from numbers historically estimated to be around 30,000-50,000, reaching a low in the 1920s of around 3,000.

With the cessation of commercial whaling in the latter half of the last century, numbers globally have increased to somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000, mainly in the Beaufort Sea and Arctic Ocean. The Eastern Arctic-West Greenland population has increased recently and now is thought to number well over 3,500.

There are no good estimates of abundance for the Spitsbergen and Okhotsk Sea stocks but they have shown no signs of significant recovery, and probably still number only a few hundred.

Anna says the discovery is “incredible.”