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Sighting of 'critically endangered' monster of the deep sparks excitement ahead of major whaleand dolphin watch event

By Hector MacKenzie

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A North Atlantic right whale, a rare species spotted yesterday which people are being asked to look out for.
A North Atlantic right whale, a rare species spotted yesterday which people are being asked to look out for.

THE sighting of an ultra-rare whale yesterday has created ripples of excitement ahead of a major national event which encourages members of the public to report back on what they see.

A ship bound for Spain from Scotland yesterday morning encountered an extremely rare North Atlantic right whale off the French coast.

It had passed through the Irish Sea, crossed the western approaches to the English Channel and entered the Bay of Biscay when a large whale slowly crossed its path heading north-easterly towards Brest.

Its all-black colour, lack of a dorsal fin, and V-shaped twin blow enabled crew member Alix McDermott and the ship’s captain to confirm identification, which they then reportedto the national UK marine research charity, Sea Watch Foundation.

The North Atlantic right whale is described as "critically endangered", with fewer than five hundred animals remaining, forming a small population off the eastern seaboard of the United States.

In July 2018, however, a right whale nicknamed Mogul wandered from his usual feeding grounds to Iceland where he delighted whale watchers off the coast north-west of the capital, Reykjavik.

In March 2019, the same whale was seen back in its usual haunts in Cape Cod Bay, and then three months later on June 21, he appeared off the French coast at Penmarch in the northern Bay of Biscay, some 3200 miles away. Photographs and video enabled the whale to be individually recognised from the patterns ofthickened skin patches on the top of its head.

This latest sighting yesterday may well be the same animal since it is in a similar area in the northern Bay of Biscay.

In the last hundred years, there have been very few sightings of right whales in European waters, though in earlier centuries the species inhabited the waters around Spain,

France and the British Isles, particularly the Bay of Biscay which gave rise to its original name, the Biscayan Whale.

Since at least the 11th century, right whales were hunted relentlessly leading to the probable extinction of the eastern Atlantic population. They were called the “right” whale because they were easy to hunt, due to their coastal habit, slow surface skim-feeding behaviour, and the fact that after killing, the body would float and could be readily towed back to shore. Their thick blubber layer also yielded a lot of oil making them a very valuable prey.

Nowadays, right whales face other pressures from humans: entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes and changing distributions of their prey.

In recent years, animals from the North American population have started to range north of their usual summer feeding grounds of the Bay of Fundy and Browns Bank off the coast of Nova Scotia and now may regularly be found in the Gulf of St Lawrence.

“It is likely that the change in oceanographic conditions arising from climate change is causing right whales to seek out new areas to feed,” said Dr Peter Evans, Director of Sea

Watch Foundation.

“This poses further dangers. A major shipping route passes through the Bay of Biscay from the English Channel to the northwest corner of Spain. We already have cases of fin whales being accidentally struck and killed in the Bay of Biscay, so this North Atlantic Right Whale is running the gauntlet of ships. If crew on watch spot a large whale, we recommend the vessel slows down to enable the animal to pass by safely. There is scientific evidence that the probability of a lethal strike increases significantly when vessels travel at speeds greater than ten knots.”

Coincidentally, this sighting has occurred just days before the annual national Whale & Dolphin Watch event, now in its nineteenth year, when everyone is invited to look out for

whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Sea Watch Foundation are seeking volunteers to take part in the National Whale and Dolphin Watch 2020 this summer, which takes place fromJuly 25 – August 2.

The team at Sea Watch will offer online training and advice on how to take part: https://www.seawatchfoundation.org.uk/nwdw-2020-online-training/

Visit https://www.seawatchfoundation.org.uk/nwdw/ for details, or contact nwdw@seawatchfoundation.org.uk.

Fact file

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the rarest of all the great whales. Once abundant in the North Atlantic, its population is now estimated to be around 500 individuals, less than six per cent of what it once was before human explotation. A full-grown creature can extend to 18 metres in length and weigh up to 90,000 kg.

They have been seen west of the Outer Hebrides, of Rockall and north of Shetland.

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