Lyme Bay Humpback - the real story

[Updated as the Humpback stays on. Given its visit to Tor Bay, the article has been changed to Lyme Bay Humpback]
Setting the scene
Western Lyme Bay including Start Bay and Tor Bay
Start Bay is the area between Start Point (bottom left) and the entrance of the Dart (middle). There
was a large concentration of shoaling fish in the area during February, in fact Mackerel (and some Anchovy) were being caught in large numbers even in the entrance of the Dart, very unusual in the winter. While Herring (Sprats and Anchovy) are more regular winter visitors, clearly all species were around in large numbers. The topography of Start Bay meant these fish were getting concentrated in large shoals close to the shore. The beach is of small pebbles and shelves quite steeply, while further out the skerries bank acts as a shallower barrier. On 22nd-23rd February the UK was hit by a big winters' storm 'Doris'. By 23rd the winds had gone round to a northwesterly. Perhaps 'Doris' had nothing do with what appeared in Start Bay around the same time and might have just have been a red herring (pardon the pun) of the food driven event that was about to happen.

Later the Humpback whale moved up the coast off Berry Head into Tor Bay. Both Start Bay and Tor Bay are smaller bays in the western side of Lyme Bay (which stretches from Portland to Start Point). Calling it Lyme Bay has confused some people, but you can see it defined as such and is a natural area, see section 3 of the document here.

One Humpback only!!
 On Thursday 23rd February two friends (Mike Langman and Perry Saunders, who know I'm particularly interested in seabirds and cetaceans), both phoned to say there was a whale off Slapton beach, presumed to be a Minke Whale. A whale close inshore was not to be missed so we set off straight away, arriving mid-afternoon. There was clearly a large food source close inshore with many Gannets and gulls feeding (probably in the hundreds spread-out in Start Bay). Underneath were many cetaceans, mostly Harbour Porpoises but further out we were also seeing Common Dolphins attracted to the food. All a great spectacle in itself.
The Start Bay Humpback Whale Dive sequence. The front of the animal appears with the blow, the back arches revealing the hump (with reduced dorsal fin) and then the tail flukes appear as the animal dives. As the water off  Slapton beach is relatively shallow, the flukes were only seen occasionally as many feeding dives were shallow. A healthy Whale!
 We met a few people telling us the 'Minke' was still there and we located the whale feeding southeast of the memorial car park. Expecting to see a 'Minke' I was very excited to see the whale was actually a large Humpback feeding on the shoaling fish. I quickly phoned a few people saying what it was, as this was in a different league. We watched the Humpback until dusk and hoped it and the food source would stay, so others would be able to witness this unique event.

Now it was interesting a probable 'Minke' had also been claimed on the 22nd, as well as a 'Minke' feeding close in on the 23rd February on local online 'Wildlife in Devon' news service. My own theory is it was the same animal all the time, a Humpback, but would love to be proved wrong. So if anyone has any photos of the 'Minke' please put them on Devon Birds News to prove me wrong.

In later days there were also reports of two Humpbacks! Also a Humpback and a calf! Given the speed the animal was moving at times it was easy to think may be two, but all my photos and those of others show unique markings on either side of the animal consistent with one Humpback only. The reports of a calf, once again I believe this was confusion with Harbour Porpoises which at times were close to the Humpback. From what I've read given the time of year it would be exceptional for a mother and calf to be this far north; a few non-breeding Humpbacks do winter further north but most of the breeding animals are further south.

The right side of the Humpback showing characteristic marking. All photos of Humpback show the same animal not two and no calf!

A Herring and Mackerel - two casts worth!
The Humpback was obviously feeding on the abundant fish which were attracting the feeding frenzy. It was covering quite a large area quickly, the shelving beach forming the perfect fish trap. At times it would appear just off the beach with the blow being quite audible. Watching a local angler that day confirmed what it was feeding on as he was catching Herring and Mackerel on every cast and described it as highly unusual to be catching Mackerel in such large numbers in winter.

If the food source remained the Humpback was likely to do so making use of the glut of fish. I personally went down to watch the Humpback Whale on 23rd, 24th, 25th & 27th February; 3rd, 6th & 9-10th March. On the 25th February it is was ranging over a much larger area going down to Blackpool Sands to nearly off Start Point, but at times was still coming in close to feed. I also noticed at times it would go further out and rest near the surface. Either it was becoming well fed or the food source was dispersing - perhaps a bit of both. I believe on the Sunday 26th it was mostly distant but did come closer to shore feeding late afternoon. On Monday the 27th February we went down again to see if the Humpback was still present. It had not been reported all morning and there were still no sign in the afternoon despite much feeding activity in Start Bay, with Gannets, gulls and many Harbour Porpoise still present. Then at 15:30 Adele picked up a blow in the deeper water at 80 degrees from the memorial car park, probably 2-3 miles offshore. I managed to pick up two more big blows in same area, consistent with Humpback, but saw no more despite scanning.

I believe this was the last sighting until 2nd March when seen feeding again off Strete Gate late afternoon close in. We went down again on 3rd March and picked it up by the blows, distantly north on the 'bell buoy' from Torcross around 11:00. It headed north towards Blackpool Sands / Dartmouth, being lost for long periods before picking up the blows again. In the afternoon it came in closer (viewed from the memorial car park), when seabird feeding activity increased and was there until early evening working its way south feeding. Same pattern 4th-5th March with best views towards evening (off Strete Gate 16:30).

We went down gain on the 6th March. The whale was difficult to see being picked up very distantly around 14:00, well to the NE. It slowly worked it way in closer in north Start Bay, only getting in as far as Blackpool Sands direction in the failing light. A huge number of gulls and Gannets starting feeding in the N end of the bay during the late afternoon with several Harbour Porpoise. Obviously the food source is still there.

On the 7th March it was seen feeding between the memorial car park and Strete Gate from 15:15 by Luke Proctor et al.

Talking to Stephen Marsh of  BDMLR yesterday (7th March) he was asking for good photos of the underside of the tail flukes. These markings act as a finger print. The best I could find were taken by Bob Telford (see last photo here) . Bob  kindly sent on some more copies which have been sent to the The North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue (NAHWC) at the College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbour, Maine, USA. ( . There are some very distinctive marks on the left fluke, I was unable to find a match, but hopefully NAHWC will, or at least they've got a new animal for the catalogue. We'll post the results if there's a match.

On the 8th March it was seen feeding between memorial car park and Strete Gate 16:45 et al.

I went down again on 9th March. I located the Humpback off Strete Gate late morning where no one seemed to be watching! The animal was feeding  mid-distance, but even better it did two full breaches coming right out of the water, showing the whitish pectoral flippers (fins) as it span, neither of which I captured. The first time I'd seen this behavior in all the days I've watched it. It was also doing more deep diving today (and tail slapping) with tail flukes appearing high out of the water more often than I'd seen on previous days. The Humpback then moved south in Start Bay getting close to memorial car park and appeared to feed off Torcross  / Beesands for some time, where the main seabird activity increased. It ended up coming back, very close past the memorial car park heading for Strete Gate. Due to calmness of the sea a series of 'footprints' could be seen just off the beach markings its progress. An amazing day's watching in more benign conditions and great to meet Henry Kirkwood (who's dad I used to seawatch with at Hartland Point). Excellent photos and a video of the dive sequence (actually showing the animal's head and blow), taken by Henry can be seen Here.

On the 10th it was foggy clearing late afternoon. Had the briefest of views 15:19-16:00 from memorial car park, although later heard  it was off Strete Gate until dusk. Not so many birds feeding but still plenty of Harbour Porpoise in the bay.

Still present Start Bay on the 11th March.

On the 12th it was seen east off Berry Head up to 09:30, disappeared, then reappeared in Tor Bay during the afternoon to evening. Breaching more now and tail slapping - a change in behavior!

13th March, seen from Berry Head at from 07:05 then gave fantastic views to people up until 12:45, see photos here and videos here and here. Then headed off south 13:30 and was back in Start Bay 15:45-18:30.

Sightings have become less predictable with no confirmed sightings on 14th March, but on the 15th it was back in Start Bay 16:30-19:00 at least.

The Humpback makes it into its 4th week with sightings in north Start Bay late on 16th March in mouth of the Dart and off Blackpool Sands and similar pattern on 17th-19th.

Just a distant blow seen mid morning on 20th March was the only possible sighting reported. On the 21st March it was reported it off Strete Gate 16:40 then  Slapton memorial car park from 17:12, then by off Torcross 18:40.

On the 22nd March we headed down again, as it was the Humpback’s one month anniversary of being in Lyme Bay (Start Bay). Sadly things took a turn for the worse when the animal was reported to be tangled in static crab/lobster pot gear (one of the ropes with pick up buoys) off Blackpool Sands, from around 10:00.  The fishing boat Maverick stayed with the whale until help arrived from the British Divers Marinelife Rescue with the RNLI (in inshore rib and later the Salcombe lifeboat). After several attempts they finally managed to cut the rope wrapped around the whale at 17:20 and we watched it swim off fast. The inshore RNLI rib then monitored its progress, after two passes up and down it headed south towards Slapton. Fantastic work by these two great charities, were are so lucky to have their expertise to deal with these situations.
Humpback Whale off Blackpool Sands entangled in rope with BDMLR attending on Maverick with RNLI in support.
BDMLR cutting rope
RNLI monitoring Humpback Whale after freed.

So the true facts:
  • A perfectly healthy single Humpback Whale was/is feeding in Lyme Bay.
  • The whale was most likely present in Start Bay from 22nd–27th, at least 23rd–27th February, then re-sighted 2nd–11th March. It then visited Tor Bay 12th-13th March, but was back in Start Bay later on 13th and 15th-21st.
  • On the 22nd March the whale became entangled in pot gear off Blackpool Sands, but was releaed by the BDMLR with the RNLI.
  • Humpbacks are known predators of shoaling fish such as Herring and Mackerel, known to be present in large numbers and will enter shallower water to hunt them.
  • The topography of Start Bay and Slapton beach was acting as a fish trap, so close views of the Humpback Whale were afforded at times.
  • This was a unique event for the public to witness from land close inshore, with no risk to the whale.
  • There was a possibility boats might spook the animal into beaching, generally watercraft were well behaved and a warning for them to stay away was issued by the Police and Marine Management Organisation. One cabin cruiser (there's always one!) was reported on morning of 24th February getting too close. Also on 13th March another was getting too close to it off Berry Head.
  • People were thrilled by this unique sight, including the local primary school children and many families, hopefully inspiring a new generation of conservationists for the future
  • Slapton beach was the perfect arena for watching such a spectacle, with good parking and plenty of space for people to spread out.
  • Luckily many people watched the whale, staying for around four weeks often close to the shore in Lyme Bay.
Start Bay Humpback showing double blow hole, which is why they have a 'bushy' or 'mushroom' shaped blow. That's close for a big whale, but it not in trouble, its feeding!
The press hype
On the Friday 24th February the press had got hold of the story and based on some 'poor expert' advice started releasing stories of a "whale is in trouble" and there are "fears for its welfare". What was worse they had the gall to use my pictures as a "Humpback Whale pictured in trouble". This was absolute nonsense and completely misleading the public who they were also telling to stay away, hence completely misjudging the situation.  Initially said 'expert' also doubted the identification! A story in a well known tabloid was even worse; with completely misleading statements; the Humpback was described as "a mother who's lost its calf",  "floundering in storm-lashed waves". It went onto describe the whale as "too far south"  and "only a plankton eater" all inaccurate. This poor journalism reflects badly on the journalists involved and their source, who was shown the be literally out of their depth. At the time many people were put off seeing this unique event by the press.  By chance a friend (Dave S), who had just returned from Mexico, where he'd been watching breeding Humpbacks (some mothers with calves and a few bulls) in shallower water. So the Start Bay Humpback was hardly too far south.

Thankfully the British Divers Marinelife Rescue put up an accurate statement on the Saturday 25th February based on real experience (which countered that coming from elsewhere), which we tried to get out to media via twitter, Devon Bird News etc. I talked to Sky News pointing them to BDMLR as better expert advice. The rest of the media also responded by amending their later stories but even so still went back to the original 'expert' source, who once again got it wrong saying this was the only sighting in our waters in 26 years! The very same local paper had covered a story of a Humpback off Dartmouth in 2015 and there have been others (certainly off Cornwall)!

BBC news get it wrong again on 13th March saying there are two whales when there's only one! At least on 21st March BBC1 spotlight ran a good positive story on how the Humpback was generating income for local businesses and interviewed people who had been delighted to see it.

"I've been seawatching for a lot of years and have to say there is not much that can beat this experience and wish as many people as possible also had the privilege to witness a Humpback Whale feeding off Devon."
The hump and dorsal fin of Humpback Whale
As new sightings emerge of the Humpback Whale I'll amend the above dates and text, also if the 'Minke Whale' is confirmed from any photos - please!
Updated 21:00 22/03/2017