Sunday, 13 September 2015

A whole herd of whales!

Very pleased to say that the only people who go out 'whaling' from Whitby these days are armed with cameras and binoculars. One of Yorkshire's biggest secrets, is that in recent years, decent numbers of Northern Minke Whales have been attracted to large shoals of Herring and Mackerel a few miles off the North Yorkshire coast. Occasionally, rarer species including Humpback, Sei and even Fin Whale have been seen! So, it was about time that I booked aboard with Whitby Whale Watching.

Up early, I was soon cruising across the North York Moors, looking soft and purple in the hazy, early morning sunshine. A few Red Grouse catapulted across the road in front of me. One or two lay on the hard shoulder: seemingly their road safety is not their strong point.

These poor birds are the root of massive uproar in the nation today, as the minority of people who prefer their hunting lazy, their garb tweedy and their meat laced with lead are sustaining their 'sport' by killing every predator in sight, protected or not. They are solely responsible for eradicating Hen Harriers from the hills of England. The patchwork of purple, green and black on the moors indicated some other major issues driven grouse shooting creates, which are the dis-colouration of drinking water, flash floods and huge carbon emissions through the burning of the uplands. Burning the moor provides new heather shoots for hungry grouse, but is pretty catastrophic for the environment and the people who's homes get flooded. Anyway, back to the plot...

My excitement had led to me arriving in Whitby ninety minutes ahead of schedule which gave me plenty of time for a bacon butty and a wander down the river to the harbour. Several Turnstone eyed my bacon butty hungrily, whilst on the beach a gang of creaking Sandwich Terns with their incessantly piping young dwarfed a pack of Common Terns.

I quickly located the Brewery Steps and the handsome Specksioneer moored alongside. Our gang of eight gathered and we were given a hearty welcome on the boat by Brian the skipper and his crew of two.

The skipper turned the boat around and we headed straight out to sea.

One then three Harbour Porpoises were the first cetacean to make an appearance, as they surfaced to breath by the boat. We continued to head out. A fine Sooty Shearwater skimmed past, silver wing linings flashing in the morning sun. Then, the shout of 'whale' went up, and sure enough close in off the starboard bow, the arched slate back of a Minke Whale broke the surface, followed by a small, curved fin.

Shortly, another appeared this time on the port side and on it's second surface I managed to get a full sequence of shots as it surfaced. A great start! In the excitement I chanced to look up as a Bonxie cruised overhead, looking down at us menacingly, in the way only Bonxies can.

We carried on for a bit, noting three Meadow Pipits overhead, presumably Scandinavian migrants drifted in on the southeasterly wind. We past aft of a rather large ship which seemed a sensible decision and shortly another shout of whale went up and we were treated to good views yet again.

It seemed the Minkes were feeding in small loose pods, of perhaps four or five individuals. Time got on, and there were periods of very little except a few Gannets, Fulmars and Grey Seals. It seemed like we should be heading home, but Brian seemed to be loving the trip as much as us and we steamed south east to check out a cloud of Gannets and gulls. Sure enough, there was three or four whales around what was presumably a large shoal of fish. The birds were in a feeding frenzy, Gannets dropping like darts vertically into the water and staying submerged for a decent length of time. Among the chaos a brutish gang of bull Grey Seals were whipping up the sea; there must have been at least twenty.

We could have stayed out all day as this was magic. Sadly, it was time for us to head for Whitby, so the skipper turned us west and we cruised down the wind. The chop had got up and the clouds had come over - we were over an hour late too (great for us - not so good for the folks waiting in the harbour for the next trip!). Two more whales on the way back and some good whale-chat was a great way to end what was a fantastic trip. To be able to see whales off the Yorkshire coast is truly incredible and shows the potential the sea and its wildlife has to recover if we give it the chance. No Humpback today, but I will just have to come back!

Brian and the crew of the Specksioneer were brilliant. Knowledgeable, good humoured and clearly very into it, which is a breath of fresh air compared to many 'wildlife trips' I have been on over the years, where you get a strong feeling they are more interested in the money than the wildlife. With these guys, it is clearly the opposite and they were delightful company. And they made us a cup of tea half way through! And all within sight of the dramatic North Yorkshire coastline. Brilliant!

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