Walking with Whales – Again

Last year Ron Macdonald, formerly of SNH, described the thrill of observing two humpback whales off the Ythan estuary in Aberdeenshire. A year later, in early August, a humpback whale was spotted off St Cyrus National Nature Reserve and Ron was there to watch it.

 

Introduction

I’m besotted by whales so news that another humpback whale was sighted off St Cyrus beach had me down there in double quick time.  My interest quickened when, based on pictures of the whale’s dorsal fin and the pattern of markings behind it, it was identified as one of the two that had last year spent three months off the Ythan estuary. Yay, gotta get reacquainted

Have you seen the whale?

Over the next fortnight, ‘have you seen the whale?’ was a question I’d frequently ask and which was asked of me. The presence of the humpback brought a tangible feel good factor to the local community and was reason enough for people to talk to one another when perhaps they might not otherwise. The village of St Cyrus took to ‘their’ whale which of course also brought in visitors, but it was more genuine interest that fuelled the banter.

The cliff-top observation point, on the path at the top of the relic shoreline within St Cyrus National Nature Reserve gives you a commanding view of St Cyrus bay – northwards to the Kaime of Mathers castle with its dark history and beyond to Milton Ness at the head the bay – and southwards to Montrose lying between the rivers North and South Esk and beyond to Scurdie Ness lighthouse at the southernmost point of the bay.

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The humpback whale with Scurdie Ness lighthouse in the background © Ron Macdonald

Here could be found a hubbub of seasoned cetacean watchers, visitors from near and far and local people. It was a good place to look out for the characteristic blow as the whale surfaces and exhales, to watch it feeding or if you were lucky, to see it lob-tailing or breaching further out in the deeper water of the outer bay.

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Whale watchers at the cliff-top observation point. ©Jules Anderson

It soon emerged there were two hotspots where the whale was frequently seen – one off the mouth of the North Esk and the other in the northern part of the bay, below the Kaime of Mathers. Once sighted, I usually high – tailed it down the cliff path to walk with the whale as it swam along the shore or I perched on the cliff-top, high above the Kaime of Mathers looking down on it feeding. This brought me much closer to the whale, close enough at times to hear, and occasionally be startled by, the ‘blow’ of air from its double blowhole.

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The whale feeding close to the breakers on St Cyrus beach. Tail seen. ©Ron Macdonald

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The whale surfacing, blowing as it does. ©Ron Macdonald

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The whale at the surface showing its double blow hole. ©Ron Macdonald

Feeding strategies – to lunge, cruise, eddy or bubble?

There seemed to be a number of feeding strategies used by the whale to include:

• A short lunge propelled by the tail, body and flippers with the head popping up and jaws gulping in seawater and fish. Until recently, it was thought that the flippers were used only for steering but we now know that they also use them to lunge feed. Not really that surprising when you think about it. As a friend said, “if you have these large paddles, a third the length of your body, why wouldn’t you use them to drive yourself forward”?

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The whale powering forward to lunge feed, using its tail and flippers. Right flipper can be seen underwater to the far right. ©Ron Macdonald

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Lunge feeding. Photo taken in 2016, by David Whitaker, near to the Ythan estuary of the same whale as seen at St Cyrus. ©David Whitaker.

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The mouth closed. You can see the eye which is closed as well, just behind the mouth. ©David Whitaker

• The longer head down method, cruising, with the jaws open and then eventually closing, almost like a trawl. The whale often used this strategy while feeding in a leisurely way along the beach, at the mouth of the North Esk and further out in the bay. Alternatively the whale could decide to power forward using its tail as the main driving force, keeping near to the surface and using its flippers principally to to steer. See video by Peter and Rachel Hazelhurst. https://we.tl/0m6CQvdOdB

• Creating a vortex or eddy with its body, flippers and tail, presumably to form a bait ball of fish or maybe disturbing the sediment below, maybe to force sand eels or crustaceans from their burrows, before the whale rises in the middle to gulp in and filter out its prey through its baleen plates. The tail is also used to lash the water further scaring the fish into the centre of the vortex created by the whale. I observed this method both close to shore and far out in deeper water. I think its main purpose is to create a vortex or eddy, forcing sprats and other small fish such as sand eels, hidden in their sandy burrows, into a tighter mass or bait ball;

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The whale creating a vortex of water which concentrates the sprats and sand eels in a centre column. You can see the flipper, dorsal fin and tail. ©Ron Macdonald

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The whale flips on its side, flicking it tail to strengthen the vortex. It also slaps its flipper and tail. ©Ron Macdonald

• And most of us have seen the marvellous TV footage of humpbacks bubble feeding- encircling the prey with a ‘bubble’ net. The fish try to avoid the bubbles, so they are forced to ascend and concentrate in a denser part of the bubble net. Usually such behaviour is seen when several humpbacks fish co-operatively. Unfortunately I didn’t observe bubble feeding.

The pictures below show in some detail a sequence of lunge feeding:

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Left jaw fully open at a right angle –  humpbacks have separate right and left jawbones. The jawbone is connected to the skull by dense fibres and cartilage which allows the lower jaw to swing open to 90 degrees. The mouth cavity and the throat extend. . ©Ron Macdonald

 

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Head surfacing, left jaw still at 90 degrees. Sprats trying to escape. ©Ron Macdonald

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Jaw closing, blowhole still closed. ©Ron Macdonald

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Baleen plates filtering out the seawater and keeping the sprats.  Mouth not fully closed.  Last sprat escapees jumping clear. ©Ron Macdonald

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Mouth almost closed, baleen plates filtering out the sprats. ©Ron Macdonald

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Seawater filtered through the baleen plates. ©Ron Macdonald

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Whale rolls to its right side to help filtering and aid swallowing. ©Ron Macdonald

It’s time to go….

The last sighting of the humpback whale was on the evening of Monday 4 September by Jules Anderson who set-up a Facebook page to let people know about the latest sightings. It somehow feels fitting that it was Jules who last saw the whale, in the evening light as it passed close inshore scaring the living daylights out of this surfer.

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A surprised surfer. ©Jules Anderson

A couple of days earlier the blizzard of gulls, terns and kittiwakes that were for the past month also feeding on the shoals of sprats in St Cyrus bay, dissipated, maybe following the sprats further offshore or along the coast. I think it was a harbinger of the whale’s departure.

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Gulls, terns and kittiwakes feasting on the sprats. ©Ron Macdonald

In the month or so the humpback has been at St Cyrus, it has provided enjoyment and wonder to many people. I met lots of interesting and helpful people; the Hourstons who farm the clifftop fields who, seeing me on the cliff path, took a break from the harvest to speak awhile and observe the whale, Ken Herd, a lobster fisherman from Tangleha who enlightened me about the shoaling behaviour of mackerel and sprats, the merry band of whale watchers ever watchful at the cliff- top viewing point, the villagers who were interested and proud of ‘their’ whale, and finally, Theresa Alampo, Reserve Manager at St Cyrus National Nature Reserve and Jules Anderson who kept everyone up to date with sightings.

Hopefully the humpback will stay safe in a dangerous sea. Its been a ‘blow’ spending time with such a beautiful, wondrous and mysterious being.

Acknowledgements. Thanks to Phil Evans, David Whitaker and Jules Anderson for providing the still images, and to Phil for help with the header, and Peter & Rachel Hazlehurst for permission to share their video.  All images Copyright protected ©

*Postscript. The whale was briefly sighted again on 14 September feeding off the North Esk. Before that, on 9 September, a humpback was captured on a video off the Ythan estuary, some 55 nautical miles north as the whale swims.  On 18 September it was again seen breaching in St Cyrus bay. Could it be the same humpback briefly visiting its 2016 haunt before returning southwards to St Cyrus? Or maybe we have two humpbacks? 🐋🐋

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