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  • Emily Bailey

Whales in Yorkshire? Don't be daft!

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

Emily first encountered the possibility of whale watching in England on one of her many family trips to Flamborough Head, East Yorkshire. At the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's Living Seas Centre they list the day's sightings.


Causally noted at the bottom of a chalkboard below the plethora of birds was *Minke Whale* - was this a one-off or regular sighting in the North Sea? And is there an ethical operator for whale watching tours? Thanks to Richard, our host in Yorkshire, the answer is yes! We are pleased to feature Seabird and Whale Watching Tours that explore the Yorkshire Coast. Richard tells us more:


Whales in Yorkshire? Don't be daft!

That’s the answer I have heard from several people when I tell them about our seabirds and whale trips from Staithes in North Yorkshire. Next year will be our seventh year running our boat trips. It’s time to celebrate and reflect on our adventures in the North Sea off the coast of the North York Moors National Park.


When we first started the trips in 2014 we really didn’t know what to expect. There were whale sightings from general tourist boats and mysterious rumours from local fishermen, but we didn’t know how many or when to expect to see them. I remember on our first reconnaissance trip, migrating butterflies flew past the boat eight miles out at sea, a fantastic sight. Then out of no-where, a whale appeared about 100m away and then vanished. I will never forget my first sighting of a minke whale in Yorkshire. It looked huge, the beauty and thrill of a first mega wildlife encounter.


Are the trips solely to spot whales?


We decided to name our trips Seabirds and Whales because there are so many fantastic birds out there. We were also a bit nervous about depending too much on whale sightings.


But we really needed to attract seabirds to our boat; getting close up views is the best way of appreciating these amazing animals. We needed to act like a fishing boat - that’s where our secret weapon the ‘chum’ (fish bits) came in. It’s amazing the difference it makes, from no birds as far as the eye can see; add some chum…loads of birds, as if by magic, chumtastic!


Birdlife abounds

In the first year, we enjoyed great views of Northern Gannets, Northern Fulmars and Manx Shearwaters. We've had spot of some rare Shearwaters. On one trip a Sooty Shearwater came right up to the boat, they hold the world record for the longest animal migration ever recorded electronically; a massive 64,000km. We've had a wonderful up-close visit by a Balearic Shearwater, they are a critically endangered seabird which breeds on remote islands in the Mediterranean.


It is the Great Skuas or ‘Bonxies’ that are the real stars for me. Watching them is a fascinating insight into how they time their flight runs to perfection just as a seabird grabs some food, bang! the skua arrives and steals the show.


The juvenile Atlantic Puffins are really cool. We see between six and 20 juvenile Puffins on most trips every year between the end of July and the beginning of September. Out on a boat in late summer is just about the only way to photograph juveniles because of their tendency to leave their nesting burrow at night away from the cliffs.


'Tell us about the whales, how often are they spotted'?


Minke Whales have undoubtedly increased in numbers on our coastline in the past 10 years. I grew up birding on the coast in the 1980’s in North Yorkshire and I never remember anyone seeing a whale in those days. We now see Minke Whales on most of our trips. Calm weather and a flat sea are best and the highest chance is between mid-July and the end of September. The adults are wary so we are very careful to respect their space but younger whales appear to be very curious. Almost every year we are blessed with a very close encounter as an immature Minke decides to give us the eye!


We never quite know when the best weeks are going to be for whale sightings. It is all about the food. Minke Whales have a varied diet but increase in numbers when the Herring spawn offshore. Aided by flat calm sea and great visibility we saw a lot of whales on every trip and logged over 200 encounters (a tally mark for each sighting) on each trip in mid-summer 2018!

Why are we seeing more Whales and Dolphins in Yorkshire?


The answer is likely to relate to several factors relating to food and changing levels of persecution. The one big change in recent decades is the better protection these animals are getting across the globe. This has helped cetacean populations recover from higher levels of hunting in the past but it can take much longer for real improvements to be seen.


We are almost certainly seeing the benefits of incremental levels of reduced hunting over a longer period of time. The North Sea is a rich source of food for Minke Whales, they may be following the same migration route as the seabirds we see on the trips such as Shearwaters. The late summer spawning of Herring and surge in Mackerel numbers attracts seabirds into the North Sea from the North Atlantic. Our twin challenge now is to keep up pressure on European nations to stop hunting whilst ensuring fish stocks are not overexploited in our precious marine environment.


It’s not only whales we encounter. We have also been graced by bow-riding White-beaked Dolphins a real treat as they swam alongside the boat and Bottle-nosed Dolphins entertained us on most trip in July and early August.


How do your trips help with conservation?


In 2021 we will be once again welcoming volunteer surveyors from the North Sea Wildlife Trust cetacean conservation project. We have an official surveyor on every trip. We are very pleased to have an opportunity to help a project which aims to understand more about our Whales and Dolphins and work towards protecting these fantastic mammals for the next generation. Everyone in Yorkshire should be proud of whales in their home county, spread the word and take measures to protect these fantastic mammals.


Seabird and Whale tours sell out fast - to check dates and book your place click here


Richard also offers Birding Experiences in the Spring and can create your own bespoke wildlife experience across Yorkshire.


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