[MARMAM] Bowhead whale sighting off SW England

Peter Evans peter.evans at bangor.ac.uk
Fri Feb 27 08:51:00 PST 2015

Apologies for cross posting


Sea Watch Foundation regularly receives reports and photographs of unidentified whales and dolphins. Many of these can be assigned to a regular or common species. Some are unidentifiable. On this occasion, the photographs taken on a very basic mobile phone presented something of a challenge but yielded a more significant result.

The sighting was made last Friday (20th February) and the observer logged it on the Sea Watch website over the course of the weekend as a sperm whale. On following up and requesting the images, the local resident, Anna Cawthray, forwarded a series of photos which had been taken on her friend's mobile phone depicting a c. 25 ft whale that she'd encountered in shallow waters just metres off Par Beach on the remote island of St Martin's (49o57' N) in the Isles of Scilly, SW Cornwall. The observer was struck by the fact that the whale lacked a dorsal fin. On close examination of one image showing part of the head out of the water, the downturned jaw-line could be distinctly seen. The pyramidal head shape, white patch at the tip of the lower jaw, and some black spotting along the top of the head, along with the size relative to the observer in the water near the whale, confirmed identification as a young bowhead whale. Making identifications of rare species from mobile phone images has a degree of uncertainty about it. However, the following persons, several of whom work on bowheads, have also viewed the images and all agree on the species ID: Millie Brower, Phil Clapham, Craig George, Philip Hamilton, Tom Jefferson, Amy Knowlton, Scott Kraus, Julie Mocklin, Dave Rugh, Kim Shelden, Olga Shpak, Kate Stafford, Robert Suydam, and Alex Zerbini.

This is not only a first record for the British Isles but to my knowledge also for Europe (south of the Barents Sea). We presume it has come from the increasing West Greenland stock of bowheads rather than the relict Spitsbergen and Okhotsk Sea stocks, but of course we don't know for certain.

In March 2012, a bowhead whale was photographed in Cape Cod Bay, New England (42o N), and the same individual re-appeared in the same area a year later, in early April. These records far from the natural range of the species may be partly the result of ice fragmentation, leading to animals normally closely associated with ice, straying further south. The welcome increase in the size of the West Greenland population may also be a contributory factor for why this animal has appeared some two thousand miles from its normal range.

An interesting result from two folk wandering down to the beach on a winter's day, and one happening to have a mobile phone with her......

Peter Evans

Dr PGH Evans


Sea Watch Foundation

c/o School of Ocean Sciences,

University of Bangor,


E-mail: peter.evans at bangor.ac.uk

Tel: 44-1407-832892


Rhif Elusen Gofrestredig 1141565 - Registered Charity No. 1141565

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