After 16 years of exploring, a breeding ground for humpback whales feeding in Irish waters has been discovered.

While on an expedition to the Cape Verde islands off the West African coast, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) spotted and photographed a humpback whale which had been seen four years previously off the west coast of Co Kerry.

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Humpbacks undergo one of the longest annual migrations traveling from rich feeding grounds at high latitudes, such as Ireland, to tropical breeding grounds close to the equator. 

Humpback whale and calf in the waters. Image: Getty

Humpback whale and calf in the waters. Image: Getty

This is the first re-sighting of an individual humpback whale from Ireland to a known breeding ground. 

It had long been suspected that the ten islands around 300 miles west of Senegal are a birthplace for the humpback whales around Ireland - returning year after year, often for many months at a time.

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The whales make the mammoth 1,800-mile trip through some of the world's busiest shipping lanes to get to Ireland’s rich feeding grounds along the Wild Atlantic Way.

In 2003, IWDG first traveled to the Cape Verde islands the establish Cape Verde as a breeding ground. However, the Cape Verde humpback whale population is small and has not recovered from years of whaling in the 18 and 19th centuries.

Expeditions to the West African island in, 2006, 2011 and 2012 and 2014 by the group failed to identify any individual humpbacks photographed in Irish waters

It was only during a chance excursion to Santa Monica off the southwest tip of Boavista during a two-week expedition in April of this year that the group finally got lucky. 

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Two whales surfaced near the research boat towards the end of a day trip and were photographed by Simon Berrow, CEO of IWDG, and one of these whales was the same individual photographed off west Kerry in 2015 by Nick Massett.

“This is the first re-sighting of an individual humpback whale from Ireland to a known breeding ground and, for the first time, locates a known breeding ground for humpback whales in Ireland,” said the IWDG.

Berrow said it was a relief to finally find at least one breeding ground for Irish humpback whales but added that it raises issues regarding how is Ireland going to use this finding to enhance the conservation status of this endangered humpback whale population. 

“Those responsible for marine conservation in Ireland will have to build relationships with, and provide assistance to, the Cape Verde government in their efforts to protect this critically important breeding ground,” Berrow said. 

Humpback whales in Ireland

The giants of the sea have been increasing in number in Irish waters off the coast since the marine organization first started documenting them through photo-identification in 1999.

Since then Ireland has become an important site for humpback whales with 92 individual whales recorded from unique and permanent markings on their tail flukes and dorsal fins.

Humpback Whale calf playing on surface of ocean, Port St. Johns, South Africa. Image: Getty

Humpback Whale calf playing on surface of ocean, Port St. Johns, South Africa. Image: Getty

About 80% of these whales have been recorded more than once in Irish waters with two-thirds recorded over five times and 14% recorded over ten times. 

It is thought the humpbacks born in tropical waters make the journey to Ireland with their mothers at just a few months old to feed as there is much more food further north.

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According to the IWDG these whales are not just passing through Irish waters but staying for weeks, often months, during the spring, summer and autumn. 

The IWDG is planning another expedition to Cape Verde in September to explore the waters around Cape Verde and train up local biologists in survey techniques and species recording.

The humpback whale

Humpback whales are found in every ocean in the world and are famous for their giant pectoral fins and their distinct songs which travel great distances through water.

The humpback whale is a species of baleen whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). One of the larger rorqual species, adults range in length from (39–52 ft) and weigh around 28–33 short tons.

Dr. Berrow says they are “critically endangered,” with “probably less than 300 animals in this (Cape Verde) population.”

Hunting of whales for their usable products such as meat and blubber, which can be turned into a type of oil which became increasingly important in the Industrial Revolution.

How do you feel about this resighting by the IWDG?  Have you ever seen humpback whales off the coast of Ireland?  Let us know in the comments below.