At 4.15pm on the 16th of June 2011 I pulled into the car park below the Torry Battery, my last meeting of the day had finished early so I decided to see how many Dolphins were around. The presence of a few people staring seaward suggested a good show, however I will never forget what happened next: 10 meters from the south breakwater what looked like a small island surfaced.
I wish I could say I recognised it as an adult Humpback Whale immediately, having seen a few in the past but I could not believe what I was seeing! Fortunately I managed to take some photos that would confirm Identification later. The Whale have been first seen at the entrance to Nigg bay 2 hours previously had had been actively feeding making repeated lunges filling its huge mouth.
The whale was seen on a few occasions over the next couple of weeks. Remarkably however, this was not the first Humpback whale to be seen in the area this year. On the 1st of January Humpback was seen from Portleathen then at various points along the coast for the rest of the month.
On the 20th of July reports of another large whale were seen from Collieston, this was follow by a positive sighting of a Fin Whale made by local cetacean expert Kevin Hepworth. With a blow that reached half the height of the Northlink Ferry that was passing at the time.
Sightings of two large whale species in one year would be considered remarkable however, on the 19th of November Ian Sim of Stonehaven Cetacean Research observed a Sperm Whale in Stonehaven Bay.
So will 2011 be seen as a one off year or are things changing. Sperm Whales will never be a common in this area, male sperm whales migrate between the Arctic and Tropical oceans generally following the shelf edge West of Scotland, Sperm Whales in this area are simply lost, Fin Whales are the second largest animal that has ever lived on earth, they are also common just to the west of Scotland, they will follow food into shallow waters such as the north sea so will be seen on occasion in East Grampian waters.
Humpbacked Whales provide quite a few questions, consult a cetacean text book and you will see that Humpback Whales breed in the tropics in the winter and spend summers feeding in the high arctic. This would suggest that we would see the odd lost individual in the Spring and Autumn, however we see them in Winter when they should be some breading in the West Indies and in the Summer when they should be north of Iceland.
Explaining Humpback Whales here in summer is easy, they should always have been in summering in the rich coastal waters of Scotland however we hunted them to local extinction. Since Humpback whales have been protected for around 45 years they have increased in number and are simply reclaiming lost territory. It is possible that in 20 years time Humpbacked whales will be a common site from Aberdeen, if this seems unlikely remember that bottlenose dolphins were a rarity in Aberdeen 20 years ago and risso’s were almost unheard of 7 years ago.
Wintering Humpbacks are more of a mystery, why stay in the North Sea if you could be in the west Indies. The simple answer is why swim to the West Indies if you are not planning on breading. In winter we have had report of a mother and large calf seen which backs up the theory. However one last idea, around the Arabian Gulf there is a small populations of Non Migratory Humpbacks, could this happen here, only time will tell.
So next time you are looking out to sea do not be to surprised if you see one of the largest creatures on the planet - a Humpback Whale who has decided that the East Grampian Coast is worth a visit.