A Wild Whale Chase

It’s not every day your colleague comes into work and says he has seen a humpback whale from his sofa! And living in Norfolk this absolutely never happens as this whale has never been recorded here, that is until now!

Humpback whales are widely distributed throughout the world’s oceans, undertaking long distance migrations between winter tropical breeding grounds and high latitude feeding grounds during the summer. Over the last 10 years or so their numbers worldwide have also been increasing. Good news as they recover from commercial hunting.

The unmistakable humpback whale (not the Norfolk whale but a humpy non the less)

In British waters the humpback whale is an unusual sight, although the number of sightings is increasing and it is now regularly recorded along the western coasts of Britain, from Shetland, the north Irish Sea and the western approaches to the Channel. These individuals are likely to be part of the population that migrates from the west coast of Africa, north to off the coast of Iceland and Norway (Sea Watch Foundation, 2012). There are also more and more reports of whales from the northern and central North Sea.

One of the great things about working for a department filled with marine wildlife enthusiasts is that we are all in the same ‘boat’ so to speak…we love watching whales and dolphins and when something like this turns up on your doorstep we have the flexibility to just go! Well I was going at any rate!

Stormy clouds and rain did not deter us as we wound our way along the narrow roads of the Norfolk coast. Reports of the whale were still coming in; it seemed to be feeding a short distance from the shore, slowly moving northwards. By the time we pulled up in the small village of Sea Palling the sun had broken loose, driving the cloud and rain away. Climbing up the sand dunes we were met with people carrying scopes, heading the other way. ‘It’s moved further north’ were the words, with which we did an about turn and headed back to the car. More winding roads and one diversion later we pulled into the windswept car park of Happisburgh and were greeted by a small crowd of people and their scopes. Surely a good sign.

Standing there at the top of a dune, gazing out at a murky North Sea, the sun casting various shades of blue across the choppy surface, and the guy standing next to me, his eye glued to his scope, finally shouts ‘there it is!’. Me with my binoculars scanning however could see nothing but waves, occasional spray and gannets. It was moving offshore, its blow merging with the white caps and without a scope there was not much hope. Maybe, for me, it was not meant to be.

Turns out this whale found the food and water off the Norfolk coast rather appealing. The next morning it was seen again, following the same route and pattern; close to shore moving northwards. We may miss it; it may be far offshore again by the time we get there; but if you never try, you never know; you can guarantee you won’t see it sat at your desk. Such words swirl round my head as we drive back along the winding roads, this time to Horsey. Climbing the dunes once more and gazing out at a calm blue sea, we are greeted by the unmistakable blow, back and hump of a humpback whale! Taking no chances this time I have borrowed a telescope, and while at first it is close enough to see with the naked eye, gradually the whale moves further offshore and the scope lets me follow it….

Scoping out a humpback whale from the North Norfolk Coast

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