Record year for whales and dolphins off North East coast

The Farne Islands Wildlife Report for 2013, published by the Natural History Society of Northumbria, reveals that there were a total of 138 sightings of cetaceans

Martin Kitching - Northern Experience Wildlife Tours Minke Whale off Lynemouth
A Minke Whale off Blyth

Last year set a new record for whale, dolphin and harbour porpoise sightings off the North East coast.

The Farne Islands Wildlife Report for 2013, published by the Natural History Society of Northumbria, reveals that there were a total of 138 sightings of cetaceans.

The 30 sightings of minke whale are described as “exceptional”.

The 17 sightings in July alone were more in a month than for the total seen in any of the last 11 years.

Over the last decade, the previous highest number of minke whales was 11 in 2012.

National Trust Farne Islands ranger David Kinchin-Smith, the author of the cetacean report, says that the number of sightings may be due to a plentiful supply of food around the Farne Islands over a warm summer.

“Highlights in July included one minke whale feeding in Inner Sound, observed by the ranger team from their boat,” says David.

“The whale surfaced six times, once close to the boat when the engine was off - a spectacular yet nerve-wracking sight of an animal one and a half times the length of the boat.”

The boat Serenity II observed a minke feeding on herring on September 12.

There were 10 occasions when bottlenose dolphins were seen.

On March 2, more than 30 were spotted heading south through Inner Sound. On June 6, a pod of 11 was recorded, while on June 10 Glad Tidings I saw a pod of eight, including a calf.

On October 22 a pod of more than 30 was sighted and on November 16 Glad Tidings IV saw around 20 animals.

On October 27 what was believed to be 20 short-beaked common dolphins, a rarity for the Farne Islands, were seen by Serenity II.

The first confirmed record using photographic evidence of this species since 1989, was made on November 17.

Martin Kitching - Northern Experience Wildlife Tours Minke Whale and White-beaked Dolphin
Minke Whale and White-beaked Dolphin

“These two dolphins then followed the boat back into the harbour at Seahouses,” says David.

It was also a record year for harbour porpoise, with 95 sightings.

“Each year there is increasing evidence that this species uses the Farne Islands and surrounding waters as breeding grounds, with regular sightings of juveniles and calves - an indicator of the health of Farnes marine ecosystem,” says David.

Dr Martin Kitching, based in Choppington in Northumberland, is North East Cetacean Project co-ordinator and also runs Northern Experience Wildlife Tours.

As well as land-based trips, he organises marine forays off the Farne Islands.

He believes that the 2013 sightings were due to good supplies of herring and mackerel attracting cetaceans and that the minke whales were probably from the west coast of Scotland and following the fish shoals.

Of 2014 so far, Martin says: “This year has seen a remarkable number of sightings.”

One group of 100 bottlenose dolphins has been recorded off Seaton Point near Boulmer, Northumberland.

Around a dozen of the dolphins have been individually identified.

This has been possible by comparing photographs and video footage with an existing catalogue of animals from the east coast of Scotland. Amongst the animals recorded recently is Guinness, a female bottlenose first photographed as an adult in the Moray Firth in 1989.

Another image shows an animal believed to be Pizza, another female also first photographed in 1989.

Last month a basking shark was sighted off the Farne Islands.

In 2013 a total of 1,575 grey seal pups were born on the islands, compared to 1,603 in 2012.

With no serious storms, mortality rates were 26% compared to 48% in 2010.

In recent years, Farne pups have been recorded coming ashore on the Dutch coastline.

“Studies in the Netherlands are showing that it is not only pups that commute,” says head ranger David Steel.

Two adults which were satellite-tagged by Dutch researchers ended up on the Farne Islands a few weeks later.

It was also a record year for moths, with 23 species recorded on the islands in 2013.

Recording of moths began in 1991 and since then 263 species have been noted.

These include exotically-named species such as timothy tortrix, silver-ground carpet, dark spinach, common footman, garden tiger. marbled coronet, hebrew character, smoky wainscot, lunar underwing, dusky brocade, flounced rustic, frosted orange, burnished brass and snout.

A total of 192 bird species were recorded in 2013 , also a new record, with 23 species breeding on the islands. “This was a phenomenal year for rare and scarce migrants,” says David Steel.

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