A rare humpback whale has been spotted at the foot of the cliffs of Rathlin.
It’s effectively the first verified humpback sighting in Northern Irish waters since records began, according to the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG), as a previous sighting in 2002 was in Scottish waters close to Colonsay, Islay.
RSPB information officer Julie Staines, along with Jo Corkish, spotted the whale earlier this month.
“I’m very excited. It was on a Sunday and we had just closed the Seabird Centre when a family arrived,” she said.
“We were looking from the top of the 600ft cliff. I was showing the lady the birds and she said ‘Isn’t that a whale?’ I wasn’t too sure but I couldn’t believe my eyes — this very big whale was there.
“It was about 30ft long and had white pectoral fins with this luminous green stuff around them — I later found that was plankton.
“The lady managed to get some pictures and the IWDG was able to verify the sighting from the pictures.
“We watched for about 45 minutes — it was really close to the West Lighthouse. The whale was in the water just beside it.
“We’ve been watching out for it ever since but there’s been no sign of it,” she added.
Humpback whales were hunted to the brink of extinction in the past and this sighting could be a sign that they are finally returning to some of their old feeding grounds, IWDG sightings co-ordinator Padraig Whoolley said.
“This is the first validated sighting of a humpback whale, which means any other sightings either haven’t been reported or we couldn’t stand over them,” he said.
“There has been another sighting at Colonsay, but actually the position of that one was in Scottish waters.
“You could say this was the first validated sighting of a humpback whale in Northern Irish waters in over a century and I don’t think you’d be overstepping the mark.
“Humpback whales have an obvious visible blow, unlike minke whales, and their tail lifts majestically out the water before they dive. That’s how we photo-ID them — we get behind the whale to capture the entire tail fluke and the markings on each individual humpback tail fluke are unique.
“They have long pectoral fins like flippers, about 12 to 15ft long that appear white in the water — they’re so spectacular. These animals were brought to the brink of extinction 40 or 50 years ago.”
More and more sightings of larger cetaceans are coming in from Northern Ireland, he said.
“Ten or 15 years ago there were only things like harbour porpoises but there have been increasing sightings of bottlenose dolphins and hopefully the arrival of the bigger whales is the shape of things to come,” Mr Whoolley said.
“I have to say it augurs well. There’s no reason why the south coast should have the monopoly on large whales — it doesn’t make any sense.
“Maybe it’s just that people on the north coast are getting more into the idea of watching the sea. The more you watch, the better you get.
“There has been no whaling of the humpback whale in almost half a century — hopefully we’re beginning to see the return to Irish inshore waters of humpback whales.
“But when we’re going on so little information, it’s all wild speculation.”
The previous sighting at Colonsay was on July 15, 2002, within four days of the 2010 sighting.