Belfast Telegraph

Amazement as beluga whale surfaces off Antrim coast, 2,000 miles from home

By Staff Reporter

The incredible sighting of an enigmatic and highly elusive whale from the high Arctic just off the Co Antrim coastline is believed to be the first time it has been spotted near Northern Ireland.

Lucky photographer Gordon Watson from Ballycastle managed to capture a shot of the beluga earlier this week while out looking for much smaller marine animals.

Gordon had visited a stretch of coast between Portbradden and Dunseverick to photograph jellyfish, but as he looked down from the cliffs he spotted the distinctive arching back of the beluga breaking the surface.

By rights, the beluga should have been 2,000 miles to the north, in the Barents Sea.

Thousands of belugas live among the ice floes that litter the area east of the Svalbard archipelago, but only on extremely rare occasions do they swim as far south as the British Isles.

Sea Watch says the beluga sighting is believed to be the first in Northern Ireland, while there have only been 17 previous British sightings recorded, 10 of them in the last 30 years.

The vast majority have been from Scotland between June and September time.

Dr Peter Evans, Director of the Sea Watch Foundation, who helped confirm the beluga's identification, explained the possible reason for its arrival to our shores.

He said: "This is not the first Arctic species to be seen in Britain this year.

"Back in February, the first European sighting of a bowhead whale was captured on a smartphone around the Isles of Scilly. In that instance, it was thought that the fragmentation of floating ice may have resulted in whales typically associated with pack ice straying much further south.

"Whether the same has occurred in the case of this beluga is not clear, but sea temperatures have been unusually low this summer."

Belugas are toothed whales, growing up to six metres, with small, bulbous heads and no dorsal fin.

They are steeped in Inuit legend and are also one of the most vocal of all sea creatures, with experts saying they can mimic the pattern and duration of human speech.

The beluga sighting is bound to be the headline event of Sea Watch's annual National Whale and Dolphin Watch, taking place this week from Shetland to the Channel Islands.

Hundreds of cetacean enthusiasts have been braving high winds and unseasonal cold seas in a flotilla of boats to count the whales and dolphins that feed, breed and migrate around our coastline.

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