Humpback whales tracked by social media scientists

Date posted: 14 August 2019

Results from a new study exploring the travel history of a humpback whale have revealed that UK seas act as a ‘service station’ for migrating humpback whales. Volunteers involved in the study used photos shared on social media to reveal the travel history of a humpback whale, nicknamed “vYking” by local whale watchers, which spent last winter near Fife and Edinburgh. Sightings of humpback whales in UK seas are increasing year on year, with the Firth of Forth in southeast Scotland emerging as a winter hotspot for these ocean giants.

Humpback Whale Fluke - Svalbard 2017
© Iain Rudkin Photography

“Whether these increased sightings are a result of the population bouncing back from historic exploitation, a shift in the pattern of their tropical to sub-arctic and back migration routes, or a combination of both, our waters are clearly of increasing importance to these magnificent animals.”

Calum Duncan,
Head of Conservation Scotland
Marine Conservation Society
Whale watching over the Forth
© Sandy Morrison

Armed with a photograph of the unique markings on the underside of vYking’s tail fluke, enthusiasts from the local community worked together with scientists to see if it had been photographed elsewhere. When the whale wasn’t found in any scientific catalogues, volunteers began to trawl the internet…only to find a photo of “vYking” on social media. The image was taken 2,610km away in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the high Arctic, the previous summer by a wildlife photographer. This is the first ever record of a UK-sighted humpback whale in their summer feeding grounds.

Humpback whales make vast migrations between their breeding and feeding grounds, but the origins and destinations of the humpback whales visiting UK waters is not well understood. Excited by the photo from Svalbard, a team of marine biologists began to interrogate the sightings and photos of humpback whales in the Firth of Forth shared on the Forth Marine Mammals Facebook group. This research, based entirely on the data collected by the local whale watchers, suggests that some humpback whales are using UK seas as a service station, a place to rest and feed, on their long migration from their Arctic feeding grounds to their tropical breeding grounds. Emily Cunningham, one of the marine biologists that led the study, says: “Until 2017, humpback whales had only been recorded a handful of times in the Firth of Forth over the past century – now we’re seeing them every winter on an almost daily basis.”

Daniel Moore, co-lead author, says: “This research shows that UK seas play an important role in the migrations of some humpback whales and demonstrates the need for effective conservation of our marine environment. We hope to continue our research in order to understand more about these movements and the importance of UK waters in contributing to successful migrations.”

Calum Duncan, Head of Conservation Scotland for the Marine Conservation Society says: “Well done to the volunteers with the Forth Marine Mammal Group, whose dedication to get good photos has contributed to this exciting confirmation that recent winter humpback sightings in the Firth of Forth can be linked to feeding grounds off Svalbard in Northern Norway. Whether these increased sightings are a result of the population bouncing back from historic exploitation, a shift in the pattern of their tropical to sub-arctic and back migration routes, or a combination of both, our waters are clearly of increasing importance to these magnificent animals. Any marine planning, licensing and conservation measures for the Firth of Forth and Scotland’s wider seas should ensure they are properly protected when visiting in winter.”

The Marine Conservation Society has been campaigning with the Scottish Wildlife Trust in support of four new Scottish marine protected areas (MPAs) which are needed to ensure ‘service stations’ for other ocean giants remain thriving for years to come. Calum Duncan added: “You can help their cousins, the minke whale and Risso’s dolphin, as well as basking sharks and important habitats, right now, by responding to the Scottish Government’s current consultation on four new marine protected areas in Scotland www.baskingsharkmpa.co.uk

This research is freely available to read in Marine Biodiversity Records, an open access journal.

Actions you can take

  1. Find out more about Scottish Wildlife
  2. Browse Scotland's Marine Atlas

Did you know?…

To date, our beach cleans have removed over 11 million pieces of litter

MCS is a leading partner and volunteer trainer in the largest experimental marine citizen science project ever undertaken in the UK: Capturing our Coast

To the shelf limits, Scotland has 61% of UK waters, of which 23% are now in existing or new ‘marine protected areas’

Become a Sea Champion

Find out more about our ‘Sea Champion’ volunteers and how to join them

Learn more