Sperm Whale by Hugh Harrop

Celebrating World Whale Day

3 minute read

To celebrate World Whale Day (19th February) we got in touch with Hugh, a self-confessed ‘Orcaholic’. Hugh shares some great insights into the species of whale that visit UK waters and some of the best spots to see them.

What got you interested in whales?

My passion for wildlife started as a six-year-old when I became hooked (and still am!) on birds at a very young age. I was given the gift of a subscription to the Young Ornithologists Club (the junior arm of the RSPB) by my late uncle. He was very much my mentor and his knowledge of birds and all other wildlife set the scene for me – and proved to be the catalyst for what would become not only my life-long passion, but my career.

I saw my first whales whilst sailing across the Irish Sea when I was 16 – they were Fin Whales, that’s a memory that will never leave me.

Which species come to UK waters?

Around eleven species occur regularly in British waters. Some are easier to see and are more abundant than others, but annually we would expect to encounter all of these species off our coast: Orca, Long-finned Pilot Whale, Minke Whale, Fin Whale, Humpback Whale, Harbour Porpoise, Bottlenose Dolphin, Short-beaked Common Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin, Atlantic White-sided Dolphin, White-beaked Dolphin. Rarer species like Sperm Whale, Northern Bottlenose Whale and Sei Whale can also be recorded from time to time and sometimes even much rarer critters turn up – like a Beluga!

Do whales live here or do they just visit?

Many species are resident or embark on journeys spanning a few hundred miles – like Bottlenose and Risso’s Dolphins. Others are migratory and visit to exploit food sources for extended periods (e.g. Minke Whales) or for short periods on migration (e.g. Humpback Whales).

One remarkable discovery in the last twenty years is the annual migration of several pods of Orcas from Iceland to Scotland and back. The animals spend the winter months feeding on fish in Icelandic waters and the summer months feeding on predominantly marine mammals in Scottish waters. Photo identification of individual Orcas both in Iceland and here in Scotland has proved these movements exist.

Similar ‘matches’ through photo identification are now also being made with Humpback Whales – not only with animals previously recorded in our waters, but elsewhere – there are now several matches of Humpbacks photographed in Scotland from Norway, Ireland and best of all, Guadeloupe in the Caribbean!

What's your favourite whale-spotting memory or encounter?

That’s a tough one to answer. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy lots of amazing encounters in all corners of the globe over the last 35 years. A few that spring to mind are:

  • Watching a group of 20 Fin Whales blowing on the horizon in the middle of the most incredible electrical storm out in the Bay of Biscay;
  • The feeling seeing a new born, previously unrecorded and completely unexpected Orca calf, only days old, surface alongside its mother here in Shetland;
  • Watching a flock of Great Shearwaters sat on the sea alongside our boat only to have a Sperm Whale torpedo itself out of the water. Every encounter is special!

Are there any parts of the UK that are whale 'hotspots'?

There are indeed! Minke Whales love the inshore waters off the west coast from Cornwall north to the Outer Hebrides and the North Sea coasts from Yorkshire north to Orkney and Shetland; good numbers of Minkes can always be expected off Mull and in The Minch during June - September.

Orcas can be seen anywhere in northern Scotland but Orkney (and ok, I’m biased here) and particularly Shetland offer incredible opportunities to watch them from land – sometimes hunting just metres off the coast! Staying in Shetland, there is a small annual migration of Humpbacks between October and November and one or two tend to get seen in the Firth of Forth and off the Isles of Scilly during the winter.

Cardigan Bay and the Moray Firth are well known for their Bottlenose Dolphin populations, The Minch for its Risso’s and Short-beaked Common Dolphins and Lyme Bay for its southerly population of White-beaked Dolphins.

And lastly, if you were a whale, what type would you want to be?

Blimey! There’s a question. It would have to be the one that holds a very special place in my life – Orca.

About Hugh

Hugh Harrop is one of Shetland's top naturalists and is a regular contributor to several wildlife magazines, journals and international broadcast media. He is also co-author of Europe's Sea Mammals, Europe's Birds, Britain's Birds and British Birds (all published by Princeton University Press) and a co-author of the Scottish Killer Whale Photo Identification Catalogue. You may also have seen one of his Orca images on a stamp which was commissioned by the Royal Mail in 2021. Find out more about Hugh at Shetland Wildlife.

Hugh Harrop

Credit: Hugh Harrop