Jan 312010

A humpback whale off West Cork, IrelandIn the wake of the spectacular humpback whale encounters off the Wexford coast recently, and the incredible footage shown on the RTÉ news, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) is calling for funding to help them find out more about the humpback whales that visit Ireland’s coastline every year.

We’re incredibly lucky to have these amazing animals, and other large whale species, as regular visitors to our shores, and finding out more about them is a crucial step to the conservation of these magnificent animals.

I’ll let Dr. Simon Berrow of the IWDG explain:

I hope you have all got to the see the amazing images and footage of the humpback whale off Co. Wexford. Hopefully too, some of you will be able to go and see this magnificent creature for yourselves.  It might not breach, but humpback whales are still one of the most enigmatic and popular species on the planet.

This is the 11th individual humpback whale the IWDG have recorded in Irish waters.  All previous whales have been photographed in more than one year and although this is the first time we have recorded this one, we fully expect to see this whale again !  This shows that humpback whales are returning to Ireland each year where they are spending a considerable period of time, but we do not know if they are passing through on their way to somewhere else or where they go when they leave.

Determining the migration patterns and movements of large whales can be explored in a number of ways.  Photo-identification is one technique, but to date none of the Irish whales have been seen in any other part of the Atlantic and none on the known breeding grounds.  Irish humpback whales may be breeding in the Caribbean or more likely off west Africa.  Maybe there is a previously unknown breeding ground we haven’t found yet. The IWDG have organized three expeditions to Cape Verde Islands off west Africa to try and find the breeding grounds of Irish humpback whales.  To date we have identified 25% of all the humpback whales recorded in Cape Verde, but none are the Irish whales.

We can use genetics to try and determine which stock Irish humpback whales belong to and use stable isotope analysis to record latitudinal movements, from breeding grounds in warm tropical waters to feeding grounds in Ireland or the Arctic. Both these techniques are part of Conor Ryan’s PhD which has recently started at GMIT, with the support of the IWDG. Another technique is satellite telemetry which is expensive but can give enormous information on migration routes and identify breeding areas.

At present we have no funding to continue this photo-identification work next season. We would also like to return to Cape Verde and try and deploy some satellite tags.  We have the full support of the Cape Verde government who wish to be partners in this research.  It costs around €10,000 each whale season (September-February) for the photo-identification work. I have estimated it would cost around €10,000 to return to Cape Verde for two weeks. Each tag costs then costs around €5,000, which includes satellite time.

We are writing to you to ask if you know of any funding sources or contacts, who might be interested in supporting this important conservation research both in Ireland and even Cape Verde. Only by ensuring all habitats used by Irish humpback whales are identified and protected, can we hope that these whales will continue to return to Irish coastal waters in the future. We hope you will be able to help us uncover one of the last remaining mysteries of the humpback whale in the North Atlantic.

Please write to me at simon.berrow@iwdg.ie pr phone 086 8545450 if you have any ideas or leads for us to chase.

Dr Simon Berrow

IWDG Co-ordinator

If you know of anyone who might be interested in helping out with funding some of the research, please pass their details on to Simon, and hopefully we can help make a few connections that will help keep whale encounters like this one a regular occurrence around Ireland’s coasts.

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