Forget the waters off Africa, David Hewitt discovers the best place to go whale watching is right here in Yorkshire.
As he skippers Specksioneer out of Whitby harbour at the end of the summer, Bryan Clarkson will be keeping alive the strong ties the North East of England has had with whales for centuries now. The boat, the seasoned seafarer explains, is named in honour of the “specksioneers” of years gone by, the chief harpooners serving on board the Whitby whaling industry, which peaked around the turn of the 19th-century.
“Both William Scoresby Junior and William Scoresby Senior held the position of specksioneer on their boats,” he says, referring to two of the most successful, and celebrated whaling captains of the time. The crucial difference being, of course, that while the Scoresbys made their living, and their names, killing whales – with William Scoresby Senior credited with landing 533 over a 43-year career at sea – Mr Clarkson runs Yorkshire’s only dedicated whale watching cruises. “For me, it’s a way of staying in touch with Whitby’s history. Things have changed, for sure, but whales are still central to this town’s identity.”
Clarkson is something of a latecomer to the business. Leaving school at the age of 14, he got his skipper’s licence at just 16, going on to work for decades as a trawlerman in the North Sea. All this time, however, his keen interest in whales was ever-present.
“The wildlife found in the Yorkshire waters has always fascinated me much more than the wildlife of some African plain ever could,” he says of the fascination that led him to start offering dedicated whale watching tours out of Whitby 10 years ago.
Making whale spotting his livelihood rather than a hobby has allowed him to become something of the expert in these waters. “For sure, it appeals to the fisherman in me. I get a real satisfaction from guessing correctly where the whales will be based on the movement of the fish they feed on,” he says, a feeling he is now happy to be sharing with landlubbers.
“I’ve had passengers on my boat who have spent thousands on some whale watching cruise halfway around the world but saw nothing. Then they come on my boat and, 15 minutes after leaving Whitby, they’re seeing minke, sei, even humpback whales breaching just a few metres away. In fact, on one trip last season, we could see 13 whales at the surface at the same time. But still, it’s hard convincing folk that such a natural spectacle can be seen right on your doorstep.”
Robin Petch, regional coordinator for the Sea Watch Foundation, agrees that, while the Yorkshire coast may be celebrated for many things, whale watching is not one of them. “Certainly, it’s not the first place that springs to mind,” he concedes. “In fact, year-round, it’s not even among the most prolific places in the UK; in winter months, you’re far more likely to spot dolphins in Scottish or Cornish waters than round here.”
Nevertheless, in the late summer, as the “gentle giants” of the sea follow the herring and mackerel straight down from the deep waters off Scotland along the English coast, Yorkshire comes into its own as a whale-watching hotspot. “In late August through to the end of September, there are very few places in the whole of the British Isles that are better than the North Yorkshire coastline for getting up close and personal with big whales and dolphins.”
Yorkshire’s waters are, he explains, incredibly rich in wildlife, including in the cetaceans (the zoological order to which whales, dolphins and porpoises belong) he has spent the past 20 years studying and working to protect. Sea Watch Foundation research indicates that there are likely to be around 100,000 minke whales alone in this part of the North Sea, with their numbers peaking at the end of the summer as follow their favoured foods. At the same time, white-beaked dolphins and harbour porpoises are also plentiful, with the latter even venturing up the Humber or being spotted under the Ouse Bridge from time to time.
“These porpoises and dolphins can often be seen from shore, especially if the sea isn’t too rough and you’re able to lookout from somewhere with a bit of height,” says Robin. “For whales, however, while we have had minkes spotted from Flamborough Head before, since they tend to stay between two-and-a-half and nine-and-a-half metres from shore, by far the best way to see them is to get out on a boat.”
As with Bryan the skipper, Robin is convinced that the number of big whales visiting Yorkshire’s waters over late summer, early autumn has risen over recent years. “Of course, some of it is down to the fact we’re just better at spotting them now,” says Robin, with the launching of special whale watching trips out of Whitby giving conservationists extra pairs of eyes during this peak season. “But still, we’re now aware of many more large whales coming back to this part of the North Sea in large numbers, thanks in no small part, we believe, to recovering fish stocks, plus over the past couple of years we’ve been able to prove that sei and fin whales are now more likely to be visiting, often swimming within groups of minkes.” He adds, however, that recording the numbers and types of Yorkshire’s cetacean visitors is hardly an “exact science”, with just a few dedicated enthusiasts attempting to compile data covering vast areas of sea for several months of the year. “Without a doubt, the key to learning more about what types of whales and dolphins are visiting, how many, when and where, is getting members of the public to help out by recording and sharing their sightings.”
The public will also help conservationists learn more about what are known as “strandings”; that is, whales becoming beached in shallow water.
Rob Deaville of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) leads the UK-wide Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP). For him, cases such as the 33ft long female sei whale found stranded in a field just outside of Skeffling, on the north bank of the River Humber, though certainly tragic on its own, needn’t be any great cause for concern.
Quite the opposite, in fact. “We know whale numbers are on the rise, partly as populations continue to recover after the ending of commercial whaling, and partly down to the fact North Sea fish stocks are also recovering. So, this apparent rise in strandings over the past few years could simply be down to the fact there are just more whales out there.”
But, still, he adds, it’s something of a mixed picture for Yorkshire’s cetaceans, with bottlenose dolphin populations becoming smaller and more fragmented owing to marine contaminants and all species still at risk from threats such as ship strikes, pollution and “by-catch”, which sees dolphins accidentally entangled in fishermen’s nets, often with fatal consequences.
Moreover, as whale numbers continue to rise, the gently sloping sands of the Humber could serve as a trap for many more individuals, potentially leading Yorkshire to become a hotspot for strandings in the British Isles.
Despite ongoing research into the phenomenon, Deaville admits that “the jury’s still out” on what actually leads whales and dolphins to become washed up on Britain’s shores, particularly given that stranded animals often appear in good health rather than displaying any obvious signs of disease, injury or trauma. Rising water temperatures, increasingly-busy shipping lanes and even the use of modern communications systems on board boats have all been mooted as possible reasons for whales and dolphins to swim into shallow water, but, as Deaville notes, the relatively small size of the data pool he and his colleagues can draw upon makes it hard to reach any solid conclusions right now, something members of the public have also been called upon to help address through reporting strandings.
Looking forward to the new season, skipper Bryan is confident that sightings will just be as frequent – and spectacular – as in 2011, his best year for whale watching. He also hopes that, with extra eyes on his boat, and with the help of organisations such as the Sea Watch Foundation, he will be able to gain a greater understanding of the rich marine life “right here on our doorstep”.
“I know these waters and its whales as well as anyone,” he says. “But still, there have been times over the past couple of years when both me and my crew have been scratching our heads over what we’ve seen.”
He is convinced, for example, that he spotted a sperm whale just off the Whitby coast late last summer, despite them being famously deep divers. “We really do have all this amazing wildlife right on our doorstep, but we don’t know half of what’s going on out there. Hopefully, with some extra eyes helping out this season, we can learn that little bit more.”
Whale Watch: Where to go and what to look for
Robin’s guide to spotting from the shore
Pick a vantage point with a bit of height. Spurn Point, Flamborough Head, Filey Bridge and Marine Drive in Scarborough are prime whale and dolphin spotting locations.
Choose a day when the sea isn’t too rough; the white caps of waves make fins even more difficult to spot.
Scan the sea with your eyes first and then use binoculars to examine a possible sighting more closely.
If you spot something, record the date, the time, the distance from shore and, if possible, give the latitude and longitude or the OS reference of your spotting location.
Describe what you saw as best you can – for example, the shape and colour of the fins. It’s best if you do a little homework before you go.
Submit sightings to firstname.lastname@example.org or via seawatchfoundation.org.uk
Cetaceans to look out for off Yorkshire’s Coast
Spotters’ Notes: The most common dolphin in the North Sea. Recognised by its short white or grey beak, a large, curved dorsal fin and white streaks along the flanks and the back. Very active, often seen in large groups leaping out of the water.
Size: 1.5–2 m
Spotters’ Notes: Common in Yorkshire’s waters and often seen inshore. Recognised by a lack of a beak, a small triangular fin and a tendency to swim slowly, usually in small groups.
Spotters’ Notes: Resident in the Morray Firth but sometimes spotted off the Yorkshire coast. Look out for a dark grey upper body, a short but distinct beak and a curved dorsal fin. Quite active and often seen leaping or following boats.
Spotters’ Notes: Yorkshire’s most common whale. Recognisable by a distinctive pointed head, white bands on flippers and a sickle-shaped fin on the back. Unlikely to breach in the spectacular manner of humpbacks.