This is why the Yorkshire coast could become one of the world's whale-watching hotspots

2019 was an unprecedented year for whale, dolphin and porpoise sightings off the Yorkshire coast.

The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's Living Seas team of marine conservationists have released statistics and data after a year of monitoring the species in the North Sea.

Local volunteers have compiled information on sightings of minke whales off Scarborough and Whitby, and have also spotted a pod of bottlenose dolphins from the Moray Firth in Scotland off Flamborough Head - the furthest south they have ever been recorded.

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Meet the skipper who gave up trawling to launch whale-watching tours from WhitbyThe network of 30 trained 'citizen scientists' logged 320 individual sightings in 2019, including minke whales, bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises in the survey's first year. They acted as 'eyes and ears' on the coastline and spent over 330 hours watching wildlife from around 30 locations.

The Yorkshire coast at Saltwick NabThe Yorkshire coast at Saltwick Nab
The Yorkshire coast at Saltwick Nab

The warm summer of 2018 also led to a rise in sightings, with the clear weather conditions making the animals more visible.

An increasing number of boat owners in the area are now offering whale-watching trips to tourists, and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's marine advocacy officer Bex Lynam believes more commercial fishermen will be looking to diversify by running wildlife charters.

Yorkshire is now one of Britain's whale and dolphin-watching hotspots, behind only Scotland's northern coastline and Cornwall.

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“It’s likely the bottlenose dolphins came south following shoals of fish; it’s thrilling to see playful dolphins and ocean giants like whales. Ten years ago, seeing a bottlenose dolphin off the Yorkshire coast would have been rare. We need to collect more data about how and why they are using these waters if we are to better protect them. The role of citizen scientists in recording these animals, as well as changes in the marine environment is really important," said Bex.

"We don't really know why there has been a rise in sightings - they used to be really rare sight off Yorkshire. The last two years in particular have seen a huge increase. It's a great thing to be able to see them, but we need to know whether they have been displaced from elsewhere, as it could indicate there are problems somewhere else and that they are under pressure.

"Yorkshire is becoming a destination for whale-watching, although it is an activity that we need to manage carefully. Charter tours are a good way for fishermen to diversify, but sometimes people lack knowledge of how to behave around wildlife. In March we are running a course for boat owners to teach them how to minimise the disturbance they cause - it's about approaching slowly, fitting propeller guards to prevent injuries, and keeping a distance."

There are 29 species of whales and dolphins that can be seen in British waters. Scientists have speculated that a reduction in commercial whaling and the recovery of fish stocks has caused an increase in cetacean populations - the whales leave Scottish waters to follow mackerel and herring south in August and September, which is the best time to spot them in Yorkshire.

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"We need to collect more data before we can draw any conclusions and we are keen for more volunteers to get involved," added Bex.

However, the Trust also highlighted nationwide incidents of marine life being disturbed by human activity, including jet skiers scattering seabird colonies off Flamborough Head. There are several launch sites near Scarborough and staff from the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs have been working to educate jet skiers about the dangers of driving through groups of 'rafting' birds on the water's surface during the summer breeding season. Around 300,000 seabirds live in the protected area.

The whale and dolphin sightings in Yorkshire in 2018 and 2019

The pod of bottlenose dolphins seen in Yorkshire for the first time were spotted near Bridlington Bay in April 2019, and had come from the Moray Firth in Scotland, where around 130 of the species live.

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In August of that summer, a couple from Leeds were out in a speedboat while holidaying at Runswick Bay, near Whitby, when a minke whale surfaced in front of them. Their family had been staying in the village for generations but could never remember the presence of whales before.

In September 2018, the owners of charter vessel Three Sisters released incredible footage of a minke whale 'dancing' for tourists near Staithes. Ex-fisherman and RNLI helmsman Martin Hopkinson refitted his boat during the winter of 2018, adding a toilet, hot drinks facility and extra passenger space so he could begin running wildlife-watching trips. His wife Julia described their first season as 'wonderful'.

The same summer, Whitby Whale Watching skipper Bryan Clarkson said a humpback whale had been seen off the Yorkshire coast for the first time in four years. A Sea Watch Foundation survey in 2018 recorded harbour porpoises and whales at Long Nab, Burniston, Marine Drive in Scarborough and Flamborough Head.

Bryan is a former trawlerman who began operating dedicated wildlife cruises in 2002. He is convinced that in 2011 he saw a sperm whale off Whitby, despite the species being notoriously deep divers who are difficult to spot.

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“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,” he said.

In the summer of 2015, Whitby Whale Watching reported a bumper year with sightings on 60 consecutive trips, and a previously unheard-of six species of cetacean in one four-hour period.

When the crew of TV programme Coast to Coast took a trip on a Whitby boat, they saw minke whales within 15 minutes.