Whale spotting off the North East coast

PUBLISHED: 08:31 05 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:30 20 February 2013

Picture courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts

Picture courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts

The number of whales and dolphins spotted off the Northumberland coast is on the increase. We talk to Martin Kitching about where to find them and the remarkable work that is being done to safeguard their future

Standing on a boat for 12 hours, constantly scanning the sea for a sign of a fin, would be enough to tip most people over the edge. But for Martin Kitching, founder and organiser of Northern Experience Wildlife Tours, it is all in a days work.
Martin has been leading whale and dolphin cruises in the North Sea for several years, and is hoping to see some spectacular sights again this summer as numbers reach their peak.
In the last seven years, 13 different species of whales, dolphins and porpoise have been reported in the North Sea off Northumberland, and it is thought there could be many more out there just waiting to be discovered.
While there is nothing more exhilarating than going on a boat trip in search of dolphins on a warm, summers day, Martin braves the waves all year around, helping to monitor and safeguard the future of White-beaked dolphins and other species.
Minke Whales, White-beaked Dolphins and Harbour Porpoise are often spotted from the boat trips, but there have also been sightings in the area of Bottlenose Dolphins, Rissos Dolphins, Long-finned pilot Whales and even Humpback and Killer Whales.
According to Martin, the best places to spot them from the coast are Dunstanburgh, Tynemouth Pier and Church Point at Newbiggin. The best place, however, is on an organised boat trip in July, August and September.
The crew on the 44ft converted lifeboat run by Northern Experience Wildlife Tours are highly trained in tracking down seabirds and cetaceans. They operate a strict code of practice and are careful not to disturb or disrupt the natural behaviour of the wildlife.
Dolphins often come along and ride in the bow-wave at the front of the boat, but we dont chase them, says Martin. If they come alongside, its because they have chosen to do that. Weve had adult Minke Whales, about ten metres long, surfacing so close to the boat we can hear them blowing.
Martin has been within a few feet of White-beaked dolphins several times and has also been present at strandings, taking length and fin measurements when the unfortunate mammals have been washed up on the beach.
While he had some spectacular sightings on the Bay of Biscay, his most memorable was from North Shields in 2003. It was the first time wed found white-beaked dolphins on a north sea pelagic trip, he recalls. Close to home just makes it so much more special.
Another memorable trip was September 2007, it was at the end of a day that hadnt produced any sightings at all, then suddenly we had two Minke Whales feeding close to the boat in the middle of a big group of seabirds, including the only Great Shearwater weve ever seen on a North Sea pelagic.
Anticipation on board is high, and there is often a flurry of excitement when someone mistakes a floating tree and one of its branches for a passing fin.
All the species have distinguishing features and with years of experience, Martin can identify almost every one.
However, even he was taken aback in September 2008, when he photographed a Minke Whale off Dunstanburgh.
A couple of weeks later I was sent an image of a Minke Whale that had been taken from Mull, on the west coast of Scotland, in May that year. Both images showed a very distinctive notch in the dorsal fin, making it likely it was the same animal, and proving there is movement of Minke Whales between the Hebrides and the North Sea off Northumberland, he says.
Thanks to nearly 18,000 funding earlier this year from Natural England, local people are being encouraged to get more involved in helping to monitor the number of dolphins and whales in the seas of the region.
Northern Experience Wildlife Tours is working with Marinelife and Natural England to keep track of White-beaked Dolphins and other marine life, and they are appealing to local fishermen, yachtsmen and recreational divers to submit their sightings online or by filling in designated postcards which have been distributed at coastal outlets.
White-beaked Dolphins normally reside in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, but are under threat from global warming. While they have been spotted off the coast of Britain for many years, little is known about the importance of the Farne Deeps off the Northumberland coast.
Martin is in the process of compiling a database of cetacean sightings, which he hopes will not only help safeguard the future of whales and dolphins in the area, but help raise the profile of Northumberland as an important eco-tourism destination.

Northern Experience will be running four hour evening trips from Royal Quays in July and August and eight hour day trips in September. The four-hour Whale and Dolphin Cruise will also take place in September departing from Seahouses. For further info, visit www.northernexperiencewildlifetours.co.uk or call 01670 827465.

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