The first thing anyone learns about a blue whale is that it is big, very big. In fact, at 30 metres length, it is the biggest animal on the planet. But what may come as a surprise is that such a notoriously large creature may have been passing through English seas undetected for several years.
That is, until the 24th August, when Southampton researcher Russell Wynn snapped a photo of England’s largest secret on an expedition around Whittard canyon, 400km south west off Cornwall. Russell Wynn is a marine geoscientist, who, in his words, has been in Southampton for ‘too long’ studying for his PHD, and then staying here for his career having worked at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) since it first opened in 1996. The expedition’s main purpose was to survey the deep sea marine life present and to provide evidence of biological communities, so as to assign marine conservation zones and assess the extent of human impact.
The whale was spotted the good old fashioned way, by us sitting up on the bridge with a pair of binoculars. We had about seven fin whales around the boat at the time, fin whales being the second largest whale in the ocean, a species also hit hard by whaling. The area is a known hotspot for fin whales, sometimes you can see up to twenty a day. In the midst of all the action, about a kilometre away, another whale surfaced. But I could tell the whale was different than the others, as this one showed its tail when it dived. That’s not something that fin whales do.
We waited for it to surface again, which normally takes about five to ten minutes. When it did, I could get a proper look at the dorsal fin, and like a blue whale fin it was characteristically tiny compared to its body. At this point I turned around and said to my colleague, ‘that’s a blue whale’ and the reality of the situation started to kick in.
The third time the blue whale surfaced I was waiting with my camera to digi blast it and get some record photos, so we could prove to people what we’d seen. Everyone was now on the bridge, shouting and getting a better look. The whale surfaced one more time and then disappeared from sight into the gloom.’
So you saw the whale at Whittard canyon, whilst conducting research into the deep sea marine life present. But what is so special about Whittard Canyon that attracts such biodiversity to the area?
Well what brought our research to the area was the presence of submarine canyons. These are known biodiversity hotspots in the ocean.
Think of it like turning the ocean upside down and looking at it like land, where the lowlands are heavily farmed, industrialised and the amount of life is much lower. The only pristine habitats that are then left, are the mountaintops which remain fairly untouched by exploitation.
If you invert that and apply it to the seabed, it’s the same story. The shallow coastal areas have been heavily modified by trawling and other human activity, whilst the deep sea canyons offer a refuge for many species, as the environment is too deep and rugged for human access. Submarine canyons are one of the last few biodiversity hotspots in the ocean.
However, Russell Wynn explains that the challenge associated with such a remote and rugged environment are much like those of a mountain; it can be hard work to get to your destination. Therefore despite the blue whale sighting, plans to paddle your inflatable dingy out on your next Cornish holiday in hope of splashing with blue whales are not recommended.
Due to the steepness and complexity of the environment, our work involved using mostly remotely operated vehicles to get an idea of what’s living there and how we protect it. We caught on camera cold water corals at several hundred metres, which support a range of animals rarer in other parts nowadays, like octopus. Whittard canyon also hosts vast numbers of blue sharks, which indicates a productive ecosystem with plenty of fish.’
If you are going to see a blue whale anywhere in England, this would be the place, as the canyon is, according to Russell Wynn, ‘the only bit of real estate in the deep sea with an English territory’ and the blue whale is an animal that demands a lot of space.
Do you think that this blue whale is a one off occasion or are sightings increasing in English waters?
There’s been sightings in that area in the last couple of years from people passing on ferries, but this was the first blue whale in English waters to be photographed and is one of very few sightings in the UK in the last decade.
But there is some really interesting stuff going on in the Atlantic at the moment, blue whales have been recorded off Ireland in autumn using underwater microphones. Results from individual whale identification, display tentative evidence that there is a southwest autumn migration from Iceland down to the Azores. It may be that there is a regular migration past Whittard Canyon which has gone undetected for years
Given this evidence of blue whale occurrence, do you think you will be carrying out further research to detect the undetected?
In order to assess whether blue whales have been slipping under the radar, and to recover populations in the area we need more evidence. But in Britain, it’s not like in Monterey bay where people just toddle out on to the pier and happen upon blue whales. For us in the UK, we have to make quite a journey, in a big ship, several kilometres off shore. There are few opportunities to get there. One idea we have is to send out one of our remotely operated vehicles in autumn and leave it there for a month listening out for blue whales in the English area.
What should people take from this incredible encounter? Is this good news for our English blue whale populations?
It’s a sign of cautious optimism. I’ve worked a lot with conservation and there is always this optimism versus pessimism argument. We should be sorrowful for the things we are losing and the state of the environment, but sometimes we lost sight of the fact that some animals are adapting to the current environment.
In terms of the blue whale, there is some indication that they are recovering, although we are pretty data poor in the North East Atlantic. But given that they were hammered by hunting in the early part of the 19th century, some 50 years on from the hunting ban, I wouldn’t be surprised if these long lived animals should start to see recovery.
Given the timescales and the fact I prefer optimism over pessimism, I would like to believe populations are recovering.
That’s what I’d like people to take from this, that in a doom and gloom world for conservation, things can change. The power to make a difference and ban activities that damage the environment is within our grasp and animals will recover if you do that.