Many of you may have seen in the news recently that a Blue Whale, the world’s largest animal, was spotted in UK waters this week. Have a look here at the Guardian’s report. This fantastic news suggests the blue whale’s numbers may be increasing and therefore its range expanding. The sighting coincides with the amazing footage filmed by the Big Blue Live team in California, however you don’t have to travel to America to see some fantastic large marine life. Admittedly, the UK blue whale was seen 250 miles off the south coast, but there are many other large marine animals that you can see closer to shore that may surprise you.
The minke whale can be found worldwide. In the UK they are most commonly seen around Scotland and Northern England, but can occasionally be seen in waters around Wales and South West England. Adults range from 7 to 11m long, with females being larger. They are believed to be able to live for 50 years. They have a wide diet, ranging from herring to plankton and krill. Minke are seasonal, and so your chances of seeing one are greatest around August, during the feeding season.
There are an estimated 8,000 minke whales in UK waters and anywhere between 500,000 to 1 million worldwide. Populations are considered to be stable, however they do face several threats.
Whaling: Historically, minke were commercially hunted by several countries. Recently, whaling bans have been put in place, however a few countries (Greenland, Japan, Norway) still capture whales for food and scientific research.
Accidental Capture: Purse seine nets are indiscriminate and large and therefore any animal that swims within their reach in at risk of being captured. Other fishing methods such as trawling and line fishing have reported accidental minke whale catches.
Sightings of minke whale have declined in recent years, creating some concern about their numbers falling. Fishermen have reported whales with plastic, litter and the resulting scars on their bodies.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the minke though! Classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, minke whale numbers have not been reported to be declining at a threatening rate. Further research is needed to keep an eye on minke numbers, and interventions put in place if anything threatening does happen.
This cetacean may look like a dolphin, but it’s triangular dorsal fin and small mouth containing spade shaped teeth distinguish it from its distant relative. Their most common UK distribution stretches further south than the minke whale, being sighted regularly along the north coasts of Devon and Cornwall as well as Scotland and both the east and west coasts of Northern England. They are the smallest cetacean in European waters, reaching around 1.8m.
An estimated 230,000 harbour porpoise inhabit the North Sea and Channel waters. Despite being the most common cetacean in UK waters, numbers are believed to have declined, particularly in the south.
Threats facing this animal include accidental capture, much like the minke whale. The threat is greater for the porpoise due to its smaller size. To help reduce the numbers of bycatch, the UK Bycatch Monitoring Programme was set up by the JNCC in 2005.
Anthropogenic disturbance also threatens harbour porpoises. Like most cetaceans, harbour porpoises use sound as a means of communication and to glean information from the environment. Anthropogenic background noise and pulses can interfere with the porpoise, ultimately altering its behaviour. Most notable is the movement away from loud noises, which may mean moving away from breeding grounds and feeding sites.
The conservation status of the harbour porpoise has been assessed as favourable. It is an offence to kill, injure or disturb any cetaceans in England and Wales, and similar legislation exists for Scotland and Ireland. Conservation efforts and surveillance are ongoing to ensure the species’ future.
Basking sharks, the second largest living fish, are found in most temperate waters. In the UK, you are most likely to see one between May and October in the Hebrides, the Isle of Man, Malin Head and around the Southwest of England. Although a daunting looking creature at first sight, the basking shark is relatively harmless. Its massive mouth is used for filter feeding on plankton- it does not have the carnivorous diet of some of the more charismatic sharks. They can grow to 11m long, with a mouth span of 1m.
Only a few hundred basking sharks now return to UK waters in the summer months, after increased hunting pressure in the late 1900s killed over 80,000 in the North-east Atlantic alone. Sharks are valued for their liver oil, which was previously used as a lubricant and lamp oil, but now is used in cosmetics. Estimates suggest that the basking shark population in the NE Atlantic is at numbers lower than 5% of historic levels. Globally, the basking shark is categorised as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, but in the NE Atlantic its status has dropped further to Endangered.
Although the basking shark has been protected since 1999, many individuals are believed to be killed from injuries after collisions with vessels when feeding at the surface.
The value of shark fins saw a 333% rise in the late 20th century, fuelling the continuation of fisheries to provide for the demand, particularly from South East Asia. The last UK fishery closed in 1995, however many still exist around the world. The proportion of fins from basking sharks is unknown due to a lack of monitoring, but the market is expanding.
All is not lost for the basking shark. Last year, the number of basking sharks in the south west increased, to the delight of conservationists. With effective protection measures put in place, and awareness raised about the problems facing all sharks, populations can recover.
What You Can Do to Help
I’ve written about 3 species that are found in the UK, but there are so many more, and all of them need a little bit of help. The Wildlife Trusts have set up a petition, campaigning for 17 protected areas in megafauna hotspots around the UK. The petition will be taken to the UK Government in the hope of setting up these areas to protect the UK’s whales, dolphins, porpoises and basking sharks. You can sign it here. It only takes a few seconds.