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Cetaceans on the Yorkshire coast

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All words by Sophia Nicolov. This post is part of the Charismatic Encounters research project. Header photo of a minke whale by Richard Baines, Yorkshire Coast Nature.

Late summer and early autumn on Yorkshire’s coast sees a hubbub of cetacean activity, with opportunities to spot these animals along this dramatic and diverse North Sea coastline. From Redcar on the County Durham border in the north, down to Flamborough Head’s striking cliffs and beyond to Spurn Head on the Humber Estuary at Yorkshire’s southern border, there are whales, dolphins and porpoises to be seen. Two hundred years ago, whaling ships left the Yorkshire towns of Hull and Whitby to hunt whales in Greenland, but now this coastline is a rewarding and exciting place to encounter cetaceans. There are three main species usually seen from land or out at sea.

August and September annually brings an ocean giant to the seas around Yorkshire: common minke whales. While they are the smallest of the rorqual family, they can measure up to over 10 metres and are the largest regular inhabitants of these waters. They return year on year and are the stars of whale watching and wildlife tours in the region with their sleek shape and elegant movement, sickle-shaped dorsal fin, and flash of white on the underside. Of the great whales (humpback, fin, sperm etc.), minke whales are the most common around Yorkshire and are usually concentrated between Staithes and Whitby.

Photo of a minke whale by Richard Baines, Yorkshire Coast Nature

In recent years, bottlenose dolphins have also been increasingly spotted off of Yorkshire and the sight of these animals breaching, playing and leaping makes them one of the most charismatic cetacean species. These playful animals are more likely to approach boats, swimming alongside and riding bow waves. It’s believed that these dolphins have travelled further south from the Moray Firth, Scotland. There are now hundreds of sightings a year and they can be seen virtually all year round. The pods of dolphins, individual animals, and mother and calf pairs are regularly seen from the seaside town of Scarborough as well as Bridlington Harbour and Whitby piers.

Finally, the harbour porpoise is a year-round resident around Yorkshire. This species is the smallest and most frequently seen cetacean in British waters; they measure just under two metres long and have a distinctive rounded head. Unlike bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoises will shy away from boats. They are relatively elusive animals but, with a pair of binoculars and the right conditions, they can be seen just off the coast, their small, dark dorsal fins rising and falling.

These cetaceans are part of a marine ecosystem that includes huge shoals of herring and mackerel, which are feasted on by the minke whales and dolphins, as well as thousands upon thousands of seabirds, such as gannets, kittiwakes, razorbills and fulmars. It is a carefully tuned ecosystem: the sight of whales usually means herring, while gannets diving might mean cetaceans.

Very occasionally, fin whales (the second largest animal on the planet) and humpback whales have been sighted as far south as Yorkshire. Pods of white-beaked dolphins are sometimes seen from boats too. There are also other marine mammals to be seen, including colonies of grey and common seals.

Throughout the Charismatic Encounters project, we’ll be exploring organisations and individuals working to engage and educate the public, provide responsible whale-watching, conserve cetacean populations around Yorkshire, and steward the history and heritage along this coastline.

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