Q&A: Watching Whales with Richard Baines, Yorkshire Coast Nature

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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.

At the end of 2022, I met up with Richard Baines, ecologist and Director of Yorkshire Coast Nature (YCN), a small nature tourism company in North Yorkshire that he set up with his business partner Steve Race in 2011, which offers wildlife experiences with local guides. Since 2014, YCN has run guided Seabird and Whale watching trips from the fishing village of Staithes, North Yorkshire, with local fisherman and skipper Sean Baxter. The trips offer the chance to see cetaceans like minke whales and bottlenose dolphins, a rich variety of seabirds and other marine wildlife. We spoke about watching whales, Richard’s lifetime knowledge about Yorkshire’s natural history, and changes he’s noticed in minke whales off the coast.

How did the Seabird and Whale trips and your partnership with Sean Baxter come about?

RB: Both Steve and I grew up in North Yorkshire, which is important to our company because it’s amazing the difference if your guide is from the area and very knowledgeable. It’s tricky finding the right skipper and boat; I met Sean by chance eight years ago in the North Yorks Moors National Park and then set up running wildlife trips. Originally, I called them a ‘Cetacean Adventure’, but of course, most punters do not know what a cetacean is. We [also] didn’t want to guarantee cetaceans on every trip. Seabirds and Whales encompasses everything. Teaching people about the seabirds is my passion. We’re in their environment, which we’re not usually; it’s a window into the natural environment, and it’s our job to teach people about that. We’ve always been keen to have a small group environment where everybody can interact on the boat, which, as a guide, is really enjoyable. This is a unique thing having a fisherman and a conservationist.

Richard has been birding on the Yorkshire Coast since his youth. He is an experienced ecologist, skilled nature photographer and illustrator © Yorkshire Coast Nature.

Are people more aware that there are whales off the Yorkshire coast now?

RB: One blog I wrote was called ‘Whales in Yorkshire? Don’t be daft’, and somebody did say that to me once when I was giving a talk called ‘Humpbacks to Goshawks: Wildlife of the North York Moors National Park’. Everybody reacts, ‘Humpbacks? Humpback whales in Yorkshire? Don’t be daft!’ That has changed in the last ten years through publicity and the media getting hold of the story. Several years ago, I had a wonderful article in the Guardian,It could have been Mexico’. There’s been quite a shift in knowledge in the general public, more people are aware than ever. The change in cetaceans across the eight years has [also] been interesting. We’re now seeing bigger numbers and other changes within the numbers and distribution. The increase in bottlenose dolphins has [also] helped our trips.

Lots of people mention the increase in bottlenose dolphins, but are there changes you’ve noticed in the minke whales?

RB: We’ve definitely noticed an increase over the years. 2022 was by far the most we’ve ever recorded. We had that count from the cliffs of 82 minke whales by Ian [Boustead, a local birder]. Just completely mad! That same day we were out with Sean and saw 30 whales; that confirmed the count. Ian’s count is genuine because from the cliff top you can cover a bigger area and easily see more. The pattern of occurrence is also interesting. There’s a difference we seem to have now, nothing scientific, but when we first started doing the trips, I don’t remember minke whales being seen as far south as Flamborough early in the season. But in the last three or four years we seem to have a pattern where the first ones arrive further south and then move north and occur off Staithes in bigger numbers. Or new individuals arrive, because we don’t know whether they’re the same animals. Or whether they’re moving up and down in a big feeding area. It’s very memorable this happening.

Minke whale © Richard Baines, Yorkshire Coast Nature.

We always seem to have a week or ten-day period between the last week of August and the last week of September when there’s lots of whales. It may be that’s influenced by conditions. Then some strange things happen; the big numbers seem to decrease quite quickly. I know this year, and for a few years, there’s been a few people concerned about the big trawlers fishing for mackerel and herring offshore. These seem to arrive, not surprisingly, at the same time as the minkes. I don’t know how that’s affecting things. This year, the other thing that happened is immediately after the brilliant period, we had very bad weather, so whether that changes distribution of food or feeding suitability… Something is happening within those two variables. There’s lots of mysteries surrounding that.

You grew up birding in Yorkshire, can you remember seeing minke whales when you were younger?

RB: I grew up in Teesside, not far from Sean. The strange thing is that when I was a teenager, 15, 16, I used to get the bus from Middlesbrough to Loftus, just north of Staithes, and walk across to Boulby Cliffs, do lots of bird watching and then get the bus home. I was literally in the same place as I’m now working, which culturally is quite interesting. I love that. I was always focused on the seabirds and one of the stories I tell people is that in those days we never saw whales. Some of the same people I grew up with [are still birding on the coast today], like Ian who recorded the 80 minkes – we were always looking at birds and we saw a porpoise, but that’s the only cetacean we ever saw. It was always about seabirds.

Map of North Yorkshire coastline. From the Tees Valley (blue area) to where it meets the East Riding of Yorkshire below Filey.

Why do you think the minke whales might be increasing?

RB: It’s interesting what Sean [Baxter] says about the herring increasing in his lifetime and the [1970s] herring ban having had a big effect. I take what he says seriously because he’s got a lot of experience.  The increase of certain species of fish and the ban on whaling must have had an effect on minke whale populations in the North Atlantic. I’m pretty convinced that [1982] moratorium on [commercial] whaling has made a difference. They’re probably returning to an area that they used to feed in maybe over 100 years ago, before whaling started, and it’s taken that long for the population to expand enough back into these areas. I’m convinced they’re coming into the North Sea the same way that the seabirds are; the two are in the same ecosystem, they’re doing the same thing for this big upwelling of food in Autumn. They’re coming over the top from the North Atlantic, over the top of Scotland into the North Sea, feeding in this big circuit and then coming back out again.

Sea Watch Foundation minke whale distribution maps © Sea Watch Foundation.

What major threats are there to minke whales and other cetaceans?

RB: Overfishing is the obvious one. We have noticed over the years minke whales getting tangled in fishing rope, discarded fishing material [and] some have been found dead; and there’s certain years this seems to be worse. In 2022, we didn’t get many dead whales reported, just the odd one. One year, we had three or four obvious cases. It tends to be when they come closer inshore; everybody gets excited because you can see them up close, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. There’s more fishing material in the sea. Climate change causing unpredictable weather systems probably has the potential to affect the food supply and the predictability of it. It is a really rich coastline and has the potential to be world famous, but I get frustrated about conservation measures that are not enforced. Minke whales, like lots of other animals, the populations change and there’s species that are increasing, but that could be temporary.

What role do the trips play in monitoring and contributing data on cetaceans? For example, you have volunteers from Sea Watch onboard recording cetacean sightings.

RB: Bex Lynham at Yorkshire Wildlife Trust runs this project with Sea Watch Foundation [read more from our interview with Bex here]. We’ve been in touch with Bex for many years and we got very frustrated because for the first five years running trips, we couldn’t collect data because as guides we can’t do both. When Bex got funding, she put together a partnership with other Trusts called the North Sea Wildlife Trusts. She gets funding to pay for the places onboard our trips every year. It’s the third or fourth year now and happening again next year. It’s wonderful to have them on board because they not only take the pressure off numbers and that survey, but they also add a lot to that experience because people think it’s great that they’re part of a conservation story. I have occasionally said when there’s lots of whales, ‘Anybody who gets a good picture of a whale, please send it to us and we can feed that to the project’. The guests feel as though they’re part of something bigger.

Yorkshire Coast Seabird and Whale Trip © Richard Baines, Yorkshire Coast Nature.

We’ve [also] managed to collect photographs of the same individuals returning. I had a volunteer working for me last winter and she put together lots of old photographs and tried to find dorsal fins with the same nicks. We had two or three which were as good as you could possibly get. We haven’t been through our photographs from this year yet, but we’ve got some pretty good evidence that the same individuals are coming back more than one year. I’m not a cetacean expert, but we fed everything through to Bex and the experts who work on minke whales. I think they consider them quite a difficult species to be certain of with those markings. But we got as close as we can possibly get. It makes sense that these animals are coming back year after year.

Puffins © Richard Baines, Yorkshire Coast Nature.

Where do most of your Whale and Seabird trip visitors come from?

RB: Speaking to people and seeing returning clients, the vast majority come from the north of England. Quite a few clients from the Leeds area, West Yorkshire, and Sheffield. There are quite a few within North Yorkshire and on the coast, but we seem to get more from further west. I suppose they’ve maybe not had that opportunity and depend on organised trips like this. People on the coast may have done this kind of thing before or may see lots of wildlife. With the clients that live close by, if it’s cancelled, they’re not stressed; they understand the dynamics and conditions of the coast. Lots of people now realise that it’s a fantastic coastline and they’ll go for a walk on the cliffs and have a wonderful day. We do get lots of returning clients. People are keen to be out there and see whatever wildlife they can. We get some people where it’s a bucket list to see a whale, but not that many. I suppose we develop a client base based on the trips we offer.

Bottlenose dolphins 2020 © Richard Baines, Yorkshire Coast Nature.

What is the cultural significance of cetaceans here in Yorkshire?

RB: I think it’s got a strong North Yorkshire connection. The cultural value on our coastline is incredibly strong because of the history of whaling, which ironically has contributed to their cultural value on our coast. Whaling has been talked about a lot in Whitby; there’s that cultural history and that psychological change from hunting to conservation and that wow factor is fascinating. It reinforces to the general public who come on trips that conservation works; the moratorium on whaling did actually work and you can see it because there’s a whale. I think that’s powerful because often in conservation it’s all in the media and you can’t see it for yourself.

Finally, what do you enjoy about running these trips?

RB: I always tell people the first trip I get on in the summer, I still feel like a big kid. Even after doing this for so long, I just feel as though I can’t believe we’re going out there and want to be out all the time! It’s addictive. Then you get all the funny asides, like when we’re not out, it’s a beautiful day, and Sean’s with another trip ringing me saying, ‘There’s loads of whales!’ or ‘I’ve got a storm petrel next to the boat!’ You only do it if you love it. Sean only does it because he loves it, it’s his life, and that’s the same with me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The original audio and transcription will be archived open access in the University of Leeds Repository for future research.

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