Oxford Zoologist spots return of humpback whale

An Oxford zoologist has signalled the return to British waters of the humpback whale, the supreme acrobat of the marine world, after an absence of more than 30 years.

Dr Peter Evans, a research associate with the Zoology Department, has confirmed that individual humpbacks have been sighted on 17 separate occasions in British coastal waters: off Cornwall, Devon, and Dorset; in the northern Irish Sea north of the Isle of Man; and off the Shetland Islands.

Dr Evans also runs the Sea Watch Foundation, funded by the Department of the Environment, which uses a network of some 1,500 observers to monitor both the numbers and the distribution of whales and dolphins around Britain, and identify conservation threats.

He believes the sightings involve around five or six different individual whales, and the most promising sign is that the whales are returning to the same sites every year, beginning to recolonise British waters.

`It appears they have been slowly building up numbers since becoming an officially protected species. The resurgence in herring stocks, which is a very important source of food for the humpback, may also be a factor,' he said.

The humpback whale has been protected by international law since 1966. By that time it was already extinct in British waters, and total numbers around the world were believed to have declined to only a few thousand individuals—less than ten per cent of the population before exploitation. Scottish whalers harpooned their last one in 1928.

The whales, which can grow to 50 feet in length and weigh up to 65 tonnes, are spectacular to watch. They leap energetically in the water and are known for their dramatic fishing technique, in which groups of whales drive fish to the surface with a stream of bubbles and then scoop them up with their jaws wide open.

Dr Evans believes that their reappearance could provide a boost to the growing whale-watching industry in Britain.

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