The year 2016 was remarkable for British whale records but perhaps the most exciting place to be was Shetland towards in late autumn when humpback whales were reported in the north-east of the archipelago.
Local naturalists Richard Shucksmith and Brydon Thomason knew they had to react quickly.
“Humpback sightings in Shetland have increased recently,” said Thomason, “but usually they’re just passing through, so you have to take your chance to see them.”
Up to five humpback whales were using the area, and presented the exciting possibility of decent photos and something never before managed in British waters – underwater footage.
“We had to be quick,” said Shucksmith. “It was only a week off midwinter, and we couldn’t expect more than three hours’ decent light.”
While Shucksmith and Thomason managed to capture this incredible footage, they also took a series of photos which clearing showed the uniquely patterned tail flukes of the cetaceans.
Neither the North Norwegian Humpback Whale Catalogue or The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG), whose previous records links Irish humpbacks to Norway, Iceland, the Netherlands and even Gibraltar, had a match.
But Padraig Whooley of IWDG put Thomason in touch with the world’s largest humpback ID database, the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue in Maine, USA.
The reply was thrilling. The first-ever match for a UK or Irish humpback to a breeding area. Only it wasn’t to the main humpback breeding ground this side of the Atlantic, Cape Verde.
Amazingly, the Shetland whale in question was last recorded in March 2016 by Cedric Millon, a tour guide from Guadeloupe Evasion Découverte, in the Caribbean – an ocean away.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” said Thomason. “To get such a significant match from the first tail-fluke ID attempt from Shetland was remarkable – and lucky!”
These photos taken off Guadelope on 7 March 2016 matched tail-fluke patterns on one of the Shetland humpbacks. © Cedric Millon