Skip to main content Accessibility help

A longitudinal study of humpback whales in Irish waters

  • Conor Ryan (a1) (a2), Pádraig Whooley (a1), Simon D. Berrow (a1) (a3), Colin Barnes (a4), Nick Massett (a1), Wouter J. Strietman (a5), Fredrik Broms (a6), Peter T. Stevick (a7), Thomas W. Fernald (a7) and Christian Schmidt (a8)...


Knowledge on the ecology of humpback whales in the eastern North Atlantic is lacking by comparison with most other ocean basins. Humpback whales were historically over-exploited in the region and are still found in low relative abundances. This, coupled with their large range makes them difficult to study. With the aim of informing more effective conservation measures in Ireland, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group began recording sightings and images suitable for photo-identification of humpback whales from Irish waters in 1999. Validated records submitted by members of the public and data from dedicated surveys were analysed to form a longitudinal study of individually recognizable humpback whales. The distribution, relative abundance and seasonality of humpback whale sighting records are presented, revealing discrete important areas for humpback whales in Irish coastal waters. An annual easterly movement of humpback whales along the southern coast of Ireland is documented, mirroring that of their preferred prey: herring and sprat. Photo-identification images were compared with others collected throughout the North Atlantic (N = 8016), resulting in matches of two individuals between Ireland and Iceland, Norway and the Netherlands but no matches to known breeding grounds (Cape Verde and West Indies). This study demonstrates that combining public records with dedicated survey data is an effective approach to studying low-density, threatened migratory species over temporal and spatial scales that are relevant to conservation and management.


Corresponding author

Correspondence should be addressed to:C. Ryan, Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, Merchant's Quay, Kilrush, Co. Clare, Ireland email:


Hide All
Barco, S.G., McLellan, W.A., Allen, J., Asmutis-Silvia, R.A., Mallon-Day, R., Meagher, E.M., Pabst, D.A., Robbins, J., Seton, R., Swingle, M.W., Weinrich, M.T. and Clapham, P.J. (2002) Population identity of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the waters of the US mid-Atlantic states. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 4, 135141.
Beck, S., Foote, A.D., Kötter, S., Harries, O., Mandleberg, L., Stevick, P.T., Whooley, P. and Durban, J.W. (2014) Using opportunistic photo-identifications to detect a population decline of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in British and Irish waters. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 94 (6), 13271333.
Berrow, S., Whooley, P., O'Connell, M. and Wall, D. (2010) Irish Cetacean Review (2000–2009). Kilrush, Co. Clare: Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, 60 pp. ISBN 0–9540552-4-1.
Berrow, S.D., Whooley, P. and Wall, D. (2006) ISCOPE – Irish Scheme for Cetacean Observation and Public Education. Kilrush, Co. Clare: Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.
Brown, S.G. (1976) Modern whaling in Britain and the north-east Atlantic Ocean. Mammal Review 6, 2536.
Charif, R.A., Clapham, P.J. and Clark, C.W. (2001) Acoustic detections of singing humpback whales in deep waters off the British Isles. Marine Mammal Science 17, 751768.
Cheney, B., Thompson, P.M., Ingram, S.N., Hammond, P.S., Stevick, P.T., Durban, J.W., Culloch, R.M., Elwen, S.H., Mandleberg, L. and Janik, V.M. (2013) Integrating multiple data sources to assess the distribution and abundance of bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus in Scottish waters. Mammal Review 43, 7188.
Dalla Rosa, L., Secchi, E.R., Maia, Y.G., Zerbini, A.N. and Heide-Jørgensen, M.P. (2008) Movements of satellite-monitored humpback whales on their feeding ground along the Antarctic Peninsula. Polar Biology 31, 771781.
Durban, J.W., Elston, D.A., Ellifrit, D.K., Dickson, E., Hammond, P.S. and Thompson, P.M. (2005) Multisite mark-recapture for cetaceans: population estimates with Bayesian model averaging. Marine Mammal Science 21, 8092.
Fairley, J.S. (1981) Irish Whales and Whaling. Belfast: Blackstaff Press.
Harma, C., Brophy, D., Minto, C. and Clarke, M. (2012) The rise and fall of autumn-spawning herring (Clupea harengus L.) in the Celtic Sea between 1959 and 2009: temporal trends in spawning component diversity. Fisheries Research 121, 3142.
Jann, B., Allen, J., Carrillo, M., Hanquet, S., Katona, S.K., Martin, A.R., Reeves, R.R., Seton, R., Stevick, P.T. and Wenzel, F.W. (2003) Migration of a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) between the Cape Verde Islands and Iceland. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 5, 125130.
Link, J.S. (2002) What does ecosystem-based fisheries management mean? Fisheries 27, 1821.
Ó'Cadhla, O., Mackey, M., Aguilar de Soto, N., Rogan, E. and Connolly, N. (2004) Cetaceans and Seabirds of Ireland's Atlantic Margin Volume II – Cetacean Distribution and Abundance. Report on the research carried out under the Irish Infrastructure Programme (PIP), University College Cork, 82 pp.
O'Sullivan, D.A., O'Keefe, E.O., Berry, A., Tully, O. and Clarke, M. (2013) An inventory of Irish herring spawning grounds. Irish Fisheries Bulletin 42, 131.
Palsbøll, P.J., Allen, J., Berube, M., Clapham, P.J., Feddersen, T.P., Hammond, P.S., Hudson, R.R., Jørgensen, H., Katona, S. and Larsen, A.H. (1997) Genetic tagging of humpback whales. Nature 388, 767769.
Palsbøll, P.J., Clapham, P.K., Mattila, D.K., Larsen, F., Sears, R., Siegismund, H.R. and Arctander, P. (1995) Distribution of mtDNA haplotypes in North Atlantic humpback whales: the influence of behaviour on population structure. Marine Ecology Progress Series 116, 110.
Paxton, C.G., Burt, M.L., Hedley, S.L., Vikingsson, G.A., Gunnlaugsson, T. and Desportes, G. (2009) Density surface fitting to estimate the abundance of humpback whales based on the NASS-95 and NASS-2001 aerial and shipboard surveys. NAMMCO Scientific Publications 7, 143160.
Reeves, R.R., Smith, T.D., Josephson, E.A., Clapham, P.J. and Woolmer, G. (2004) Historical observations of humpback and blue whales in the North Atlantic Ocean: clues to migratory routes and possibly additional feeding grounds. Marine Mammal Science 20, 774786.
Ryan, C., Berrow, S.D., McHugh, B., O'Donnell, C., Trueman, C.N. and O'Connor, I. (2014) Prey preferences of sympatric fin (Balaenoptera physalus) and humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae) whales revealed by stable isotope mixing models. Marine Mammal Science 30, 242258.
Ryan, C., McHugh, B., Boyle, B., McGovern, E., Bérubé, M., Lopez-Suárez, P., Elfes, C.T., Boyd, D.T., Ylitalo, G.M. and Van Blaricom, G.R. (2013) Levels of persistent organic pollutants in eastern North Atlantic humpback whales. Endangered Species Research 22, 213223.
Smith, T.D. and Reeves, R.R. (2003) Estimating American 19th century catches of humpback whales in the West Indies and Cape Verde Islands. Caribbean Journal of Science 39, 286297.
Stevick, P.T., Allen, J., Bérubé, M., Clapham, P.J., Katona, S.K., Larsen, F., Lien, J., Mattila, D.K., Palsbøll, P.J. and Robbins, J. (2003a) Segregation of migration by feeding ground origin in North Atlantic humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Journal of Zoology 259, 231237.
Stevick, P.T., Allen, J., Clapham, P.J., Friday, N., Katona, S.K., Larsen, F., Lien, J., Mattila, D.K., Palsbøll, P.J. and Sigurjónsson, J. (2003b) North Atlantic humpback whale abundance and rate of increase four decades after protection from whaling. Marine Ecology Progress Series 258, 263273.
Stevick, P.T., Allen, J., Clapham, P.J., Katona, S.K., Larsen, F., Lien, J., Mattila, D.K., Palsbøll, P.J., Sears, R., Sigurjonsson, J., Smith, T.D., Vikingsson, G., Øien, N. and Hammond, P.S. (2006) Population spatial structuring on the feeding grounds in North Atlantic humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Journal of Zoology 270, 244255.
Stevick, P.T., Øien, N. and Mattila, D.K. (1999) Migratory destinations of humpback whales from Norwegian and adjacent waters: evidence for stock identity. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 1, 147152.
Volkenandt, M., Berrow, S., O'Connor, I., Guarini, J.M. and O'Donnell, C. (2014) Prespawning herring distribution in the Irish Celtic Sea between 2005 and 2012. ICES Journal of Marine Science. doi: 10.1093/icesjms/fsu143.
Wall, D., Murray, C., O'Brien, J., Kavanagh, L., Wilson, C., Ryan, C., Glanville, B., Williams, D., Enlander, I., O'Connor, I., McGrath, D., Whooley, P. and Berrow, S. (2013) Atlas of the Distribution and Relative Abundance of Marine Mammals in Irish Offshore Waters: 2005–2011. Kilrush, Co. Clare: Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.
Wenzel, F.W., Allen, J., Berrow, S., Hazevoet, C.J., Jann, B., Seton, R.E., Steiner, L., Stevick, P., Suárez, P.L. and Whooley, P. (2009) Current knowledge on the distribution and relative abundance of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) off the Cape Verde Islands, Eastern North Atlantic. Aquatic Mammals 35, 502510.
Whooley, P., Berrow, S. and Barnes, C. (2011) Photo-identification of fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus L.) off the south coast of Ireland. Marine Biodiversity Records 4, e8.
Zerbini, A.N., Andriolo, A., Heide-Jørgensen, M.P., Pizzorno, J.L., Maia, Y.G., VanBlaricom, G.R., DeMaster, D.P., Simões-Lopes, P.C., Moreira, S. and Bethlem, C. (2006) Satellite-monitored movements of humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae in the Southwest Atlantic Ocean. Marine Ecology Progress Series 313, 295304.


A longitudinal study of humpback whales in Irish waters

  • Conor Ryan (a1) (a2), Pádraig Whooley (a1), Simon D. Berrow (a1) (a3), Colin Barnes (a4), Nick Massett (a1), Wouter J. Strietman (a5), Fredrik Broms (a6), Peter T. Stevick (a7), Thomas W. Fernald (a7) and Christian Schmidt (a8)...


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed