Rare Whales Appear off Scotland, Heat Wave Blamed

Kate Ravilious in Edinburgh
for National Geographic News
July 28, 2006
Unusually large numbers of dolphins and whales have been sighted off the
eastern coast of Scotland this summer, including several species that
are rare in these waters.

Scientists believe the sightings may be the result of the heat wave currently gripping the U.K.

The sea around Aberdeen (see U.K. map) is teeming with minke whales and white-beaked dolphins, observers report. More than 40 white-beaked dolphins were sighted on one occasion.

Groups of common dolphins have also been seen somersaulting near the fishing town of Fraserburgh, and a humpback whale has been observed in the Outer Hebrides islands, far from its normal range.

A pilot whale and some Risso's dolphins add to the list of unusual sightings. And farther down the coast, just south of the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, whale-watchers spotted a fin whale—the first such sighting in over a hundred years.

"Global warming appears to be warming all the waters up," said Peter Macdonald, a whale-watcher with the Sea Watch Foundation, a marine conservation and research group based in Oxford, England.

"We don't normally see minke whales until late July or August, but this year our first sighting was in mid-May," he added.

Warming Oceans and Migrating Food

Whales and dolphins are not unusual around the coast of Scotland, but they normally favor the west coast because of the warmer, deeper waters there, experts say.

"The deeper waters provide greater diversity and more prey," explained Erich Hoyt, a senior research fellow with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society in Wiltshire, England.

Pilot whales and Risso's dolphins are particularly unexpected, the whale-watchers note. Those animals are more commonly associated with the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

"This is probably a reflection of warmer surface waters due to the heat wave and is out of keeping with previous years," said Kevin Hepworth, a volunteer coordinator with the Sea Watch Foundation.

Macdonald thinks that the whales and dolphins are likely to be following their favorite snack.

"Sand eels prefer colder waters, and a huge amount must have come into the [Moray] Firth [an inlet of the North Sea in northern Scotland] this year," he said.

The warmer waters on the west coast may have become too hot, attracting the sand eels to the relatively cooler waters on the east coast.

However, warming oceans are not the only explanation for the whale invasion.

"Possibly we are getting more sightings because more people are looking now," Hoyt, of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, said.

Whale- and dolphin-watching is becoming a popular hobby in the U.K., he notes, and the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick has reported a huge rise in interest in whale-watching in recent years.

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