A Blue Planet Encounter - a Humpback Whale off the Devon Coast

Humpback whale ©Gillian Day 

Joan Edwards describes the magical moment of seeing a Humpback Whale from a beach in South Devon

This weekend, I had an amazing and very rare experience of being able to watch a humpback whale from a beach in South Devon. I was lost for words and close to tears as the whale surfaced and blew literally 50 metres away. The steep shingle beach at Slapton gave us a unique opportunity to observe a 'Blue Planet' moment right here in cold and grey Devon! As well as the whale, there were dolphins, seals and gannets all involved in a feeding frenzy on what the Cornish call “silver darlings” - pilchards to you and me.

But the whale stole the show. There were about one hundred onlookers who stood for hours waiting for the tell-tale spout. We would then see the hump of the whale four or five times, a quick glance of the fluke and then it was gone. Fifteen mins later the whale would appear again. Every pair of eyes was needed to relocate the whale, which moved surprisingly long distances underwater. There was a hushed silence while we waited with the sound of the waves in the background and then you would hear the spout again: water shot over ten feet from the surface and dispersed in the wind. There was the odd 'wow' from the crowd, but mainly the watchers were just silently memorised by this magical moment. 

The whale seemed to be moving along the beach, possibly forcing the pilchard to run into shallower water where the dolphins and seals were gorging themselves on these highly nutritious fish. 

Some suggested that the whale might be in trouble, but over the weekend these rumours were proved far from true as the whale travelled up and down this piece of coast, probably with intention of getting a good feed before heading north on its migration.

Humpbacks were rarely seen off the UK coastline until about five years ago, when sightings increased from about five per year to between fifteen and 30. This year, we have heard of many more sightings which could be for two reasons. Firstly, the whale population is now recovering since whaling has been halted, or there are more small fish such as pilchards around this year. What we know for sure is a whale will only go where there is food.

You may be surprised to know this is my second encounter with a humpback in the English Channel. Back in 1986, my dive buddies and I came across a humpback whale in Lyme Bay. Indeed, Colin Munroe who was working for The Wildlife Trusts at the time captured this extraordinary moment on camera. We didn’t have digital cameras then and so he was so lucky to capture the moment on film and for it to be in focus!

Humpback Whale (c) Colin Munro

Colin Munro