A quest to learn more about humpback whales in Scotland

As part of Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters, Ron Macdonald, chair of the North East Biological Records Centre and an avid humpback whale watcher, introduces a blog by Lyndsay Macneill, a talented and enthusiastic citizen scientist who discovered a love of whales when she heard of a sighting a short drive away from home.

A humpback whale photographed in Longyearbyen Svalbard in Norway in May 2017.
Copyright Iain Rudkin photography

Back in 2018, I first came across Lyndsay on the Forth Marine Mammals Project Facebook Page. I could see by the way she wrote that she was smitten by seeing her first humpback whale. But it went deeper than simply seeing the humpback – like many, Lyndsay immediately felt a spiritual connection between herself and the whale. 

That first sighting in the Firth of Forth signalled the start of her quest to learn as much as she can about the lives of whales that visit our seas and coasts. In 2019, she set up the Scottish Humpback ID Facebook Page, which in just over a year has significantly added to our knowledge about the movements of humpback whales seen in Scottish waters. Possessing a photographic memory, Lyndsay has matched several humpback whales photographed in Scottish waters and off Norway and Holland.  I’m sure you will enjoy her blog. 

A humpback whale breaching in Holland. Copyright Hans Verdaat

It all started when I read on Facebook that a humpback had been spotted at the Fife coast, only a short drive from where I live in Edinburgh. Crowds had been gathering and drawing people from everywhere. We headed over and met a few people who pointed the humpback out. I was in disbelief that we had them here on our doorstep!

You could say my first sighting was extremely lucky. Standing on a steep hill, a tanker passed and the humpback breached multiple times, along with pec slaps and tail slapping. We nicknamed the whale, Sonny, and I was hooked. I can’t describe the feeling of knowing how lucky we were to see this amazing animal so close to home. I can’t describe the happiness it brought me and others.

Soon after, I discovered there was a need to find out where these humpbacks were coming from, and so I started to volunteer to help identify the whales seen in Scotland. We spotted three or four in my first three years. At first, they all looked so similar to me, but I was so intrigued to find out more I began trawling social media (perhaps obsessed!), looking at people’s holiday shots and tour operators’ photos.

Humpback whale fluke photographed in the Netherlands at Dan Helder navy port on 8 March 2017.

When I stumbled across my first match, matching a whale seen in Scotland and the Arctic, it was quite a feeling to think this whale had come all that way. There was huge interest in the humpbacks and we all wondered if they would return the next year. I felt I was wishing away the year to see if they would return, and was thrilled when they did return!

They are such special animals, with such grace and beauty. There’s nothing quite like seeing a huge whale breaching free and happy.

I found it fascinating when I learned they all had unique tail flukes, with every one different.  I began storing all photos and data of humpbacks seen around Scotland and built up a good amount of info to set up the Facebook page. I find looking for them and learning more about them so relaxing after a day behind the chair in my day job as a hairdresser, and I have since made a few more Scottish matches.

It’s a match! Pictured here is a humpback fluke picture taken 12 miles NW of Sula Sgier Scotland on 21 January 2018. Below is the same whale in Skjervoy, Norway. Top picture is
copyright John Lowrie Irvine; bottom picture is copyright Steve Truluck.

Since setting up the Facebook page, many people have sent photos of humpbacks around our coasts. The west coast seems to be a hotspot for them. It’s like a huge jigsaw: why do they come, why did some stay for winter, and not head south? I find it all incredibly interesting.

I feel if you have a passion, you can achieve anything. I will continue to keep looking for more matches and hopefully see more humpbacks. The humpbacks didn’t appear in 2020 on the Fife coast, but I’ll be waiting and hoping to see that beautiful bushy blow that fills me with so much happiness. If only they knew what joy they bring to us.

If you’re interested in helping identify humpback whales, see Lyndsay’s Scottish Humpback ID page on Facebook.

If you’re interested in finding out the many about other citizen science opportunities, see the citizen science resources page on our website. Taking part in citizen science is a really useful way to help nature and the environment. Information gathered by citizen scientists is vital to scientists across Scotland to understand how nature is doing and where more action is needed. By getting involved you really can make a difference! There are different surveys to take part in depending on how much time you have to spend, and many of them don’t require any previous knowledge. 

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