A new individual humpback whale, nicknamed "Orion", has been sighted for the first time in Irish waters, off the coast of Donegal.
The humpback whale was sighted approximately 60 kilometres north-northwest of Malin Head, Co Donegal by Dr Justin Judge, a marine mammal observer who was on board the Marine Institute's Celtic Explorer.
Dr Judge was on board the Celtic Explorer as part of the annual Western European shelf pelagic acoustic (WESPAS) survey, on behalf of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG).
The IWDG confirmed the humpback whale is a new individual, previously unrecorded in Irish waters in the IWDG catalogue.
“This is a dream sighting for a marine mammal observer,” Dr Justin Judge said.
The individual humpback whale “Orion” has been named after the Greek mythological hunter, since the whale was moving with the fish stocks for food. It is also Dr Judge’s son’s middle name, “so fitting on both fronts,” he said.
Dr Judge said there was “a lot of feeding action from a multitude of cetacean species that day,” including bottlenose, common, risso’s and white-sided dolphins, grey seals and minke whales.
Humpback whales grow up to 14 to 17 metres long, and are predominantly black in colour with long white flippers and often white patches on their underside.
When a humpback whale raises its tail or fluke, it provides an opportunity to photograph its underside. The pattern on the underside is unique to this individual whale, and these photographs are used to identify it.
To date, the IWDG has documented 112 individual humpback whales in Irish waters since 1999.
"Observing any apex predator in its natural environment is exciting but a new humpback whale for Irish waters, this is special," Ciaran O'Donnell of the Marine Institute said.
“Irish waters support a diverse range of marine life, and our annual acoustic survey programme not only monitors the health of our pelagic fish stocks, but also provides data to researchers on the overall health of the wider ecosystem,” he said.
Humpback whales can be seen in Irish waters throughout the year, but the most frequent sightings occur in spring through to early winter when they visit seasonal feeding grounds.
Irish waters are an ideal feeding area for humpback whales, as it is midway on their migration across the Atlantic between Western Africa and Northern Scandinavia.