All eyes on the horizon – now’s the time of year to spot humpback whales

All eyes on the horizon – now’s the time of year to spot humpback whales

Humpback whale. Image by Richard Shucksmith /

All around the Cornish coast between November and March, it’s worth keeping an eye out to sea – as, if you are very lucky, you may encounter an experience that will take your breath away.

Winter is the time that humpback whales are most likely to visit our Cornish waters.

More and more individuals are being seen in UK seas every year and sightings have increased significantly in the last five years in Cornwall, with at least 30 sightings recorded so far this winter.

Reaching up to 18m long, these incredible animals are found throughout the world's oceans and perform some of the longest migrations of any mammal, with journeys up to 16,000 km recorded. Their population is believed to be 140,000 worldwide.

Humpbacks feast on fish and krill in productive cooler waters and then travel to tropical seas to give birth. They have a lifespan of between fifty and seventy five years. In UK seas, they are normally spotted alone or in pairs. It is believed they come into the shallow seas around Cornwall to feed. One theory is that the whales that stop off here over the winter are juveniles or non breeding adults, feeding-up on shoals of fish.

Listen to an episode of The Wild Cornwall Podcast all about humpback whales and how to spot them in Cornwall. Also available on Spotify and Apple

Humpback whale in Mounts Bay, Cornwall

Humpback whale in Mounts Bay, Cornwall. Image by Rupert Kirkwood

How to spot them

Scanning is the best way to spot these incredible animals out at sea, either with or without binoculars. It’s good to go humpback spotting in a group - the more people watching the better, as you can cover different areas. 

In ideal conditions the blow is the best sign to look out for, released as they exhale at the surface; in humpback whales the blow is bushy and around three meters high. Occasionally they are even seen coming into shallow in-shore waters at this time of year.

If a whale is in relative shallow water, it doesn't need to exhale as vigorously, so the blow may be difficult to spot. Gannets are sometimes spotted tracking them – another thing to look out for when scanning.  

How to identify them

Humpback whales are unmistakable, thanks to their unique knobbly head and the five meter long wing-like pectoral fins that they often raise and slap on the surface. Their body is black or dark grey with a white underside.

Why are sightings of humpback whales increasing?

Not only are sightings increasing but they were totally absent a few years ago - In the 90s there were so few sightings that no one would have dreamt of seeing them in our waters. No one knows for certain why sightings of humpback whales in Cornwall and around the UK seem to be on the increase but the consensus amongst researchers is that this is due to the recovery of the Atlantic population since the decision to pause commercial whaling in 1982 and that they have returned to habitats that they used historically as a stop off point on their annual migration.

All migratory marine life are hard to study due to the area they cover and the fact that they spend the majority of time beneath the surface.

Humpback whale 'Helen Chadwick'

Humpback whale 'Helen Chadwick'

Photo ID project

In order to learn more about our visiting humpbacks, Cornwall Wildlife Trust in partnership with a number of organisations including British Divers Marine Life Rescue, have been running a photo ID project, to identify and track individual animals sighted around our coastline.

Using photographs of patterns, scars, notches and scratches on the tail fluke, dorsal fin and flanks, individual humpbacks are being named and catalogued, with the location they were sighted at and date of the sighting recorded.

When multiple sightings of an individual are recorded, this is enabling us to track their movements around our coast and beyond! It also allows us to more accurately calculate how many individual whales are being spotted at one time and how long individual whales are staying local, as well as whether certain whales appear to be moving alone or in pairs.

All the whale ID work relies on people submitting sightings and photos.  Social media has meant an increase in recorded sightings, as more people share posts of what they have seen.

Having run for a few years, this project has already yielded some really interesting data and revealed some fascinating insights into the lives of these magnificent animals.

There have been multiple matches between various locations which suggest that whales migrate from Iceland to breeding grounds in Cape Verde stopping off in Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly.  

In March this year there was a UK first with a match between Isle of Lewis in 2018 and Cape Verde in March 2023.  It was very exciting to have it confirmed that it was a female and especially exciting that she was photographed with a small calf.

Some other interesting results included the realisation that a whale named ‘Pi’, has visited south west England every year since 2019, and that on the 1st of January, 2021, ten individual humpback whales were spotted around the south west.

Working with partners in Ireland and Scotland, we’ve been able to track animals as they move between different spots around the UK. We share information with the Scottish humpback ID catalogue and they've helped make matches with other whales. One individual has even been tracked around what we believe to be their full migration route – a whale named ‘Helen Chadwick’, first named and recorded near the Isles of Scilly in 2008, was subsequently spotted near Franz Josef Land, Russia in 2012 and the Dominican Republic in 2022. 

Why is it useful to know this information?

If we can learn more about these animals, we can better understand their needs, how to protect them and how to support their population growth, around the Cornish coast and beyond.

Humpback whale 'Pi'

Humpback whale 'Pi'. Image by Steve Truluck

How can I help increase knowledge about humpback whales?

  • Train as a Seaquest volunteer

Seaquest Southwest is the leading data collection project for marine megafauna in Cornwall. The data is held in the Environmental Records Centre for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (ERCCIS), which is hosted by Cornwall Wildlife Trust. At Seaquest, we understand the need for collaboration to take conservation action for our marine wildlife. We share sightings from boat operators, train different communities to survey, and share information with academics, as well as national and international databases. This is possible due to our dedicated volunteers and citizen scientists who are committed to collecting data of fantastic quality. We want to keep the data top-notch!

Seaquest training Sat 23rd March - book your place

  • Record marine wildlife sightings via the ORKS app or online

ERCCIS hosts a public data dashboard and makes it easy to request in-depth data sets that are used in academia and beyond. So, whether you're pitched up on a cliff completing a Seaquest Land Based Effort Survey or wandering the coast path and spot an ad-hoc pod of common dolphins, please, send in your sighting and make it count! Make sure to include photographs when reporting your sighting.

  • Contribute to our photo-ID project

Once you are fully trained in whale ID, take your contribution to the next level by becoming directly involved with our Humpback whale ID project. If you manage to spot a new individual, you have the honour of naming it yourself – with many of the Humpbacks studied having been named after the marine mammal enthusiasts that captured the first glimpse of them around Cornwall’s coast!

For more info, contact Seaquest Southwest

  • Follow marine wildlife watching best practice codes of conduct to prevent disturbance

Find out more and read about the Cornwall Marine and Coastal Code Group.

  • Report any dead marine wildlife strandings to our hotline.

Marine Strandings Network: 0345 201 2626.

This allows us to better understand why these animals are becoming stranded and gives us an insight into their lives at sea.

Contact them on 01825 765546