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Vagrant Cetaceans

SPERM WHALE Physeter macrocephalus has occurred on approximately eight occasions. A set of whalebones formerly mounted on a plinth in the former grounds of Cresswell Hall were thought to be this species (S. Lowe, pers. comm., 2012.). In recent years there have been four strandings or carcasses: a moderately decomposed carcase at sea 18 miles northeast of Hartlepool in June 2010; a specimen, reported as 45 feet long, lodged on the rocks at Bird Flight Goit, south of Saltburn, in 2010, which may have been the same animal; and two well-publicised strandings in January 2010 at Beadnell and in May 2011 at Marske-by-the-Sea. There are also three recent records of live animals: one near the Farne Islands in 2004, one “logging” off Whitburn on 3 April 2008 and one on 31 May 2012 from a transect survey on PV St Oswald, when the author was scanning to the port side and missed this leviathan as it surfaced to starboard under a feeding flock of Gannets Morus bassanus.

Stranded Sperm Whale, Marske © Ian Bond

HUMPBACK WHALE Megaptera novaeangliae has occurred on approximately six occasions, although there has been an increase in records in recent years. Following a report of two off Holy Island on 7 September 2009, a single animal was discovered breaching just beyond Longstone (Farne Islands) on 13 September by a dive boat and, presumably, the same animal came as quite a surprise to a fisherman hauling his pots east of Newton Point on 19 September as it breached near his boat. Other local records include one five miles east of Hartlepool on 7 September 2006, one past Whitburn on 1 January 2011 and another (or the same) feeding off Whitburn on 6 and 7 August 2011.

LONG-FINNED PILOT WHALE Globicephala melas was described by Mennell and Perkins (1864) as “occasionally met with on our coast in large herds” and they suggested that a pod of 63 animals killed at Shoreston on 29 July 1734, described by Wallis as “Grampus, Bottle Nose or Great Porpess” (Orca) was more likely to have been this species. Modern reports are scarce although there are three records of live strandings of single animals: Redcar in May 1991, the Long Nanny Burn in October 1997 and Berwick-upon-Tweed in May 2002, and reports of animals off Blyth in March 2007 and Cresswell in March 2009. Stockill (2006) reported that a third of commercial fishermen had described seeing this species in recent years, so it seems to be a real possibility for the diligent observer.

ATLANTIC WHITE-SIDED DOLPHIN Lagenorhynchus acutus occurred five times as dead strandings between 1990 and 1994: Amble in December 1990, two in Beadnell Bay in September 1993, Old Law (Lindisfarne NNR) in July 1994, St Mary’s Island in April 1994, and one report of three animals off Sunderland in July 2007; so this cold water species must be a realistic possibility, certainly for anyone in our offshore waters.

BELUGA Delphinapterus leucas. Three records of this striking species: one captured in salmon nets at South Shields, June 1903, one moving north off Hadston in March 1988 (Foster-Smith, 2000) and one in the late 1980s/early 1990s that was watched as it progressed down the Durham coast (N. Jackson, pers. comm., 2012)

Beluga Whale, Fish Quay, North Shields © NHSN

SEI WHALE Balaenoptera borealis. The skeleton of one stranded at Amble in February 1912 is in the Hancock Museum reference collection (Foster-Smith, 2000) and one was reported six miles off Cresswell in June 2009. On 26 September 2012 an 8.6 metre juvenile female stranded at Druridge Bay in Northumberland. At this length it was likely to be maternally dependent and was suffering from malnutrition, probably as a result of becoming separated from its mother, and had to be euthanized. What was possibly the same animal had been reported within 100 metres of the shore at Cambois on 20 September.

Species only recorded as captured or stranded:

NORTHERN BOTTLE-NOSED WHALE Hyperoodon ampullatus. Four records are listed in Davis and Muir (in Foster-Smith, 2000): one caught in nets at Hartley in 1744, fragments of a skeleton removed from the Tyne at Newcastle in May 1857, a stranded 28-foot male at Blyth in March 1914 and a 20-foot male stranded at Seal Sands in October 1958. There is also a record in Delany (1985) of a stranding at Marske-on-Sea on 13 July 1943.

FIN WHALE Balaenoptera physalus. Three records are listed in Davis and Muir (in Foster-Smith, 2000): one brought into Sunderland, having being caught off Holy Island in 1810, one captured in 1831 and one stranded in Amble in May 1915.

BOWHEAD WHALE Balaena mysticetus. Just two old records of this Arctic species: an animal captured at Tynemouth in August 1532 (Mennell and Perkins, 1864) and one stranded in Newbiggin Bay in October 1869 (Foster-Smith, 2000). It seems possible that these records may refer to Northern Right Whale Eubalaena glacialis.

FALSE KILLER WHALE Pseudorca crassidens has been recorded twice with specimens stranded at Berwick- upon-Tweed on 3 December 1935, and at Beal on 5 December 1935 (Foster-Smith, 2000).

SOWERBY’S BEAKED WHALE Mesoplodon bidens has been recorded three times in our region as strandings: West Hartlepool in July 1940, Whitburn in October 1978 (Foster-Smith, 2000) and Holy Island on 13 November 2006. This species, also known as the North Sea Beaked Whale, occasionally strands on the east coast of Britain (three animals for example, in East Yorkshire, Lothian and Fife in the week of 13 to 19 August 2012).

STRIPED DOLPHIN Stenella coeruleoalba has been recorded on four occasions with strandings at Blyth in October 1991, Seaburn in December 1999, Dunstanburgh Castle in April 2003 and Whitley Bay in April 2006. The Dunstanburgh Castle record was a live stranding of three animals and the Whitley Bay record was a small calf, all extremely unusual records of what is a warm-water species.


Written by Martin Kitching (last updated Nov 12)