UK wildlife team spot critically endangered whale from Saga cruise ship

October 11th, 2017

A distant view of the North Atlantic right whale’s distinctive ‘v’ shaped blow

A team of volunteers from a Portsmouth-based marine conservation charity has caught a glimpse of one of the rarest animals on the planet, the North Atlantic right whale, during a survey in Canada on cruise ship Saga Sapphire.

ORCA, a marine conservation charity whose network of volunteers collect data about whales and dolphins, have a team of volunteers on the “Canada in the Fall” cruise aboard Saga Sapphire.

The group have been on board since the ship left the UK September 15th to collect sightings of marine wildlife in an area of the world renowned for its rich natural beauty. The trip is one of many ORCA have run in partnership with Saga Cruises over more than ten years of working together.

However, despite having seen hundreds of whales and dolphins already on this trip, the team couldn’t believe their eyes when they spotted the North Atlantic right whale on the morning of Saturday 7th October.

The species is amongst the most endangered on the planet, with the global population estimated to be less than 500. Canada is one of the last places in the world where they are seen, but even in this region sightings are scarce.

ORCA Director, Sally Hamilton, said: “This is a first for ORCA, and it is incredible to think that our dedicated volunteers have managed to catch sight of something that is so rare. The North Atlantic right whale is on the brink of extinction, so any sightings that can shed light on their movements could help to protect the last remaining members of this species.”

North Atlantic right whales reach up to 14m long, and can weigh up to 70,000kg. They are baleen whales, which mean they use long strips of keratin to filter seawater and collect krill and other invertebrates.

2017 has been a devastating year for the species, with the loss of 12 animals in the last nine months, which represents 2% of the global population. In particular, copepod’s, which are the species largest source of food, found a new summer home earlier in the year in the Gulf of St Lawrence during the snow crab fishery, which has put the animals at critical risk of ship strike and entanglement.

“The team have been supporting the bridge crew throughout this voyage, particularly during their time in the Gulf of St Lawrence. ORCA volunteers have been assisting in spotting whales to help avoid any near misses or collisions,” continued Hamilton.
“The area is subject to strict speed restrictions to protect the endangered population, and the crew were keen to make sure there was no risk of them putting any animals at risk.”

Master of the Saga Sapphire, Captain Burgess said, “We are delighted to have the ORCA team on board again as many of our guests have a real interest in marine life and are often seen alongside ORCA staff from dawn to dusk.

We met with the ORCA staff early on in the cruise as we were keen to set up a communications link and for them to let us know if they spotted any whales in case we had to alter course to avoid them.

Apart from the keen eyes of our Bridge Watchkeepers we were very pleased to have additional “spotters” in the Gulf of St Lawrence. A speed restriction of less than 10 knots had been imposed to protect the North Atlantic Right Whale and we’re delighted that ORCA spotted one of these rare species. We’re always keen to support the work that ORCA do and have many cruises planned for 2018 with wildlife teams on board”.

The cruise had already been a record breaking trip, with seventeen different species spotted during surveys and excursions on the trip. In total, 179 whales, 379 dolphins and 27 porpoises have been spotted in 23 days on board.

ORCA are on the following 2018 Saga Cruises:

Saga Sapphire – 20 April – Classic Canaries, 24 June – Adventure to the North Cape, 19 July – Med Opera, 21 September – Nova Scotia and St Lawrence in Autumn

Saga Pearl II – 14 February – Northern Lights, 1 March – Northern Lights, 16 April – Seville Festival & Fireworks, 12 July – Northern Islands, 8 August – Up, Up and Away, 16th Sept Norway and Iceland Exploration and 30 October – Small Ship Canaries.

(Saga, Orca)