One of the good things to come out of making #BritainsWhales and #BritainsSharks is raising awareness of the beauty of our ocean and the importance of UK waters as a stop off for whales and sharks. Our gloomy plankton filled seas are full of food for Blue Sharks in our summer, as they carry out their vast circumnavigation of the Atlantic. And for Humpback Whales travelling north to the Arctic from the Azores, the UK is an essential stop off and re-fueling point – we’re basically an upmarket motorway services for cetaceans.
We filmed a population of adolescent Humpbacks off Ireland who now don’t even bother to make that journey all the way to the Arctic. Our contacts in Ireland told us that this had only started happening in the last 15 years. Meanwhile more humpbacks are travelling up through the Celtic Sea between mainland UK and Ireland, so maybe we’ll start seeing similar adolescent populations hanging around us here too.
Having seen these animals close up, having heard them breathe and call each other, I can say with all my heart that a world without whales would be the end of the world. But for Humpbacks at least, the future is positive: Before commercial whaling, the population of Humpbacks was estimated to be somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 in the North Atlantic. At its lowest in the early seventies there were just 2000. Now with whaling banned for over 40 years, estimates are that the population is around 23,000. For the films, we studied and documented what happens when a whale dies – it was central to our documentary proposition and it’s called whalefall. One of results of the Humpback population bounce is that there is more natural whalefall (around 3 a day) and more die from contact with man either through ship strike or entanglement in ropes and nets. As a species they are particularly susceptible to entanglement: they’re capable of very fast abrupt changes in direction when they’re hunting and have massive fins to allow this. But it’s these fins and a Humpback’s inability to swim backwards that gets them caught.
The whale we filmed was found alive and struggling and tangled in various ropes. Valiant and brave efforts were made to save her but in the end she drowned. Her death likely coming in two parts: first a 12mm nylon rope caught around the back of her skull, slowing her down and affecting her breathing and feeding for maybe 5 weeks. Then shattered, hungry and disorientated she scooped up the rope between some lobster pots which caught behind her tongue. I arrived with a film crew 24 hours later. It was unbelievably sad – we all felt responsible in some way just by being humans. Normally whales found like this, are sent off to landfill in a costly and complex operation that sees them cut up and buried beneath our rubbish.
For our whale, the plan was to take her back out to sea and put her back into the food chain and we would document the whole process. We partnered up with scientists from Plymouth University, most notably Dr Nick Higgs, an enthusiastic whale fall specialist who had studied these events all over the world but never in UK waters.
We also had shark expert Richard Pierce on board. Richard spends his life travelling the world studying sharks and campaigning for their conservation. With these two involved we had the best people the UK could offer to help us pull off what was becoming a mammoth logistical operation. But neither of them knew what would actually happen.
We took the whale back out to sea in late August, statistically the best time of year for temperature sensitive blue sharks who we could predict should be in the Celtic Deep based on fishing data. But would they come in numbers and how big was that blue shark population?
What happened is better seen in the films rather then written here, but in death she fed at least 200 sharks but maybe many, many more. We counted 25 on the surface from our drone footage and filming with an ROV we counted another 25 lurking a few metres below… and then moving down more and more until the numbers bottomed out at about 30 metres – the estimate was 200 sharks. But the feeding was constant over 36 hours and we observed visibly ‘full’ sharks leaving the area as more constantly arrived, attracted by the oil leaching from the carcass and spread far and wide by the ocean currents.
Our whale fed 10 million calories back into the food chain and the main recipients, at the surface at least: the shy, utterly stunning Blue Sharks. Unlike the Humpback whales who are slowly coming back from the brink, British Blue Sharks are not protected. Estimates vary but somewhere between 6 and 10 million are taken a year in the Atlantic alone. So we’re trying to use the publicity around our ITV shows to raise awareness for sharks with a campaign by the Shark Trust here in the UK to impose fishing limits for Blues. Please get involved.
Watch Britain’s Whales at 8pm and Britain’s Sharks at 9pm ITV1 25th March 2016