Have you already seen the Start Bay whale? Let us know on our Facebook page.
The three-mile stretch of Start Bay between Torcross and Strete Gate is always worth a visit for nature lovers. There are regular visits from seals, porpoises and dolphins off Slapton Sands, and just a few metres away sits the Slapton Ley National Nature Reserve, a haven for birdwatchers and other lovers of the great outdoors.
In February 2017, residents and visitors to this beautiful area were treated to a most unusual and spectacular sight: a magnificent humpback whale. The Start Bay whale stayed for around five days before – it was believed – heading back out to deeper water for good.
In fact, the humpback whale was quickly seen again off Slapton Sands and, more than a month later, seems to have set up home in South Devon. Initial fears that it had come to our shores because of illness or confusion appear to have been misguided. Thankfully, experts believe it to be fit and healthy, perhaps making the most of the abundant local mackerel in the area!
To find out more about the Start Bay whale, we asked Peter Moore, a director of Forest & Beach, to share some of his expertise. Our locally-based team put together a list of questions we’d been dying to ask and got in touch.
Forest & Beach offers curriculum-linked outdoor learning and environmental education to children and schools across the UK. Based on an organic farm, a mile from the beach at Beesands, they offer a range of educational activities ranging from their forest school, beach school, river study days, farm visits, agricultural education and bespoke educational packages.
Peter Moore: Along Slapton Line from Torcross to Strete Gate. Blackpool Sands and Beesands have also been good spots.
CCC: Are there particular times that are best to spot it?
PM: Some sightings have been early in the morning but most are from 3pm onwards.
CCC: Have you seen it?
PM: Many times, sometimes as close as 15 to 20 metres offshore. Other times it’s been through binoculars. Seeing it spouting is a fantastic sight, even from a long distance.
CCC: Have you seen it breach?
PM: I personally haven’t, yet! I have seen a friend’s video of it breaching off Blackpool Sands – just majestic!
CCC: How big is the whale?
PM: It’s difficult to tell from the shore but I read a report that the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) estimated it to be 45ft long and weighing 20 tonnes.
CCC: Can you describe its appearance i.e. the body shape, the fins, the colouring and the head shape?
PM: From the beach, the whale appears dark with flashes of white if its fluke rises. There is also some distinctive scarring on its back. Also, you can see the ‘hump’ when it spouts.
CCC: What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen it do?
PM: I have seen it diving for food and the beautiful fluke fin rise out of the water.
CCC: Is the whale healthy?
PM: The whale absolutely appears to be healthy. We have seen it actively feeding and the distance it covers when swimming is astounding. One morning it was filmed off Berry Head breaching and by the afternoon it was off Slapton, again feeding.
CCC: Who is monitoring it?
PM: The BDMLR has been monitoring it along with lots of us amateur whale watchers! Social Media has been fantastic and our Facebook page and Twitter account have many photos and messages from people who have seen the whale. We like to keep everyone informed of up-to-date sightings.
The bird-watching community has also been fantastic with their great zoom lenses! A new community has sprung up, with locals and visitors standing in all weathers looking out to sea. Children visiting our centre talk about when they last saw the whale. We will have school residential visits soon and the children could possibly still have a chance of catching sight of a humpback whale in Start Bay!
CCC: Do you know if it is male or female?
PM: It has not been confirmed either way at the moment.
CCC: What does this type of whale eat and what is it eating in Slapton where it is now?
PM: This is a baleen whale so will eat small krill, squid, sand eels and it is believed the whale followed shoals of mackerel and herring.
CCC: Is it true it’s been spotted swimming alongside dolphins?
PM: It has! Many porpoises have been seen swimming with the whale while hunting. It has been like the Blue Planet on our doorstep with gannets, porpoises, seals and the whale all feeding together. Seagulls have been following the whale like they do a trawler, so they are also a good visual aid when trying to spot it.
CCC: How is its safety ensured?
PM: There have been some concerns as the whale has been caught a couple of times in pot lines. Salcombe All Weather Lifeboat, Dart Inshore Lifeboat, Coastguard and BDMLR all co-operated brilliantly to help free it. The South Devon and Channel Shellfishermen are looking at ways to prevent this happening again.
South Devon makes the ideal holiday base for those who love to be outside, enjoying the fresh air and natural scenery whilst on the lookout for wildlife, especially the marine visitors which range from seals and porpoises to dolphins and even the occasional orca.
Take a break in Torcross, a traditional coastal village by Slapton Sands. As well as opportunities to catch a glimpse of the Start Bay whale for as long as it remains in the area, you’ll have miles of the South West Coast Path to explore. There are also numerous nature trails through the Slapton Ley National Nature Reserve.
In addition to these natural delights, you can also pop into the ever-popular Start Bay Inn, as well the rustic Boat House restaurant and the cosy Seabreeze café a few steps away.
Who knows, you could even spot the whale from the comfort of your beachside patio!