Fascinating giants of our seas

Whales fascinate with their size and their elegant moves despite their sometimes clumsy appearing body. Different to birds you may recognize whales with the naked eye though you may need binoculars first for observing their details. Talking about optics it is an advantage to have a large field of view and stable image when panning with them in order not to get motion sickness. Nearly everywhere in the sea you will discover one of the world’s 90 whale species, many only from a boat on the sea. In Europe we show the spots where to watch whales from the beach.

Flipper in the North Sea
On Germany’s exclusive Sylt island many tourists meet the world’s smallest whale and ask amazed why Flipper is in the North Sea. What many experience as a dolphin at first sight is a porpoise, Phocoena phocoena. The longest specimen measures two and a half meters from nose to fluke. Jumping behavior like that of dolphins is not common as the porpoise has a more calm temper. It is his survival strategy to be as physically small as it lives mainly in the shallow coastal regions of the North and Baltic Sea.

The name of the whale in some of the neighboring states is “pig whale”, although there is no similarity to pigs apparent. Most interpretations for the name go back to Aristoteles: He discovered the whale in the third century before Christ and probably wanted to emphasis the similarity to a pig as mammal. But first Carl von Linné classified the whales in the 18th century to mammals and exchanged the popular name “whale fish” for the marine mammals, which were no longer identified as fishes.

During the 90s many young nature conservationists counted the porpoises along the North Sea coast every second Sunday. A typical picture: young people in outdoor clothes, binoculars across the neck and spotting scope on the shoulder.

Several of the defined observation spots were at nudist beaches and the whale watchers had trouble to justify their optics equipment. Only very few beach tourists at that time knew that there are whales in the North Sea and did not want to believe the young people. Nowadays many information boards highlight the existence of the porpoises and show how to protect them.

Porpoises are endangered by marine pollution and as they are small whales also by fishing nets where they may end up as by-catch. This well-known phenomenon has been increasingly successful reduced with countermeasures for several years.

1994’s census of the nature conservationists work calculated 170,000 porpoises. More recent studies conjecture an increase of their number, but first new European studies will verify the calculations from the 90s.

In the tradition of the Vikings
All littoral states of the North Sea have signed the moratorium of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to protect whales although Norway, Iceland and Japan still permit their tradition of whale culling. Norway permits the catch of thousands northern minke whales per year. The mink whales of the North Atlantic and North Pacific in some languages are also called “dwarf whales” as they are the smallest baleen whales with their seven to ten meters, although compared to their direct relatives of the southern hemisphere they are taller. Unique behaivior of the minke whales is that they not only appear on the open sea but also are good to observe from coasts and especially in Norway’s fjords. A very rare but spectacular sight is their “spy hopping”: The minke whale shoots up vertically up to its pectoral fin in order to get a better overview and then let itself flop back into the water.

North of the polar circle there are the Norwegian Lofoten and Vesterålen fjords with breathtaking scenery for extended hiking tours. No matter if you are an early bird or have more energy in the evenings; in summers it never gets dark and everybody plans the day according to their personal preferences.

In the fjords sperm whales, Physeter macrocephalus, spend their summers. Those rather clumsy appearing toothed whales are with their 20 meters and over 50 tons weight the biggest predatory living animals.

Its unusual look evokes the different names, like in some languages it is called after a pot, pot whale. In winter there are polar light safaris by boat in the region to observe humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, and orcas, Orcinus orca.

The English name “sperm whale” comes from the waxy substance in its head cavities to support the capability for diving and buoyancy.

Binoculars with high light transmission are recommended to see everything in the dawn. Orcas perhaps the most famous of whales because of their special color scheme and their emotional charge as “killer whale” by a popular horror film. Also, documentary films show the brutal seeming hunting methods where orcas play football with seals before eating them. In fact, orcas are very social animals with complex population structures with upbringing in echo sounding and hunting skills for the offspring.

Tropical whale watching
Those who think the far north is just too cold probably prefer whale watching on the Azores. The group of islands in the Atlantic in front of Portugal welcomes with summer flair at reasonable temperatures the whole year round. Thanks to the warm Gulf Stream and the abundance of fish, 38 different whale and dolphin species have been seen in front of the Azores’ coasts. This is mainly the sperm whale, but also blue whales and fin whales are seen quite often.

Boats are the best place to observe the animals, although it is easy to watch them from the coast. Blue whales, Balaenoptera musculus, are with their 33 meters of length and a weight of up to 200 tons the heaviest animals on earth.

They get to be at least 100 years old, but presumably much older as the age has been verified among hunted or stranded whales. Scientists assume that those big animals get older than Greenland whales, where specimens with an age of 211 years were found. It is their chance to survive each of us as long as we protect their habitat and commit ourselves for their conservation.

More information on whale watching hotspots:

Whale Watching Hotspots Map
Whale Watching Guide Europe

Michaela Sulz

Michaela Sulz is a keen birder and ZEISS blogger.