The Minke whale, or lesser rorqual, has often been spotted in the waters off the Pembrokeshire coast in recent years.
Indeed, only 50 miles across St George’s Channel, whale-watching expeditions set sail from County Cork to spot Minkes and several other cetaceans in the waters of the Western Approaches.
The Minke (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) is a member of the rorqual family which includes the humpback, the blue whale, the fin whale, the sei whale and the Antarctic minke, with two other subspecies, the dwarf minke and the Scammon’s minke. The northern Minke measures an average of 24-feet long although maximum lengths vary between 30 and 35-feet. They weigh between 4.4 to 5.5 short tons, although 11-tons has been recorded. They are black, grey, or purple in colour with white undersides and the northern species is distinguished by a white band on each flipper. They live for between 30 and 50 years although 60 years has been recorded. They breathe three to five times at short intervals before deep-diving for two to 20 minutes, and deep dives are preceded by a pronounced arching of the back. They can swim at an estimated 24mph. Whaling is a very ancient activity, and is mentioned in Norwegian literature as early as the year 800, hunting for minke whales having been common in the 11th century. They were considered too small to chase by the 19th century. They are believed to have derived their name from a young Norwegian whale-spotter named Meincke in the crew of a whaler named Svend Foyn, who harpooned a minke by mistake, thinking it was a blue whale, and was derided for it. Three minke whales have been found washed up on UK shores in recent months, two on the Norfolk coast at Cromer and Sea Pallin. the other on a beach in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, where two other minkes have been found this year (2013). In total 14 have been found on UK beaches this year, and their strandings have been a mystery, leading to post mortems and exhaustive tests to establish the cause of death. The minke stranded at Magilligan Point, Londonderry, was 29-feet long, and caused the authorities a problem disposing of the huge carcass. Whales often become stranded because they are ill and disoriented, or because they have followed a fish shoal into shallow waters where they are unable to turn and get back to sea. The whales spotted off the Pembrokeshire coast have been few and far between and mostly identified by people on charter boats well off the coast on trips specifically organised to spot and photograph unusual visitors or transients, combined with a bit of sea angling.
Minkes are identifiable from other whales by their size and the fact that when they dive they do not allow their flukes to break the surface. They are more often to be seen than other whales because they are quite inquisitive and will approach a passing boat.