A spectacular feeding frenzy rarely seen in British seas has been filmed off the Welsh coast. A posse of predators, headed by enormous fin whales, coraled prey fish into huge prey balls in the Celtic Deep before launching attacks.
Fin whales, which can grow to 80ft and are the quickest of all whales, and the second largest, were seen diving deep to “herd” fish and push them to the surface. They then emerged to gulp hundreds of fish into gaping mouths.
All the while, smaller predators including Common Dolphins, Atlantic bluefin Tuna and torpedo-shaped Blue sharks, darted into the huge fish ball to pick off stragglers. Filming it all was wildlife cameraman Dan Abbott, who said it was a truly incredible sight.
“It was the kind of thing you expect to see off the coast of South Africa, not in the Celtic Deep,” he said. “Five or six years ago, Fin whales were filmed feeding in this area but not like this: this time all the different predators were in one place. It was incredible.”
Dan Abbott, 37, followed the action from a boat operated by Pembrokeshire Boat Charters. He usually works for the charter as a shark guide but, last Wednesday (August 16), no public day-trippers were on board, just a few marine specialists.
They were some 35 miles out from Milford Haven when they spotted the predators gathering. At least two Fin whales were present, probably more, suggesting a family group that, in all likelihood, also contained at least one calf.
Dan, from Pembrokeshire, said they got lucky. “The conditions were the best we’ve seen so far, and were probably the best we’ll get all year,” he said. “For dolphin and whale sightings, you need calm seas to spot their blows. When there’s a swell, it’s much more difficult.”
The boat’s crew watched on for 30 minutes. As well as deploying his drone, Dan swam over to the fish ball for close-ups of the feeding action. As the resulting footage is so rare, for UK waters, he has shared just two clips with North Wales Live, both showing Fin whales at the surface as they prepare to dive again.
He said: “Dolphins were following the whales. Like the other predators, they were waiting at the surface for the whales to dive down, so conserving their own efforts,
“Using the drone, we could see a large black mass (of fish) in the sea, then suddenly a dark shape looming from the depths to engulf the fish in its enormous open mouth.
“Visibility was good – down to 10 metres – and from the drone high above – you could start seeing the whales lunging from about 15 metres. But only for two or three seconds – fin whales are the fastest whales on the planet.”
The fin whale is the world’s second-largest mammal after the blue whale. They strain food from the water through baleen plates. It’s speculated that fin whales frighten schools of fish into denser balls by circling them with their white undersides facing the prey.
Earlier this year a dying sperm whale washed up on the Llŷn Peninsula. This was measured at 32ft, less than half the length of an adult fin whale.
Using the drone as a kind of “whale tracker allowed the boat’s skipper to place his vessel in the right place to avoid disturbing the mammals’ feeding behaviour. “After the whales dived, they needed a short recovery period,” said Dan,
“You can imagine the amount of water they swallow. All that has to be pushed back out with their tongues, leaving the fish behind. Then they take a couple of deep breaths – a bit like us sucking in oxygen – before diving again. It means you can get a pretty good idea of when they’re about to dive again.”
With a bit of luck, all the footage captured by Dan might one day be available on network TV. That’s what he is hoping for anyway. Even if it doesn’t, he counts himself privileged to have seen such an extraordinary sight.
“It was really fascinating to watch them all,” he said. “Fin whales are not uncommon on the Irish Sea – I saw one a month ago. But seeing so many predators feed like this is rare.
“The week before I saw an orca – they are the ultimate predator. They’ll attack dolphins, tuna and Minke whales, and you wouldn’t put it past them to take on Fin whales too. Even if Orcas are just passing through, it’s a sign there’s plenty of food around. All this activity is a good indicator of a healthy marine ecosystem here.”
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This article by Andrew Forgrave was first published by North Wales Live on 23 August 2023. Lead Image: Dolphins swim alongside the fin whales with other fish predators in their wake (Image: Dan Abbot)