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(Responses below; the debate was suddenly re-opened in May 2007!)


The "flukes" shown were seen 31 July 2005 16:48 GMT off Schouwen (Delta area) by someone unaware of  cetaceans.

It is all I got.

Reconstructed sighting position: Steenbanken, Schouwenbank (i.e. 51°38’N - 51°39’N, 3°12’E – 03°16’E).

Anyone out there having a clue what  animal we are looking at (not just a name please, but also why this  should be the species suggested)? 


Any help appreciated.


In The Netherlands, whales have been brought to extinction  centuries ago. In recent years, we experience some sort of a return  of larger cetaceans and I try very hard to carefully document  whatever happens by collecting sightings and documenting the  material with descriptions, pictures and the like. For those wishing to know what happens  down here, check out the recent lists of sightings at  http://home.planet.nl/~camphuys/Cetacea.html




Kees Camphuysen kees.camphuysen@wxs.nl


My (Kees C) worst fears seem to come through reading the responses. I personally know Sperms, Humpbacks and (S) Right Whales very well, and these flukes do look so very much like Right Whale flukes……but even although we had medieval right whaling in the southern North Sea, they are now incredibly rare on this side of the Atlantic. Also, it was in summer! Lousy evidence to have for a possible Right? Let’s hear what the Marmam experts have said thus far (updated 08/05/2007 21:04:52)

(1) http://home.planet.nl/%7Ecamphuys/flukes.html has been passing around the right whale community with some interest. It could well be a northern right whale. This would be a really important sighting if it is. The photograph certainly is inadequate to match it to the ID catalog. But to the extent it is possible, it would be worth while having your sighting network be aware of the possibility that another right whale might be seen in your waters, and to have them know that photos of both sides of the heads and dorsal and ventral flukes and any scars are all useful. If you enter 'right whale tail' into images.google.com, a bunch of images come up. But I know you will say that there is nothing definitive that makes it certain to be a right whale. Birdwatchers talk of 'jizz' - well it just looks like a right whale! The peduncle is stocky, the fluke blades have the right trailing edge shape. The way that the fluke sides insert in to the tail stock is just right. Michael Moore  Biology Department, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

(2) It does look like a sperm whale to me, (I studied them in the Mediterranean) because of the large broad flukes and the way its fluking up before diving. Do you know how deep the water is where the photo was taken? Or do you have any idea of the size of the animal? Hanna Nuuttila

(3) Its a bit of a guessing game, but that looks like a sperm whale. The shape of the fluke, especially the notch in the middle fits well. The humps on the dorsal side of the tail can't be seen because the tail is not very high above water. There is only limited reference in that picture, but the size of the animal must have been pretty big. Hope that helps, Frank Thomsen Biologisch-landschaftsökologische Arbeitsgemeinschaft (biola)

(4) I am no expert but it looks like the sperm whale flukes I've seen, by looking at the stiff, straight line of the tail as a whole. Sperms tend to straighten the body just before it dives. Saana Isojunno University of Jyvaskyla, Finland

(5) Humpback or nthn. right whale?  See http://www.wtv-zone.com/phyrst/whalewatch/2/right_whale_tail.jpg Hard to say which with complete confidence due to the angle of shot. Time of year is good for both, though right whale much less likely, due to its rarity, of course.  Not all undersides of humpback flukes show white; but very few if any(?) right whales show white. Trailing edge seems very clean (per right whale). Depth of flukes seems too to suggest right. Angle of entry to water might also lead to a conclusion in favour of right whale.  Guess you could try all sorts of fancy proportion\ ratio measurements (tailstock depth: fluke width (or depth); tail base to notch:fluke width, etc.) to tease out the answer?  We'll never perhaps know, Nathan Gricks

(6) I study cetaceans but basically from the acoustic aspect, and I admit in advance that I am not an expert on large cetacean field identification, but because you wrote ANY help is appreciated, I thought I would share my thoughts about the picture with you. So, it is something big, it can be seen from the waves it causes.  Although not seen clearly from this aspect, according to the shape and colour of the tail it cannot be Balaenoptera spp. I would also discard any beaked whale according to the size, coulour and shape, except Berardius bairdii, but the Atlantic is not his range, so its very very unlikely. It could be Orcinus o., but there is no white colouring on the tail, Megaptera n., but the patches and bumps are missing, Physeter m., but the shape is unusual, Eubalaena g., but it would be strange to see one so south in the summer. If it was a vote, I would give mine to sperm whale. Please inform me when you have found out what it was.  Best wishes, Greg Torda, Facultad de Ciencias del Mar Universidad de las Palmas de Gran Canaria

(7) Recurved fluke edge suggests a balaenopterid or humpback. Jonathan Gordon, Sea Mammal Research Unit, University of Saint Andrews.

(8) Deze staart lijkt eerder groot, waardoor we wel kunnen aannemen dat het om een van de "grote" walvisen gaat. Als we proberen de mogelijkheden af te lijnen denk ik dat we niet veel verder komen dan het feit dat een potvissenstaart er anders uitziet, en dat Balaenoptera over het algemeen hun staart niet boven water steken bij het duiken. 't Zou ook een Noordkaper kunnen zijn, maar hun staart is over het algemeen puntiger. Megaptera zou kunnen, hoewel hun staart over het algemeen een opvallende witte onderkant heeft. Een bultrug dus, of een potvis met een beetje een rare staart lijkt me de best mogelijke gok. Hopelijk krijg je van de list een beetje definitievere antwoorden. Cris picrijogil (Belgium)

(9) Image is to lousy to get a proper view of the flukes – nothing to add – sperm/n right whale. Henrik Skov, Denmark

(10) That is what I call a tail! First impression: Northern Right Whale, but I don’t consider myself an expert. I have surrounded myself with photographs of flukes in textbooks and papers and the more images I see, the more convinced I am about the initial idea. A Sperm Whaler has V-shaped flukes as this, but not quite so pointed upwards (or backwards if you wish), but horizontal or even downward. A Northern Right Whale has characteristic, slightly uplifted tips. The tailstock is much too massive for a Sperm Whale. I will look further, but suggest this image should be posted to Phil Clapham and his group. Chris Smeenk, Naturalis Leiden.

(11) We think this is a juvenile Humpback Whale, 8-11m long. The tips of the flukes are pointed, we think the tailstock is slender in comparison with the flukes. Sperm Whales have a more massive tailstock and we think that Northern Right Whales have a more massive tailstock also en less pointed flukes. Northern Right would obviously be unique, but isn’t that impossible given the numbers in the East Atlantic? At the Azores, the last Northern Right Whale was seen from Faial some 80 years ago. Without doubt, this is a beautiful sighting of some baleen whale! Karin Hartman, Arthur Hendriks, Fleur Visser Nova Atlantis Foundation Risso's Dolphin Research Center

(12) Right whale?  Broad triangular flukes, raised, no white...Never seen one, however...! Jim Reid Head, Seabirds and Cetaceans Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Aberdeen

(13) I help maintain the Catalog for North Atlantic right whales at the New England Aquarium and the flukes DO look like right whale flukes: color, smooth trailing edge, shape of notch, shape of fluke tips (I'm not a sperm whale expert, but I think of their flukes as being more rounded at the tips). There is no way to say for sure, but my strong bet would be for right whale. This would be very exciting as sightings in the eastern N. Atalantic are very few (see Journal of Cetacean Research Special Issue 2 for a table of right whales seen in the eastern half of the North Atlantic). Philip Hamilton, New England Aquarium, Boston, MA USA.

(14) I have studied whales in Mass. and it looks like this is a n. right whale.  The tail stock is thick and broad and the trailing edge is clean and relatively smooth.  If this is a n. right whale, kudos to you!  How wonderful that would be.  Wendy Ritger Environmental Scientist


(15) Nice picture!  A pity no more pictures were taken; I am reluctant to try to identify this one, but to me a Sperm Whale seems most likely (but I don’t consider myself an expert); we have no sightings of any whales in Belgian waters in this period; in this season, however, in other years, Sperm Whales were seen: 3/6/02 Westerschelde (NL)-Zeebrugge, and 5/5/04 Zeebrugge (apart from that some in spring 2004 in Dutch waters). Jan Haelters MUMM/RBINS Management Unit of the North Sea Mathematical Models Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences


(16) I’m with the group that thinks it is a northern right whale. I’ve looked at humpbacks for 25 years, and I just don’t see enough of a serration and too thick a tail stock at the insertion of the flukes for it to be a humpback.  Both humpbacks and right whales can have the re-curved flukes, but it seems to me to be a bit more common in right whales than humpbacks.  When you do see it in humpbacks, it is usually smaller juveniles, who are even less likely to have a thick tail stock at the fluke insertion. Interesting sighting for that part of the world! Mason Weinrich Whale Center of New England www.whalecenter.org


(17) Just a suggestion, ask the photographer if they remember seeing a  dorsal fin on that whale.  Also, do you have the water depth in the area  where the photograph was taken.  I would guess, shallow, as its near  shore waters. If your taking a vote....It looks like a right whale. Cheers, Frederick Wenzel NOAA, NMFS, NEFSC


(18) While, sadly, we will never know the answer for certain because of the lack of detail in the image, let me add my voice of support for the right whale contingent. That was my initial reaction based on the gestalt, and I see little reason to think otherwise as I examine it further. The trailing edge is convincingly smooth. I have worked with many thousands of humpback whale photographs, and most give some indication of the serraged trailing edge even at that distance and angle. The shape of the trailing edge, while also distorted by angle, suggests the upswept form and pointed fluke tips typical of a right whale rather than the more 'square' appearance typical of a sperm whale. Good luck. I hope that more sightings turn up. Peter T. Stevick, University of Southern Maine


(19) I am very certain it is not a Humpback Tail. Humpback Tails are very flexible.  They sag.  Secondly, even very young Humpbacks accumulate barnacles on their tails. Thirdly, they have bumps on the trailing edge of the fluke.  Even as far away as that picture was taken I don't think there are any barnacles or bumps.  Finally, the shape just doesn't match that of a Humpback Fluke, at least as I know them. Please, see attached Humpback photo.  While the whale in it is closer it does illustrate a number of the points raised above.  It should be noted that the sag is not as evident in this photo as it is in most but it is greater then present in your photo and is taken from a similar angle.

I do not think it is a Sperm Whale. I do not have any photos of my own but am attaching a few off the Internet. A Sperm Whale Fluke can be described as fitting to a straight line fluke tip to fluke tip. One of the other responders describes it as being rounded. It also tends to sag/be flexible. Please see photos.

It could be a Blue Whale. Again I do not have photos but think not as first, the Peduncle does not appear to be massive enough and second, the fluke is to wide relative to the mass of the Peduncle.....others can probably comment with greater certainty then me.

I think it is a Right Whale Fluke. Right Whale Flukes tend to be stiffer then other cetacean tails. The shape does correspond to that of a Right Whale Tail. The ratios of tail Fluke size to Peduncle does appear to be similar to what I see in the few photos I have and the shape corresponds to what I have seen/photographed. Please see attached Right Whale Photographs. The one giving the shape was from a shallow dive, whale coming toward us. The other one is from a similar angle to the photo you have.  Even given the amount of flex in that photo the tail flukes are still stiffer then one sees in most other whales. Please see attached photos. Regards Chuck Schom Surge Tours/St. Andrews Fisheries Research Laboratory Inc.

3x Sperm Whale

                  Pictures supplied by Chuck Schom

1x Humpback Whale                                                 2x Right Whale

(20) Hello.. I study the acoustics of North Pacific right whales, and have seen a few of them, but I do not have much experience in visual ID of large whales.  But, I do have a picture of a North Pacific right whale fluke (the whale was positively ID'ed before it dove) that is similar to yours, and thought you might be interested in it for the sake of comparison... here it is, attached.  Photo was taken during NOAA SWFSC cetacean survey in the southeast Bering Sea, August 2002, in about 70m depth. The tail stock in my picture is more tapered and narrower at the point of insertion of the flukes.  But, the fluke shape looks similar to your mystery picture. Don't consider this a vote.. just thought you might be interested in comparison.  :) cheers, Lisa Munger Scripps Institution of Oceanography

 Picture supplied by Lisa Munger


(21) I am fairly certain it is a right whale. Several factors suggest this. The relatively thick caudal peduncle, rising sharply in a keel from both the dorsal and ventral sides of the fluke is consistent with either right whales or sperm whales. No balaenopterid would show all black flukes and the thickness of the tail stock. Although the angle of the photo is not great, the tips of the flukes are turning upwards, suggesting a right whale - in sperm whales, the fluke tips from this angle would appear blunt and flat. Too bad there isn’t anything more! Still, its hard to believe any other species would present these features. Scott D. Kraus,. New England Aquarium


(22) Hi Kees, saw your puzzle about the photo today. After two glas of wine I'm in the mood to join your list for a bad reputation. I guess it's not a humpback. I saw too many and there should be at least - also in that bad light conditions of the photo - some glimpse of whitish parts in the fluke (means the photo should show some brighter parts in the fluke). The rest is puzzling through the flukes..... The Northern Right Whale is fitting not too bad as the majority found out, but at this angle of the photo to the fluke....... Do you can send the photo to get some higher magnification?? I appended a sequence of the Southern Right Whale fluke which I scanned from the Handbook of Marine Mammals (vol. 3, 1985). Cheers Werner Piper Biola

 Picture provided by Werner Piper


(23) Ik heb net even op je site gekeken naar de reacties op de foto. Ik moet zeggen dat de mensen die foto’s van staarten hebben gestuurd de zaak voor de noordkaper toch wel erg sterk lijken te maken! Maar ik blijf een leek. Gerard Peet (no vote, but support for Northern Right Whale)


(24) Not an expert Kees but any chance it is a Humpback, some have rather dark undertails?  Don’t bother posting this on the web because I’m probably completely wrong. Cheers, Martin Heubeck, Shetland


(25) Mijn opinie moet je meer zien als die van een geïnteresseerde leek, maar… Mijn eerste indruk was dat dit of een Bultrug, een Potvis (evt. pygmy), of een Noordkaper zou zijn. Als je dan vervolgens beter gaat kijken lijkt me de Noordkaper niet zo waarschijnlijk omdat de staart vanaf het midden naar de uiteinden toe in vrijwel een lijn verloopt, niet echt met “omgekrulde” punten op het eind. De potvis heeft dat feitelijk ook niet, en derhalve kom ik uit op een Bultrug, temeer daar die ook de relatief diepe inkeping heeft tussen de twee staartvleugels. Maar ik ruil die opvatting graag in voor die van echte kenners. Peter Reijnders, Alterra Texel


(26) Hoi Kees, Ik had de foto vorige week natuurlijk al ontvangen, maar niet gereageerd! Mijn eerste reactie was, dat lijkt op een Noordkaper, maar dat kan niet in deze regionen! Dan is het een potvis met een paar rare puntjes aan zijn staart. Nu kwam Adrie thuis, je moet even kijken op de website van Kees. En niet verder gluren naar de  reacties! Aai z'n hart doet het nog steeds! Maar het lijkt er toch echt op dat het wel een Noordkaper is. We hebben nu alweer een boel plaatjes/foto's vergeleken. Het is gewoon een Noordkaper! Wat is er aan de hand? In juni/juli zo zuidelijk? Is het geen geintje??  Groeten, Ineke Vonk, Adrie Vonk


(27) > I'm not sure if you've already gotten any responses, but this looks specifically like the Northern Right Whale that we see in small numbers seasonally off the coast of the United States. They are known for the specific shape of the fluke you show, the smoothness of the trailing edge and the black color. They also generally have a very thick peduncle, as pictured. Do these larger whales you're seeing have a dorsal fin? If they do not have them, that is yet another identifying mark of the N. Right Whale. They are generally very rotund, reaching up to 20 m. and up to 80 tons! They also have calcified skin patches on their heads called callosities that are used to individually identify them (see photo). Since these whales have somewhat of a mysterious migration (we can only account for the females giving birth during the wintern) - it would not surprise me if you were seeing these animals in the late fall/winter/early spring. Most of the animals in this population are known to mate/feed during the summer in the Bay of Fundy and areas further to the East. It also would not surprise me if some of these animals "wandered" your direction in search of fertile feeding areas since it has been an underexploited area (as you mention) for a long while.  Have you been in contact with the folks at the Right Whale Project? They are located at the New England Aquarium in Boston, MA in the USA. Scott Kraus is the primary scientist there and would, I'm sure, be interested in seeing your photographs. I've attached a couple of photos for you to see.  Good luck! Lisa Fox Director Center for Oceanic Research and Education


(28) It certainly could be a right whale! Nice smooth trailing edges on the flukes.  Though I wouldn’t want to commit quite 100% to right whale (99% perhaps?!!) – I don’t think the photograph is quite sufficient given the silhouette and the difficult angle. Was the guy that took the photograph able to provide any of the other clinching ID features – lack of a dorsal fin etc? Interesting record . . . ! Best wishes, Caroline Weir


(29) Zo op het eerste gezicht is het een potvis of een noordkaper. Bij verdere bestudering denk ik dat het een potvis is.  Een noordkaper heeft een staartvin die aan de punten wat omhoog krult; dit komt ook voor bij potvissen. Een potvisstaart heeft soms wat kartelige randen, maar dat is op deze foto door de onscherpte niet te zien. Ook zijn er ook veel potvissen met een 'perfecte' staart, net als noordkapers. Daarnaast heb ik een fotovergelijking gedaan met een foto van een potvisstaart die ik op de Azoren heb gefotografeerd (zie attachment). Door het relatief hoge standpunt van de foto in kwestie lijkt de staart meer de vorm van een noordkaper te hebben. Dit zou gezichtsbedrog kunnen zijn. Wouter Jan Strietman Stichting De Noordzee


 Right hand photo (a Sperm Whale) provided by Wouter Strietman


(30) De v-vormige staart met diepe inkerving en de stevige maar niet al te dikke staart inzet, laat weinig twijfel over dat het hier om een noordkaper gaat.  Ik zie geen builen die bij de bultrug altijd aanwezig zijn.  Het lijkt niet op dat van een potvis, waarbij het staart einde wat rechter is.  Tja, het kan natuurlijk ook een heel verdwaalde jonge Groenlandse walvis zijn, zonder witte staartwortel. Zie ook, Jacobson et al., "Two-way trans-Atlantic migration of a North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis), in Marine Mammal Science Vol. 20, No. 1, (notes) p. 161-166. Uko Gorter Natural History Illustrations Kirkland, WA


(31) Two other right whale luminaries concur that this is probably a right whale: Moe Brown and Amy Knowlton. Michael Moore


(32) Looks like a ziphiid to me but I'll take a more considered look tomorrow - talking of ziphiids I'm rather preoccupied just now with the northern bottlenose whales in the Thames..... I'll get back to you tomorrow. Peter G.H. Evans


(33) I must respectfully disagree with Peter Evans.  Most ziphiids do not have a median notch in the fluke.  The exception would be the Berardius (sp.) and Ziphius, which show slight median notches.  The photo clearly shows a deep median notch. Uko Gorter  Natural History Illustrations


(34) Saw your msg on marmam and was wondering what sort of response you've had.  my first thought was that this was a right whale - the peduncle is more like a right whale's than a humpback.  but the slight curve of the fluke near the tip suggests a humpback.  unfortunately, we'll never know from this photo.  you can't see if there's serration on the posterior margin, and it's not clear if it's the dorsal or ventral surface.  But i'd strongly argue that it's either a right or a humpback whale - nothing else fits. what other responses did you get? Phil Clapham Alaska Fisheries Science Center

(Second response) It's definitely NOT a sperm whale.  I am inclining more and more towards right whale, which as others have said is a very important sighting.  There is a small remnant population in the eastern/central North Atlantic, but they were hunted almost to extinction by historical whaling and then the small remaining stock was hit hard by Norwegian whaling beginning in the the 1880's (Iceland and the northwest coast of Scotland).  Once in a while the occasional animal shows up over there. Thanks for posting it. Phil Clapham Alaska Fisheries Science Center


(35) Trying not to be influenced by other opinions expressed on your web site, I would broadly agree with Right Whale sp., although I would prefer more than one photograph to rule out Sperm Whale, the only other cetacean species possible IMO.  The distinct notch in the tail and slightly pointed tips suggest this to be the case, but I was a bit concerned that the tail flukes appear to be deep-based, perhaps too deep-based and broad for Right Whale? And if it wasn't a cetacean, then it could be one of those trick photographs in which a sub-aqua diver with black dry suit and flippers has cleverly been photographed at a strange angle to look like a cetacean! Andy webb, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Aberdeen


(36) I looked at the photo when it first can out and thought 'not sperm whale', but didn't go any further in guessing what it might be. Given that the right whale luminaries in the US are claiming it, I'm certainly not going to contradict them although I'm still not going to give my own opinion since it is either too influenced by historical data and by the comments already posted. As Michael Moore mentions though, we are now quite good at identifying this species acoustically and I may be in a position to help with passive acoustic monitoring to see if it really is one. Feel free to get in touch if you want to pursue this option. Douglas Gillespie


(37) A three-part series on recent North Atlantic right whale research has been published at Oceanus magazine online at http://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/viewArticle.do?id=9211&sectionid=1000

Lonny Lippsett Managing editor Oceanus magazine (as sent through the marmam listserver)

(The first page is particularly instructive with a right whale tail in motion)


(38) Omdat ik in Cornwall zit en met alleen een rugzak en mijn camera koffer kon reizen heb ik niet mijn eigen fotos van vorige expedities bij me en ook geen enkel ID boekje! Het eerste wat er in mij opkwam was 'right whale', dit vanwege de ronde vorm en dikke tailstock. Je mag mijn stem voor de right whale uitgeven. Marijke de Boer


(39) I had a quick look at the whale flukes you sent and thought they looked like a right whale, but will have a closer look. Dick Veit  Biology Department CSI/CUNY




(N) Right Whale



Balaenoptera / Ziphiid





1 / 1

ßTotal votes





Kees Camphuysen





Michael Moore





Hanna Nuutila





Frank Thomsen





Saana Isojunno





Nathan Gricks





Greg Torda





Jonathan Gordon





Cris picrijogil





Henrik Skov





Chris Smeenk





Karin Hartman, Arthur Hendriks, Fleur Visser





Jim Reid





Philip Hamilton





Wendy Ritger





Jan Haelters





Mason Weinrich





Frederick Wenzel





Peter Stevick





Chuck Schom





Lisa Munger





Scott Kraus





Werner Piper





Martin Heubeck





Peter Reijnders





Ineke Vonk, Adrie Vonk





Lisa Fox





Caroline Weir





Wouter Strietman





Uko Gorter





Moe Brown and Amy Knowlton





Peter Evans





Phil Clapham





Andy Webb





Marijke de Boer





Dick Veit



Comment CJC: Even although we will probably never know with certainty, the likelihood that a Northern Right Whale has been observed is considerable. A week before the sighting posted, a large waving "whale tail" had been seen behind the surf of the sandy beach at Texel....the island I live on (as the crow flies 5 km from my desk and I was at home). I had ignored that sighting (from tourists and baywatchers), for "there isn't any tail-waving whales in The Netherlands". I am punished badly for that arrogance, but I have today (20 January) put out a request in the local newspaper to try and track down witnesses.

Meanwhile, tracking down recent NRW claims, it appears that most of the 20th century hunting was in June in Scottish and Irish fisheries, after which they were thought to move on to Scandinavia. All recent claims (7 that I know of) are May-Sep on our latitude (Ireland, Scotland, Hebrides, Rockall, and Shetlands), very few are properly documented. In "the low countries" (Holland and Belgium) a specimen of Cetopirus complanatus dating from the 10th century A.D. is described from archaeological excavations at Tiel, the Netherlands. Two vertebral parts of northern right whales Eubalaena glacialis: a vertebral arch and an epiphysis, were also found, possibly dating from the same period. The disc-like epiphysis had been used as a cutting board. The specimen probably had reached Tiel through early trade in whale products.          One NRW was found in 1178 after a heavy storm (12,5 meter long animal) on the beach near Oostende Belgium. Specimens of Cetopirus complanatus were found (with no whale attached) in the Dutch dunes in 1844 and 1900; i.e. when there was still a few remaining given the fisheries in Scotland. I am interested to hear further comments from Right Whale experts like yourself and consider the publication of "a possible sighting" to make sure the event is at least documented. We are definitely on the look-out and I promise, I'll never ignore reports of waving whale flukes! Cheers Kees Camphuysen


Photoshop modifications

The image above was shown as it was taken. I have tried some adjustments in Photoshop, just to get some details clearer. Not sure if it worked, but it may give another impression. I made one shot a crop, the other is with very much enhanced contrast.



I think we can conclude the trailing edge is both smooth and concave, we cannot call this straight, nor convex. The notch is deep. Each fluke has a broad base and a clear tip making the overall shape triangular with one concave side (the trailing edge). As such, it would be a textbook example of a right whale.


This is a picture of a sailing Southern Right Whale that I photographed off Hermanus Southern Africa. Perhaps a bit more slender than the image above, but a similar smooth and concave trailing edge, and roughly triangular flukes.

Typical Sperm Whale flukes, as this one borrowed from www.tethys.org/photo_ albums/photo_csr_cet.htm

tend to have a convex trailing edge as in this example (and in the example shown by Strietman above, contrary to his remarks, and in the Sperm pics supplied by Chuck Schom), often without pointed tips, rather different from what we can see in the Schouwen animal and in the Southern Right Whale shown above.

My personal opinion is that Humpback Whales are fully out of the question, for they have a very typical { shape and a prominently serrated trailing margin (even in young ones; I never saw one with a smooth trailing edge; did you??). This confusing shot is a Humpback tail over the head of a Southern Right Whale; I got this shot from Kees Hazevoet who probably found in on the web



From subsequent letters

If you visit my web page you will note that votes are seriously tumbling into the right whale camp The observer has been questioned rigorously to check if he wasn't playing any games. I am now convinced he wasn't. The anglers had spotted 'a very big fish, probably a whale', took a picture of its flukes, and went home (and forgot all about it). Only when they were asked to produce some slides of dolphins they regularly spot, they remembered the tail-shot and send it on.

What is visible is actually not lobtailing (the tailstock would show some curve in sperms and humpbacks in this phase of diving), but ‘sailing’, a very common sight in right whales. They don't even dive deep when they do this and in this location, there would be no chance to dive deep! A male sperm would immediately hit the bottom if he tried (the water is just over 20m deep there). Worse, however, I had ignored a sighting of a "waving whale tail" behind the surf of Texel only one week earlier, spotted by tourists on the beach and local coast guards. But then again,....what whale species would you see from a beach waving its tail flukes? None in our waters, I can (oops,….could) tell you!! Apparently we are approaching the stage that any claim needs serious investigations, surely after our 4 recent humpbacks, finners, minkes, series of sperm whales and now this animal in our murky area. CJC


Yes that all sounds good!  Especially the 'tail waving' whale!  Kind of expected more at Cape Town than our corner of the globe??!  I agree with your thoughts entirely regarding the diving behaviour - the whole tail shape and fluke-up behaviour look very 'clean' and much more like right whale than any other possible species.  I keep hoping for this to happen when I am out sea-watching off SW England but it never does! Caroline Weir


Kees - one other piece here - it is my experience, that when a right whale is in the distant vicinity, the first visual clue is a waving tail. As often as not you aren’t really sure you saw what you think you saw, but they do wave at you. If you trust that first glimpse and head off in that direction, usually for a longer distance than you think, you are rewarded with a closer look. Maybe some passive acoustic monitoring is in order? IFAW (Doug Gillespie) might be interested in working with you. FYI two other right whale luminaries concur that this is probably a right whale: Moe Brown and Amy Knowlton. Michael Moore


Kees - I have cc Phil Hamilton who works for Scott Kraus at New England Aquarium. Phil would be able to tell you about additional right whale sightings on your side of the Atlantic. There were Right Whale sightings most recently in Norway and Iceland. All the best, Fred Wenzel


May 2007


Beste Kees, I agree with the majority that the flukes look like a right whale's. But it would almost be too good to be true. However, it is not entirely out of the question. We have hardly any knowledge about right whale migration patterns from the Bay of Biscay to the North Cape (hence: Noordcaper) and Iceland or Greenland, especially whether some went through the Channel and North Sea. The 10th-century right whale barnacle from Thiel has already been mentioned. A 58-foot right whale got into the Thames and was killed on 3 June 1658 near Greenwich.

I think there were one or two more strandings, but these are, as far as I'm currently aware, the only unambiguous cases of evidence of former right whale presence in the North Sea.

All other sources are either unspecific as to the species, or they refer to sperm whales. There are a few historic sources that seem to testify to large-type whaling in the English Channel and the southern North Sea in the middle ages. Analyzing such historical sources, communication and formulaic theories may help. One has, eg, to take into account some characteristics of oral transmission, e.g.  that such accounts may actually refer to improvised, opportunistic, short-lived, or even ephemeral activities, and "blow them up" to systematic pursuits, or that they may "transfer" activities reported from other areas into the area which the surviving source reports upon. In his 1258/1260 manuscript De animalibus, Albertus Magnus refers to several large whales "taken" in the mid-1250s off the Friesland coast. In Stavoren, he was shown a barrel of fatty substance retrieved from the "head" of one of these "big fish". This makes the passage the earliest source on the erratic occurrence of several sperm whales in the North Sea. He also describes active coastal whaling for large whales from the coasts of the North Sea (Friesland?). But here his descriptions are not entirely convincing and are definitely derived from hearsay only. Albertus' immediate (probaly only oral) sources may then actually refer to whaling operations in the Bay of Biscay, or, in one instance, perhaps even to crossbow (?, which would mean Clostridium-infested bacillus dart ?) whaling off Western Norway. Albertus might have blended these descriptions and transferred them to the North Sea.

Finally, though the photo honestly looks like the standard image of a right whale fluke at sounding, I want to point out that individual morphological shapes of the flukes and the momentary dynamics of them might theoretically also result in the flukes of some other species looking like these at the very moment this photo was taken. And we know of historical photo hoaxes (I remark this without knowing authors, origins, and reporters, in an abstract, theoretical way only). Though it would be truly wonderful to add another Eubalaena to the few

recent confirmed sightings of them in their old North East Atlantic haunts, I caution against wishful thinking. Klaus Barthelmess, Whaling Research Project, Cologne