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‘Whale of a time’ for wildlife watchers as underwater giants arrive for annual visit to Yorkshire coastline

Whale © Tom Marshall

Whale © Tom Marshall

Nature lovers will get their first chance to spot some of Yorkshire's biggest wildlife visitors as the whale-watching season sets sail on the Yorkshire coast.

With the first tantalising sightings in recent days from Staithes to as far south as the Flamborough Headland, a chance to spot these 30ft long, five tonne marine mammals is now an annual pilgrimage for many.

The presence of minke whales in Yorkshire has also made waves on the small screen in recent months including with Sir Tony Robinson and the One Show's Mike Dilger, who have both hopped aboard with local operators to come eye-to-eye with the rare visitors.

As with previous years, the season's curtain raiser to the whale's arrival has been pods of white-beaked dolphins also spotted in the area, an acrobatic species known to leap clear of the waves.

The boom in interest in whale watching in the county has seen an increase in vessels launched by Whitby Whale Watching, based in the former whaling port – whilst further north, tour guides from Yorkshire Coast Nature and Real Staithes are catering for the popular wildlife photography market with dedicated tours to get that once-in-a-lifetime shot.

Historically the area was home to a local whaling industry at the end of the 19th century, but today activities such as whale watching and wildlife photography are the headlines to a 'nature tourism' industry worth more than £15m in East Yorkshire alone.

The relative reliability of the whales' annual appearance – as they follow spawning fish along the coast – has led to a reputation rivalling that of Scotland and Cornwall, for a chance to see one of the most inquisitive members of the whale and dolphin family.

Although one of the smaller whales, the minke's preference for shallower, inshore waters and an often bold behaviour around the viewing boats makes them the perfect species for those keen to tick off this 'bucket list' experience.

Alongside minke whales, lucky visitors in some years have also seen humpback, sei and even fin whales – second in size only to the blue whale, the world's largest living creature.

Tom Marshall, Nature Tourism manager with the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust joined the One Show's Mike Dilger to film the whales last season from Staithes. Tom said: “Our fascination with marine wildlife no doubt comes from the sense that we're getting a privileged view into their own world when we hop aboard a boat and head into their domain.

“It remains astonishing however, that we have these stunning experiences available here on Yorkshire shores, when many people still think that whale watching is an activity for far-flung holiday destinations.

“There's nothing quite like seeing a glistening dark fin rise above the waves with the white cliffs or hazy view of Whitby Abbey in the background.

“We're incredibly lucky to have the whales as just one of a series of wildlife stars here in the county, helping to deliver a multi-million pound contribution to local tourism economies.”

Jill Smith, from Whitby Whale Watching, said: “We're proud to have been putting Whitby back on the map for whales for the last few years, but today for all the rights reasons after the town's whaling history.

“It's hugely important to us that we approach our activities in an ethical manner – from how we interact with the animals at sea to taking on board researchers to catalogue individual whales and record their visits, sometimes years apart.

“We like to return our passengers to land with more than just a photograph or two, but with a lasting memory of a privileged moment shared with a magnificent creature and a little more knowledge and understanding of the amazing wildlife on our doorstep.”

An IFAW report in 2008 estimated that whale watching activity in the UK was growing at around 8 per cent a year, with almost 270,000 people taking part annually.