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Ten Years of Seabird & Whale Trips in Yorkshire 

Sun 21st Apr, 2024

“Wow what an amazing birthday present!” I was so pleased when one of our guests on the boat trip I was leading said those words as yet another Minke Whale breached in front of us. The 25th September 2021 was an amazing day and one of many experiences I will never forget. 


It's ten years since we started running our special boat trips in partnership with skipper Sean Baxter and his family. It’s a great time to celebrate and reflect on our marine adventures on the spectacular coast of the North York Moors National Park.


When we first started the trips in 2014, we really didn’t know what to expect. There were whale sightings from Sean the skipper, mysterious rumors from fishermen and tourist boats, but we didn’t know how many or when to expect to see them. I remember on our first reconnaissance trip, migrating butterflies flew past the boat eight miles out at sea, a fantastic sight. Then out of nowhere a huge whale appeared about 100m away and then vanished. I will never forget my first sighting of a Minke Whale in Yorkshire. It looked huge, the beauty and thrill of a first mega wildlife encounter, and best of all on my doorstep. 

We decided to name our trips Seabirds and Whales because we all love seabirds and there are so many fantastic birds out there. We were also a little nervous about depending too much on whale sightings. But we really needed to attract seabirds to our boat; getting close up views is the best way of appreciating these amazing animals. 


That’s where our secret weapon the ‘chum’ came in. After lots of advice and recipes from popcorn to strange fish oils we settled on simple discarded fish bits which we threw over the side during a short session on the trip. Over the years it’s worked a treat. From no birds as far as the eye can see, then we added some chum… and as if by magic loads of birds! 


In the first year we enjoyed great views of Northern Gannets, Northern Fulmars and Manx Shearwaters. Then on the 13th September 2014 a Sooty Shearwater landed right next to the boat feeding on our chum for 20 minutes. Sooty Shearwaters hold the world record for the longest animal migration ever recorded electronically; a massive 64,000km. This was a wonderful opportunity to see a seabird which had been born in the South Atlantic on the Yorkshire coast.


On the 2nd August 2015 we had a wonderful closeup visit by a Balearic Shearwater. Balearic Shearwaters are a critically endangered seabird which breeds on remote islands in the Mediterranean. They are seen annually on our coast but few people have photographed one in Yorkshire so we were excited to get that opportunity.  


We have seen several Pomarine Skuas over the years but on the 5th August 2017 a beautiful near adult spent time around our boat. That was wonderful but it’s the Great Skuas or ‘bonxies’ that are the real stars for me.


Every year they harass and attack seabirds behind our boat; pirates of the sea. Fight club seabird style. Watching them gives a fascinating insight into how they time their flight runs to perfection just as a seabird grabs some food, bang! the skua arrives and steals the show. 


The juvenile Atlantic Puffins are really fascinating. It never ceases to amaze me how they can leave their burrow and know how to survive out at sea without any training by their parents. We see small numbers of adults and usually up to around 20 juvenile Puffins on most trips between the end of July and beginning of September. The best way to photograph a juvenile Puffin is from a boat because of their preference for leaving their nesting burrow at night. 


Minke Whales have undoubtedly increased in numbers on our coastline in the past 20 years. I grew up birding on the North Yorkshire coast in the 1980s and I never remember anyone seeing a whale in those days. We now see these whales on most of our trips. Calm weather and a flat sea are best and the highest chance is between July and the end of September. The adults are wary so we are very careful not to approach too close but younger whales appear to be very curious. Almost every year we are blessed with a very close encounter as an immature Minke decides to give us the eye, swimming right up to the boat and lifting its head up to check us out.


We never know quite when the best weeks are going to be for whale sightings. It's all about the food. Minke Whales have a varied diet but increase in numbers when the herring spawn offshore. In 2018 the last few days of August and first week of September was fantastic. Aided by flat calm sea and great visibility we logged over 200 encounters (a tally mark for each sighting) on the best trip. We also saw a possible Humpback Whale, the one that got away…


Then on the 8th September 2021 trip we saw our first real Humpback! Distant views of this mega whale breaching out of the water and several massive blows. Sean headed for the action, slowing down a good distance away to take a careful look but we never saw the Humpback again. No photos so I drew a quick sketch of our encounter.


It’s not only whales we encounter. On the 3 August 2018 Mark Pearson (our YCN expert guide on the trip) was fortunate to share a wonderful pod of bow riding White-beaked Dolphins with our guests. Everyone had fabulous views as the dolphins swam alongside the boat for over 20 minutes. These were our first Dolphins on any of our trips since 2014. Then in 2019 a pod of around 20 or so Bottle-nosed Dolphins moved south to settle on our coastline. This was really exciting. Since that summer we have had many more dolphin sightings. They are now with us all year round on the Yorkshire coast. 


Later in the autumn songbirds are on the move and we see a variety of birds flying past the boat. Chiffchaffs, Goldcrests and in 2018 a Northern Wheatear passed us by, skimming the waves, with only a short distance to go for safety and food after crossing the North Sea. These wonders of bird migration alongside the magnificent whales are truly unforgettable experiences.


Since 2019 we have worked closely with the North Sea Wildlife Trusts and their cetacean conservation project. We have an official volunteer surveyor on every one of our Staithes boat trips. We are very pleased to have an opportunity to help a project which aims to understand more about our whales and dolphins and work towards protecting these fantastic mammals for the next generation. Everyone in Yorkshire should be proud about our cetaceans in their home county, we need to spread the word and take measures to protect these fantastic mammals. 

In 2023 the Wildlife Trust volunteers on our boat trips found dolphins, porpoises or whales on 19 out of 25 trips. They made 227 records of Minke Whales across 17 of these trips. A fantastic result.  

Every year we also see things we really dont expect. On the 23 August 2023 we saw an Atlantic Flying Fish fly past the boat! This was not only a huge surprise but also a very rare sighting in the North Sea. On one of my guiding trips earlier that same month we saw a distant Tuna breaching. I can’t wait to get out on our trips this year alongside my wonderful YCN guides Mark Pearson, Jono Leadley and Margaret Boyd. 

Why not join us on the boat? We have two sorts of trips available. Short three hour trips and longer five hour trips. To see these and for booking CLICK HERE.


Richard Baines YCN Director