08/13/2008 02:26 PM

Baltic Whale Tale

Lost Humpback Seen Lunching on German Coast

A 40-foot-long humpback whale took a detour on his way to summer feeding grounds in the Arctic and ended up near one of Germany's favorite beach destinations, the idyllic island of Rügen. The whale's jaunt is turning into an extended vacation.

This summer it's not just tourists and fishermen enjoying the warm water of the Baltic Sea. For two weeks, a humpback whale has been cavorting near Rügen, an island off the northern German coast better known for its nude beaches and natural beauty.

First spotted on July 25 near Cape Arkona, on the island's northern tip, the whale is way off course: humpbacks usually migrate north to the Arctic at this time of year. The last time a humpback was spotted in the Baltic was 1978.

Humpbacks -- famous for their long, complex undersea songs -- are slowly recovering from centuries of whaling, and on Tuesday the International Union for Conservation of Nature announced that the species had recovered enough to be taken off the IUCN's "Red List."“Humpbacks and southern right whales are making a comeback in much of their range mainly because they have been protected from commercial hunting,” says Randall Reeves, Chair of the Cetacean Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, who led the IUCN Red List assessment. “This is a great conservation success and clearly shows what needs to be done to ensure these ocean giants survive.”

For the Rügen whale, things could get worse before they get better. While he's in no danger from whalers, cetacean expert Harald Benke, director of the German Oceanographic Museum in Stralsund, says the animal likely followed a school of fish into the North Sea from the Baltic Sea. But whale food is not nearly as plentiful in the North Sea as it is in the Arctic, where whales usually spend their summers.

Still, bird-watchers Martin Grimm and Christoph Bock -- one of the men who first spotted the whale -- say he seems to be finding plenty of food. On Rügen's coast for another bird-spotting trip last week, Bock spotted the humpback again -- this time with food literally falling out of its mouth. "You could see lots of little fish, about the size of sand eels, jumping out of the whale's maw as it came out of the water," Grimm told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "That's why we're sure the whale is successfully and regularly feeding itself."

The unusual visitor has drawn eager crowds, which has whale experts and local tourism officials worried: Too many boats on the whale's trail could stress the animal and make it harder for it to eventually find its way back to the Atlantic. Local sea captains have been asked not to organize special whale-spotting voyages and above all to avoid using sonar to look for the 40-foot-long humpback.



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