Biologists Andreas Nick and Christoph Bock had travelled to the German island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea to watch birds. Yet, instead of spotting some rare animal in the sky or in a tree, they came across a far more unusual sight: a humpback whale.
Bock told SPIEGEL ONLINE he recognized the animal straightaway. The biologists grabbed their cameras and started to click away, as the whale kept jumping out of the sea -- in what was eventually a two-hour show.
The last time a living humpback whale was spotted in German waters was nearly 30 years ago: in August 1978, also off the coast of Rügen. But to find a prior documented sighting you have to go back another 127 years -- to 1851.
"It's a sensation," Harald Benke, the director of the German Oceanographic Museum in Stralsund told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Benke managed to verify that the animal was in fact a humpback whale after the biologists sent his museum the pictures they took.
"The men's descriptions were detailed and exact," he said. "Besides, the photos left no doubt: I could clearly make out that it was a humpback whale. It had the typical long white pectoral fin, which can make up a third of the animals' bodies." The whale, which is estimated to be around 12 meters (40 feet) long, was spotted last Friday, but the news of the sighting only came out on Tuesday.
Benke believes the animal might have got lost -- swimming first into the North Sea and then into the Baltic Sea -- by following a swarm of fish during its usual trip to spend the summer in the Arctic. Although the animal will probably stick around the Baltic Sea for a few more weeks, Benke added, it is likely it will look for other hunting grounds, as it will struggle to find enough food in those waters.
The whale is only the latest unusual sighting in the Baltic Sea in recent years: A giant swordfish stranded itself on the Darss peninsula in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania earlier this month; in September 2007 several dolphins were spotted between Darss and the island of Hiddensee; and seals began appearing on Baltic Sea beaches in August 2007.
According to Greenpeace, humpback whales live in all the world's oceans. In the summer they tend to flock to the polar regions and, in winter, to subtropical waters. The animals, which can grow to 18 meters and weigh up to 40 tons, live off small fish and krill. Their world population is estimated to number between 35,000 and 40,000.
Humpback whales are also known as "singing whales" because they compose intricate compositions that can last longer than 10 minutes. These songs, which are comparable to human ones, are the most multifaceted and longest among whales.