Pitcairn Islands Tourism Come Explore... The Legendary Pitcairn Islands

Home > Marine Reserve > Whales

Humpback Whales

Stacks Image 5848
Whales and the whaling industry feature strongly in the history of Pitcairn Island.
“Call me Ishmael.” Perhaps one of the most recognised opening lines of a classic novel. Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick is based on the true life story of the Whale ship Essex.

What is less well-known is that the first landfall the survivors reached, in the whale boats that they had taken to, was Henderson Island, one of the four islands which comprise the Pitcairn Islands group.
Historically the waters of the South Pacific teemed with whales, which led to vast fleets of Whaling and Sealing ships working the “Southern Sea Fishery” from 1776 onwards.
The mutineers aboard HMS Bounty, fortuitously, were able to avoid being sighted by any of these ships when they headed to Pitcairn Island. But it was the Sealing Ship Topaz, out of Nantucket, captained by a Whaler Mayhew Folger, which was to discover the settlers from the infamous mutiny on February 6th 1808.
News of the discovery didn’t reach the British Admiralty until 1810 whereupon it was decided not to take action due to the preoccupation of being at war with France.
In December 1823, whalers had their first impact on the population of Pitcairn with the arrival of the Whale ship Cyrus.

Shipwright John Buffett requested permission of Captain John Hall to remain on Pitcairn Island and a fellow crew member, John Evans, jumped ship and hid ashore until the Cyrus departed.
The two crew mates were soon accepted into the community and became the first non-Bounty, non- Polynesian settlers. Both went on to contribute to the genetic pool by taking local wives.
In 1856, due to decreasing resources and concerns about the rising population, a decision was made to evacuate to Norfolk Island. This decision was to once again bring the population into contact with the whaling industry and brought about the inclusion of the surname Warren.
Samuel Warren married Agnes Christian and accompanied her when she returned, along with others, to Pitcairn Island in 1864. The name Warren remains on Pitcairn Island till the present day.
In modern times the whaling industry still has an impact with the local longboats, the work horses of Pitcairn Island, being based on the design of Boston whalers. With the deep sides and shallow draught the longboats are eminently suitable for the local sea conditions.


Whales were first recorded again by the present population in the early 1990’s with sightings of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in local waters.
Pilot whales have also been sighted in Pitcairn waters with a pod of 10 seen 5 miles off Pitcairn Island in 2007. A male Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphuis cavirostris) was found washed ashore dead on Ducie Island in 1997

In 2007, Catherine Horswill, Horswill, C. & Jackson, J.A. 2012. Humpback whales wintering at Pitcairn Island, South Pacific.  Marine Biodiversity Records 5, e90., took the opportunity to study humpback whales whilst on Pitcairn Island as a long-term visitor.

In 2014 Dr’s Terry Dawson and Robert Irving, in consultation with Pitcairn Islands’ Environmental, Conservation and Natural Resources Department, resurrected Horswill’s project, under the UK Darwin Initiative Project, www.darwininitiative.org.uk/project/20006 and also employed a Pitcairn Island resident as the Fisheries and Marine Conservation Officer. With the establishment of this role, interest and enthusiasm was re-ignited within the community with sightings soon being recorded.


Stacks Image 5868
Whales within 20 metres of Henderson Island North Beach reef
Photo Credit: Dr A Skinner RSPB
These mighty leviathans of the sea are now regularly sighted and documented. Local residents know to start looking for them as early as March - with the main numbers arriving in May. From then on frequent sightings of numerous individual whales can occur until late October. Some years the last sightings have been as late as early December.
Regular sightings were also made at Henderson Island, during the course of various rat eradication feasibility studies ( 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2016), by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB, UK) by the scientists and two Pitcairn Island residents who were attached to the project.

Recurring individual whales were identified at Henderson by markings such as damaged pectoral fins and scarring.
Observations made of the whales around both Pitcairn Island and Henderson Island include; cow/calf pairs, cow/calf/escort threesomes, pairs, singles and larger groups.
It is thought that the Pitcairn Island waters are now be being utilised as calving and breeding waters. A number of small calves have been both sighted and photographed. No ages have as yet been determined but the size and colour of some suggest they were less than two weeks old when the photographs were taken.
Stacks Image 5870
Humpback with calf
Photo credit Dr Terry Dawson

Observations have been made of active behaviours such as full/partial breaches, tail slapping, flipper smacking and “singing”.
It should be noted that while “Thar she blows” was, historically, heard as a frequent call for all hands to man the whalers, hunting whales was banned in Pitcairn Island waters via Pitcairn Island Council becoming signatory to such agreements as The Memorandum of Understanding on Pacific Cetaceans, under the United Nations-backed Convention on Migratory Species which, then Governor, George Ferguson signed on behalf of Pitcairn Island on July 29th 2009. Nowadays you are more likely to hear a call, across the marine radios which all Pitcairn household have, announcing whales breaching in the waters just off shore.
Records of sightings of whales in Pitcairn waters have been taken since 2014 with 37 sightings recorded in 2014 and 20 in 2015.
With local enthusiasm being heightened by the work being done around developing the largest Marine Protected Area internationally, sightings of whales has increased remarkably in 2016.
One month brought 35 reports which covered 99 whales, obviously a number of these sightings were of the same whales but one consistent group of 6 exuberant juveniles were often spotted putting on a prolonged display of numerous activities such as: both full and partial breaches, tail and fin slapping and rolling belly up. Some of these performances could last well over an hour.
Many a community member reported losing a sense of time whilst caught up watching these wondrous creatures at play.
Humpback whales can usually be found in the pristine waters surrounding Pitcairn Island from May through to late October. A cow, calf and escort whale have been seen in late November 2016.
Local anglers frequently encounter whales while out fishing in their small boats.
As the whales can be longer, and certainly heavier, than the boats, these encounters could be seen as cause for alarm but they are in fact welcomed and enjoyed by those lucky enough to have a mighty leviathan glide past them.
Stacks Image 5888
Close Encounter of the AWESOME Kind.
Photo credit Dr Terry Dawson

View our Whale Photo Album