Media Release: Our new research reveals that UK seas are a service station for migrating ocean giants

I am very pleased to announce the publication of my latest research on UK humpback whales in Marine Biodiversity Records with the following press release.

All media enquiries to me on

8 August 2019

Our new study uncovers the travel history of a humpback whale spotted near Edinburgh thanks to members of the public sharing their sightings on Facebook

Keen-eyed volunteers have used photos shared on social media to reveal the travel history of a humpback whale that spent last winter near Edinburgh. The whale, nicknamed “vYking” by local whale watchers, was one of 4 humpback whales seen regularly in the Firth of Forth in winter 2018. Sightings of humpback whales in UK seas are increasing year on year, with Scotland’s Firth of Forth emerging as a winter hotspot for these ocean giants.

Armed with a photograph of the unique markings on the underside of vYking’s tail fluke, enthusiasts from the local community worked together with scientists to see if it had been photographed elsewhere. When the whale wasn’t found in any scientific catalogues, volunteers began to trawl the internet… only to find a photo of “vYking” on social media! The image was taken 2,610km away in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the high Arctic, the previous summer by a wildlife photographer. This is the first ever record of a UK-sighted humpback whale in their summer feeding grounds.

Humpback whales make vast migrations between their breeding and feeding grounds, but the origins and destinations of the humpback whales visiting UK waters is not well understood. Excited by the photo from Svalbard, a team of marine biologists began to interrogate the sightings and photos of humpback whales in the Firth of Forth shared on the Forth Marine Mammals Facebook group. They have now published their exciting findings based entirely on the data collected by the local whale watchers. This research suggests that some humpback whales are using UK seas as a service station, a place to rest and feed, on their long migration from their Arctic feeding grounds to their tropical breeding grounds.

Emily Cunningham, one of the marine biologists that led the study, says: “Until 2017, humpback whales had only been recorded a handful of times in the Firth of Forth over the past century – now we’re seeing them every winter on an almost daily basis. UK seas are full of amazing wildlife, so keep an eye on the waves next time you’re at the coast and please share anything you happen to photograph with your local wildlife organisation – it could be the start of a new discovery!”

Daniel Moore, co-lead author, says: “This research shows that UK seas play an important role in the migrations of some humpback whales and demonstrates the need for effective conservation of our marine environment. We hope to continue our research in order to understand more about these movements and the importance of UK waters in contributing to successful migrations.”

Katie O’Neil, co-lead author, says “Our research shows the invaluable contribution that the public can make to our understanding of marine wildlife. Without the dedication and commitment shown by the Forth Marine Mammal group and its volunteers we wouldn’t be able to make important discoveries like this.”

This research is freely available to read in Marine Biodiversity Records, an open access journal, here.


Contact Information:

Emily Cunningham (Co-lead author)
Twitter: @EG_Cunningham

Available for interviews or further quotes/details.

Images are available for use with this news release. They are granted on a one-time use basis, in association with this release and the photographer must be credited. Images found here.

Notes for editors:
The full reference of the research paper is:
O’Neil, K.E., Cunningham, E.G. and Moore, D.M., 2019. Sudden seasonal occurrence of humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae in the Firth of Forth, Scotland and first confirmed movement between high-latitude feeding grounds and United Kingdom waters. Marine Biodiversity Records, 12(12).
The research paper can be found here.

Humpback whales (Megaptera noveaengliae) are found across the globe and make vast migrations between tropical breeding grounds and high-latitude feeding grounds. The humpback whales visiting UK seas are part of the eastern North Atlantic population and little detail is known about their migration habits. Last year, scientists made the first match of a Scottish-sighted humpback whale to breeding grounds in Guadeloupe and earlier this year an Irish-sighted humpback whale was matched to breeding grounds in Cape Verde. UK seas are a crossroads for animals travelling to each of these breeding grounds from high-latitude feeding grounds off Norway (including Svalbard) and Iceland. Sightings of whales in UK seas are increasing year-on-year after almost a century of absence due to commercial whaling, but further research is needed to understand whether this increase is the result of a post-whaling population recovery or a shift in distribution.

This research shared here reports on the first confirmed record of a UK-recorded humpback whale in its high-latitude feeding grounds and suggests that UK seas act as a migratory stopover for whales making the journey to their tropical feeding grounds. Further research is needed to ascertain greater detail on their origins, destinations and maturational status. This discovery underlines the need for effective marine conservation policy and management in UK seas as to achieve a healthy and productive marine environment for the benefit of resident and visiting species alike.

This research relies entirely on sightings and photos collected by volunteer whale watchers and shared onto the Forth Marine Mammals Facebook page. The authors thank all of those whom dedicated time to whale watching and sharing their sightings and photos; without them all, this research would not have been possible.

NEWS: £101,400 secured to protect and celebrate coastal wildlife

I am thrilled to announce that a bid I was commissioned to write has secured £101,400 initial funding for an major new coastal conservation project on the Dee Estuary, UK.

Early last year (2018) I was commissioned by Cheshire Wildlife Trust, a wildlife conservation charity in North West England, to help them develop a new project. I worked with the Director of Conservation and Area Manager to advise on stakeholder/community consultation, develop the framework of conservation activity and then wrote the application to the National Lottery (Heritage Fund).

The project will protect rare and vulnerable coastal wildlife and habitats by creating opportunities for local people to take action to protect them.

Check out our official announcement, including a quote from me, here.

Want to see something similar in your patch?

I specialise in developing people-focussed conservation programmes and am available to take on new clients from mid-February 2019.

To date, I’ve secured £350,000 in development funding and over £1m match funding for conservation projects worth £5.6m. I can offer support in pre-development, bid writing and during the development phase. I am currently: an advisor to the Development Board of a Landscape Partnership Scheme, developing a new national project and offering pre-development advice to a national charity.

Contact me:

Learn more about me: LinkedIn


Emily featured in “Leading Women in Marine Science” series

I am proud to have been interviewed by Hannah Rudd for her Leading Women in Marine Science series about my (slightly unorthodox) career in marine conservation.

You can read my interview alongside those of other (brilliant!) female marine scientists HERE.

Thank you to Hannah for interviewing me and for showcasing so many amazing female scientists in her blog series. Hannah has just embarked on a Masters in Marine Environmental Management at the University of York, so is well on her way to becoming a leading woman in marine science herself! For more fabulous marine conservation content, follow Hannah on Twitter.

Why we need more Marine Conservation Zones

*Edit: Consultation now closed for comments*

Emily works with The Wildlife Trusts (a national NGO) on their campaign to secure more and better managed Marine Conservation Zones and was asked to write a blog for the UK’s Wildlife and Countryside Link on why these 41 new MCZs are needed.

The UK Government ran a public consultation on whether to create 41 new Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in the seas around England. The consultation closed on Friday 20 July 2018. 

What are Marine Conservation Zones?
Marine Conservation Zones are a type of protected area in English seas. They are put in place to protect special areas of the seabed and the marine wildlife that lives there. So far, we have 50 Marine Conservation Zones in place in English waters. Collectively, these sites cover 20,425 km2 – and although that sounds a lot, it’s only 8.4% of our seas.

Why are they needed?
Our seas are in crisis. Ever increasing marine development, pollution, damaging fishing practices and climate change means our seas are under greater pressure than ever before.
Some of our marine habitats and wildlife are more vulnerable to these pressures than others and need protection. One of the ways we can protect these vulnerable seabed habitats and wildlife, such as seagrass meadows, pink sea fans and Maerl beds, is through the creation of protected areas at sea.
Without Marine Conservation Zones, some of our most special places at sea would have no protection, leaving some of our most precious marine wildlife – from endangered seahorses to fragile sea fans – at risk.

Real Protection for our Wildlife
Designating a Marine Conservation Zone is only the first step towards protecting the precious wildlife and habitats within. Active management is required to make sure our MCZs are doing the job for which they were created, including the banning of certain damaging activities.
Work to date has focussed on the management of MCZs created in 2013, known as Tranche 1 MCZs. Where needed, management measures are now in place for all of these inshore Tranche 1 MCZs in England, benefitting wildlife from seahorses to honeycomb worm reefs. Work still needs to be done to properly manage the MCZs created in 2016 (Tranche 2 MCZs), as well as our offshore MCZs.

Is the MCZ network complete?
No. Huge gaps remain in the network, leaving many rare and vulnerable species and habitats unprotected. I, along with the Government’s own Scientists, believe we need more MCZs – and I need YOUR help to make sure the Government listens.

How can I help?
We are in the home straight of a Government consultation on creating 41 more Marine Conservation Zones in English seas. We know that public support plays a vital role in the Government’s final decision, so we need each and every person that loves the sea to act today.

All you have to do is add your Wave of Support here. In doing so you will join over 10,000 other people that care about marine wildlife to call for the Government to create all 41 of the newly proposed Marine Conservation Zones, taking us one step closer to securing a healthy future of our seas.

Emily Cunningham, 16 July 2018 (Adapted)

This blog was originally published by Wildlife and Countryside Link in June 2018. See here.