A blue whale has been photographed off the coast of the UK for what is thought to be the first time. Scientists at the National Oceanography Centre spotted the world's biggest animal about 400km south-west of Cornwall, swimming over a deep-sea canyon in the Bay of Biscay.

The researchers were on board the RSS James Cook, an expedition running between 9 August and 12 September that aims to search for complex deep-sea environments – in a project dubbed Codemap. The NOC's Russell Wynn said: "I was undertaking our daily marine mammal survey and enjoying watching up to seven fin whales around the ship, when the blue whale suddenly surfaced about a kilometre away. I had just enough time to secure some conclusive photos before the visibility decreased and the whale disappeared into the gloom."

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Researchers think blue whale populations might be recovering after being hunted almost to extinction NOC/Codemap2015

He said it was probably the first time a blue whale has ever been photographed in English waters. It remained above surface for just enough time for the team to take several pictures of the mammal.

Veerle Huvenne, chief scientist of the Codemap 2015 expedition, added: "There was huge excitement on board as many people got a glimpse of their first blue whale, but only later did we realise that this is probably the first to be photographed within English waters. The Biscay margin is already recognised as a hotspot for whales, dolphins and seabirds – our new data further underline the importance of this area for iconic marine life."

The blue whale was hunted to near extinction in the north-east Atlantic region during the early 20<sup>th century. Another blue whale was sighted off the coast of south-west Ireland in September 2008, and scientists think this could be a sign the population is starting to recover.