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Unexpected Guests: Pilot Whales in the Moray Firth

From WDC information officer, Sam Flood.

Long-finned Pilot Whales are curious cetaceans. They are known for their peculiar, bulbous heads and, as the name suggests, elongated fins. Living in close-knit groups, they can often be seen clustered together – almost on top of each other, jostling for position and yet appearing to huddle for comfort and security – sometimes spy-hopping above the water to peer around. This often unveils the beautiful angel-like markings under their chins.

Their close social bonds also sadly mean that they are one of the species most vulnerable to mass strandings. In some cases, if one of the older, leading members of the pod is sick, they will instinctively head inland to beach themselves. This can lead the rest of their pod astray too, making an entire family population at-risk.

You can imagine a pod of around 30 pilot whales in shallow Scottish waters will ring alarm bells for local stranding teams. Hundreds of people gathered around Inverness to behold the bobbing creatures during their visit to North Kessock last week. It was both a fascinating and concerning spectacle to see these unusual characters so far from home.

The saga started on Sunday 6 August, with the group meandering dangerously close to the harbour. They were feeding and appeared to be reasonably content, even beginning to make their way back out of the Firth towards the end of the day. Perhaps they had just been moved slightly adrift with a little too much boat traffic and the lure of some good food further south. Perhaps they would move on as swiftly and surreptitiously as they’d appeared.

Yet by the Monday morning, conservation staff and volunteers awoke to the news that one of the whales had stranded at North Kessock. WDC Field Officer, Charlie Philips, found her laying exposed and immobile on the pebble beach as the rest of the pod remained in the water. Rescue teams and volunteers awaited the arrival of the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme vet, who determined she was not only poorly, but considerably old. The longer a whale is out of water, the greater the chance of fatality. Floatation would have little chance of success for a senior whale with diminishing health. It would have put the rest of the pod at-risk to encourage a distressed whale into the water when it seemed the others were healthy. The decision was made to put her to sleep.

This left a large number of individuals to protect and monitor. We have a tendency to humanise these animals – so intelligent and cultured in their social bonds and habits – and to lose a mammal of such grace and mystery is always terribly sad. Vigils were held on the shore for the lost whale, and the rest of the group seemed to stick around, as if in mourning for their senior family member, and yet displaying no visible signs of distress. More and more people came to watch the group as the news spread.

There’s a fine line between wanting to encourage people to be passionate and curious and interested – whilst simultaneously reminding them of the warning signs this presents. If the pilot whales became distressed, there could be a sudden and critical situation on the hands of the dedicated BDLMR (British Divers Marine Live Rescue) volunteers, including the Whale & Dolphin Conservation team. A situation can quickly turn frantic, with emotions running high and crowds making the challenge of access, professionalism and speed more difficult.

Based on Chanonry Point, I was further down the coast, closer to the open sea. I had regular updates to say the Pilot Whales were nearing the Kessock Bridge. ‘They’ll be with you any minute, Sam’, I was told, as they made it through to the other side and continued their journey north. I had the usual crowds around me of people waiting expectantly for the resident bottlenose dolphins, and others who had heard of the excitement further south, wanting to know where our unusual visitors could be found and when they might be passing the point.

Yet hours later, we were still waiting. I had updates to say they were loitering further up the shore at the small fishing village of Avoch. Here, they seemed to stall. It was feared they may be turning round again – repeating their behaviour of Sunday and swimming back towards shallower waters. It was difficult to tell what direction they were heading as they began to move off – but soon it became clear that their fins were angled in our direction, and they started to pick up speed. They were coming our way. As they got closer, people around started to exclaim as they became much more visible to the naked eye. People mentioned seeing at least 8, then 13, then 17.

Around 5pm, they passed by the point. Some people just arriving remarked, ‘oh! There are the dolphins!’ – unaware of just how rare a sight this was. I handed out our ‘Watching out’ leaflets, which contain a map of Scotland, WDC’s Shorewatch locations and a species guide. I pointed out the pilot whales, located further north on the map, as people marvelled at them passing by. It was amazing to see these bizarre and bulbous-headed beauties, so far from their usual waters – and yet I was pleased to watch them go. Hopefully they won’t be back anytime soon.