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Orca Watch Scotland 2019 – the results are in!

Orca Watch 2019 really had it all this year - wind, rain, some stunning sunsets and lots of orca activity. The event kicked off with a wonderful fundraising evening of talks and video presentations before we all settled down for a week of serious scanning at Duncansby lighthouse watching the ever-shifting waters of the Pentland Firth in Caithness, Scotland.

Hundreds of people made the trek from all over the UK (and beyond!) to the northerly tip of mainland UK and the rugged coastline of Caithness. Others chose vantage points even further afield - north to the islands of Orkney and Shetland and west out to the Hebrides. We also had the option to use the John O Groats ferry as a platform of opportunity. The ferry takes foot passengers from the Scottish mainland to the Orkney Islands each day and passes through core orca habitat.

Orca Watchers scan the sea for fins at Duncansby Head
Orca Watchers scan the sea for fins at Duncansby Head

Orca Watch 2019 proved to be one of the best in years with no fewer than 122 sightings of seven different species of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

WDC’s partner in Orca Watch, The Sea Watch Foundation, has diligently collated all the data from over 200 hours of observations from ferries, lighthouses, and clifftops and that most elusive of species in UK waters, orca, was spotted no less than 27 times over the course of the ten days and was second only to the harbour porpoise. Other species recorded include Risso’s dolphin, humpback whale, short-beaked common dolphin, minke whale and long-finned pilot whale.

This is Riley, our chief orca-sightings logger
This is Riley, our chief orca-sightings logger
Sightings map
And the results are in - these were the sightings recorded from Orca Watch 2019

Like most wildlife events the more you put into waiting, watching and hoping the more you get out of it. You also need a certain amount of luck so yes, there were times when I was at the lighthouse and orcas were seen off the ferry but the majority of people who stayed the week were rewarded with some unforgettable experiences. For many it was their first wild orca and not something they thought they would ever see in UK waters!

My own moment of zen happened as I decided to hop off the morning ferry on the Orkneys and spend the day on the coastal path. Thanks to a wonderful WhatsApp network of orca watchers I received a message to say that a pod of orcas were passing the small harbour where the ferry had dropped me off an hour earlier……and they were heading my way! I rushed down to the beach and peered through the thick Scottish sea fog or ‘haar’ and then, a moment later, a huge orca fin sliced through the water just 20 metres away from me. Just the whale and me on a remote island beach - I was speechless.

An Icelandic male named Nótt, seen from the John O'Groats ferry. © Steve Truluck
An Icelandic male named Nótt, seen from the John O'Groats ferry.

Friend of WDC, Megan Hockin-Bennet summed it all up when she said, 'Having spent so much time traveling far and wide across the world in search of my favourite whale I really had no idea what lay right on my doorstep, I was also totally astounded with the joy I felt from the community spirit that I’ll spend all year looking forward to joining in with again!'

We’ll announce 2020’s Orca Watch dates in October – you really should join us!

Did you know you can adopt an orca?

Get to know an individual orca and help us protect orcas in Scotland and all over the world

19 Comments

  1. Susan on 29th January 2020 at 11:53 am

    Hello, we are coming to Scotland mid February, is there any chance that whales or dolphins would be in the waters around Scotland at this time.
    We will be staying in the Cairngorm region so fairly central.
    Thanking you
    Susan

    • Julia Pix on 30th January 2020 at 12:19 pm

      Hi Susan, thanks for getting in touch. February is still ‘low season’ for dolphin spotting in Scotland but if you are staying in the Cairngorm area it may be worthwhile making the trip to Chanonry Point on the Black Isle just north of Inverness where dolphins come in very close to the beach. If you do head up that way, look out for a chap with a big camera and a WDC jacket on the beach – that’ll be Charlie, our adopt a dolphin field officer. He’ll be happy to

      We run a visitor centre, called The WDC Scottish Dolphin Centre at Spey Bay, near Inverness and the staff and volunteers there would be delighted to help you either in person if you drop in, or by phone. Have a look at dolphincentre.whales.org/ for details.

      All the best and we hope you spot some dolphins!

      Good luck!

  2. Anna Higgins on 30th January 2020 at 5:30 am

    Hi Good Morning

    I wanted to ask about the possibility of booking a whale watch experience- wanted to get some more information about it – dates prices location age restrictions.
    My little boy is 3 – 4 in May and he is mad for whales – I would love nothing more than to show him a whale in the wild – it would blow his mind !! I was thinking we would have to travel far to get to see the Orcas but I saw this and thought wow – this is my chance lol
    If someone could get back to me about booking a watch I would really appreciate it.

    • Julia Pix on 30th January 2020 at 12:58 pm

      Thanks for getting in touch. The Orca Watch dates for 2020 are 23rd May to 31st May. Orca Watch is a land-based watch takes place along the north coast of Scotland and the Northern Isles. The main base this year will again be Duncansby Lighthouse near John O Groats. To be honest, it’s probably not the best experience for a three or four-year-old as there’s a lot of standing around in the changeable weather of the north of Scotland. It’s all worth it if you do spot orcas but as with all wild whales and dolphins, there are no guarantees that they will put in an appearance.

      You are probably better off booking a boat trip to see dolphins in Scotland then we suggest you head over to the west coast with good opportunities to see them out of Gairloch and also Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. It’s important to choose a boat operator with a good code of conduct who approaches wildlife responsibly. Good luck!

  3. Colin bulley on 30th January 2020 at 3:01 pm

    Do you do a orca whale watch in October in Scotland?

    • Julia Pix on 14th February 2020 at 12:00 pm

      Hi, you’d have to be lucky to see orcas from Scotland in October but heading to the Shetlands or Orkney would give you the best chance of seeing one of the UK’s orca resident pods.

  4. Carol Saul on 18th February 2020 at 7:26 pm

    Evening…will be in Thurso first week in March 2020 and was hoping maybe to watch for the orcas…I guess from previousmposts that we are unlikely to see any…..what advice can you offer

    • Julia Pix on 19th February 2020 at 4:58 pm

      It’s unlikely you will see orcas at this time of year as it’s a little early in the season. The best time for orcas in this area is usually May and June. You may be lucky enough to spot harbour porpoises, Risso’s dolphins and minke whales and the best spotting sites in that area are Dunnet Head, Duncansby Head and Strathy Point. Good luck!

  5. Emily on 25th February 2020 at 8:34 pm

    Hi! My mom and I are visiting in June and looking to go whale watching. Whats the best way to do this and do they have whale watching boat trips?

    Thanks!

    • Julia Pix on 27th February 2020 at 4:45 pm

      Hi Emily, it really depends where you are going. There are a number of operators around the coast of Scotland. Perhaps get in touch with our Scottish Dolphin Centre when you know your itinerary and they should be able to advise:
      Tel: 01343 820 339
      Email: dolphincentre@whales.org
      Have fun!

  6. sheila caryer on 16th March 2020 at 7:43 am

    IS THERE ANYWHERE WE CAN GO WHALE OR DOLPHIN WATCHING NEXT WEEK. 16/03

    • George Berry on 16th March 2020 at 4:14 pm

      Hi Sheila,

      Unfortunately, it is a little too early in the year to be reliably seeing whales and dolphins. As with most locations around the UK, the best time for seeing them is later in Spring and on through the summer.

  7. Miles on 17th July 2020 at 11:39 am

    Hi there!

    We will be around Orkney isles in mid August, do you think we would be likely to see Orcas at this time of year?

    Thanks

    • Julia Pix on 17th July 2020 at 4:27 pm

      Hi Miles, August is a good time to see orcas around the northern isles, including Orkney and your best bet is to follow Orkney Cetacean Sightings on Facebook to get a taste of what’s going on. Posts may be delayed due to current COVID-19 guidelines. Good luck!

      https://www.facebook.com/groups/orkneycetaceansightings/

  8. Soumya on 17th August 2020 at 12:44 pm

    Hi, We are planning a trip to John O’ Groats end of Sept’2020. Is there any change of seeing Orcas or Dolphins ?

    • Julia Pix on 18th August 2020 at 1:38 pm

      Hi, there is always the chance of seeing dolphins and orcas at John O’Groats and surrounding area but obviously there are absolutely no guarantees. Worth heading to Duncansby Head for greater elevation and hence a greater field of view. Quite a few Risso’s dolphins have been seen there over the past few weeks. Good luck!

  9. Michelle Armstrong on 23rd October 2020 at 12:43 pm

    Hi there, I have a client would like to experience whale watching in Orkney in 2020. I have been looking for tours that provide this experience. I wonder if this group will be able to help me with this. My email is annandalegetaways@aol.com. Thanks

    • Julia Pix on 23rd October 2020 at 5:34 pm

      Hi Michelle – our whale watching expert is currently furloughed but I will ask colleagues in Scotland for you and get back to you as soon as I can. All the best.

    • Julia Pix on 27th October 2020 at 9:03 am

      Hi Michelle, apologies for the delay in getting back to you. Orkney is a great place to see whales and dolphins and while we don’t really promote individual tours or operators, this Sea Watch Foundation sheet identifies some of the top land-based places to watch for marine wildlife from. We hope this is helpful. https://seawatchfoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Orkney2.pdf

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