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My amazing week watching orcas in Scotland

Orca Watch’s 10th anniversary event in the far north of Scotland was exhilarating with a fantastic crowd, wonderful weather and incredible orca sightings. After the annual event took a break for the last two years, it was a wonderful gathering of the clans as we all came together to scan the sea from the headlands and clifftops for a glimpse of the ocean’s apex predator, the majestic orca.

Organised by the Sea Watch Foundation, this nine-day event is, of course, a great opportunity to meet like-minded people and spend time in nature but importantly the data gathered on distribution, status and abundance helps influence conservation management policy to better protect this iconic species. An example of this, and the reason Orca Watch was initially set up, is that the first few years’ data was used to input on planning proposals for an offshore windfarm and highlighted how orcas and other species use the Pentland Firth.

© Christopher Swann
© Christopher Swann

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I hadn’t even arrived ‘on site’ at John O Groats on the first day when my phone pinged as I was leaving my B&B in Wick. Orcas had been spotted just offshore of the town and were heading north too. It was as if they had received the same invitation as the rest of us!

Cath Bain, my friend and colleague from the WDC Scottish Dolphin Centre takes up the story of that first day and captures the excitement of tracking wild orcas along the Scottish coast:

‘Finding orcas is always a little about luck - you can travel to the right place at the right time of year, but nothing is guaranteed. Success or failure is often down to the choices you make and on the first Saturday of Orca Watch my friend Hazel and I made good choices.

Watching for orcas from the John O Groats/Orkney ferry
Watching for orcas from the John O Groats/Orkney ferry

After being unsuccessful watching from the morning John O Groats to Orkney ferry, we got the message that there were orcas heading north and we made it to Wick in time to catch two males passing far out. It’s always great to be the one who can shout ‘orca!’ first.

We tried to follow them up the coast but we lost them so we headed to Duncansby Head to wait for them to arrive. Then came the decision point ... do we stay and hope that the orcas make it this far before we have to leave, or do we risk it and try catching the evening ferry knowing that we could be heading for Orkney when they arrive here? Heads or tails, land or water, what to choose?

We decided to risk it and get on the ferry and it proved to be the perfect choice. We found the orcas and were stunned when one of the massive males headed straight for the boat and at one point appeared around 10 metres to our right, then dived and went under the bow. It was a fantastic encounter and a great way to start Orca Watch week.’

orca
An orca approaches the ferry

Over the course of the week the local sites covered in Caithness were Duncansby Head, Duncansby Stacks, Gill’s Bay, Dunnet Head and Thurso, with other watchers further afield in Shetland, Orkney and also to the east and west of mainland Scotland. This, and a very active WhatsApp group allowed us all to track the movements of whales and dolphins in the area, often in real time.

Duncansby stacks on the north coast of Scotland
The Cliffs at Duncansby Stacks provide a great orca watching vantage point

A few weeks after the event many of us gathered to attend an online event to discuss the Sea Watch Foundation’s preliminary data. Seven species of whales, dolphins and porpoises were recorded over the weeks:

And finally … drumroll ... orcas were spotted 58 times during the event – did you have any idea that you could witness this kind of orca activity from the UK coast?

Perhaps my most enduring memory of a week with so many highlights was the day we jumped on the John O Groats ferry to try our luck on Orkney. I can’t stress how incredible it is to have so many people with eyes on the water and those people all having access to a mobile phone network. We had decided to head for a spectacularly beautiful part of Orkney on the west coast called the Brough of Birsay. It’s a tidal island which can only be accessed at certain times of the day. Just as we were crossing the causeway, beachcombing as we went, an alert came in that a pod of orcas had been spotted just south of us and were heading our way. We quickly made our way up to the highest point of the island and settled down under a clear blue sky awaiting the whales. Over the next hour or so we watched the unmistakable fins of orcas as they lazily milled and foraged off the headland. Later that day (and after some debate) our best estimates agreed we had seen two pods comprising of a total of 15 orcas that afternoon.

Plans are underway for Orca Watch 2023 and I cannot wait – perhaps I’ll see you there?

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