Wow - orcas pay a surprise visit to Scotland’s Moray Firth!

What a Fin-tastic start to the year. Over the festive period, a few dorsal fins were popping up here and there in Scotland’s Inner Moray Firth. Kesslet (one of the WDC adopt a dolphin stars) and her baby daughter were seen around the Kessock Bridge area almost every day and some of the other local dolphins like Porridge, Scoopy and Bonnie and friends were paying regular passing visits to Chanonry Point.

I was enjoying my Christmas break when I took a phone call from an old pal of mine and avid dolphin watcher saying that he had spotted two huge black dorsal fins near Chanonry Point; too big for the usual dolphins and swimming quickly and powerfully through the wild, gale-force sea conditions. He managed to get a couple of photos and when I joined him in the carpark at Chanonry, I looked at his photos and immediately agreed - orcas!

He had to leave but I stayed on for a while watching from the shelter of my car hoping that the two orcas would come back. After half an hour or so I spotted a huge dorsal fin breaking through the surf, then another, they were around six hundred metres away, heading back out to sea. It was far too windy to attempt using my hugest camera lens so I used a slightly smaller one and, bracing myself up against one of the picnic benches to keep as still as I could and not get blown off my feet, thankfully (in between lots of photos of big waves) I managed to get some reasonable shots of two different dorsal fins – each was two metres tall and one had a huge chunk missing from the trailing edge.

John Coe near Chanonry Point
John Coe near Chanonry Point

There is a tiny population of eight orcas who live off the west coast of Scotland and travel around a lot. The most famous and well known is a huge male named John Coe and I knew this was exactly who I was looking at with the big gap in his dorsal fin. His buddy was one of two other big males in that population, either Comet or Aquarius, but I couldn’t get good enough photos to prove who it was. With orcas you generally need the dorsal fin shape and the grey saddle patch area just behind the dorsal fin for a positive ID. This orca pod are marine mammal eaters and were probably in the area opportunistically seeking out their main prey - harbour porpoises. The two huge males headed out to sea and the weather closed in, but a little later in the afternoon they returned and were seen by many people (word had spread by this time) before they disappeared for good into the grey, rough sea. What a start to my 2019 season – bring it on!

I’ve asked my friend, orca expert and WDC colleague, Rob Lott to tell you a bit more about the West Coast Community of orcas…

The West Coast Community of orcas were, as their name suggests, first identified off the west coast of Scotland in the early 1980s. During infrequent encounters, observers noticed a male in the pod was very distinctive with a huge notch in the trailing edge of his dorsal fin. One of the local skippers in the area and long-time friend of WDC, Christopher 'Swanny' Swann, named him John Coe after a character from a novel he was reading at the time - Mile Zero by Thomas Sanchez. Since then, this fabled, elusive orca has sparked huge excitement wherever and whenever he shows up around the coastline.

Researchers estimate that John Coe is well over 50 years old, as he was an adult male when first spotted four decades ago.  We encounter these orcas rarely and this small pod is considered an isolated community that shows no association with the orca groups found around the north east of Scotland, Shetland and Orkney. This is backed up by recent findings that the population has different physical characteristics suggesting a separate ancestry.

In January 2016 the West Coast Community was dealt a tragic blow. Lulu, an adult female, washed ashore dead on the island of Tiree. Her post-mortem results revealed she had one of the highest levels of toxic contaminants of any marine mammal ever recorded. Today, this community number just eight individuals: four males and four females with no calves observed in the pod in over 20 years. While the population has its stronghold around the Hebrides, they are known to roam a huge area to the west of the British Isles, from the southern Irish Sea north to the Outer Hebrides and west along the entire length of Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard. In early March last year, John Coe, together with another adult male known as Aquarius, was spotted in Dingle Bay off the south west coast of Ireland. Just seven days earlier he was seen off the Isle of Mull in Scotland which, as the gannet flies, is a staggering distance of over 600km.

And now for the 2019 sightings we can add a rare but not unknown visit to the inner Moray Firth on Scotland’s east coast.

Maps showing 2017/18 West Coast Community orca sightings
Maps showing 2017/18 West Coast Community orca sightings