“You’ve got an amazing job”, that’s what i’m often told when people hear that I work for a charity that monitors whales and dolphins. In all honesty, that can seem a far-fetched statement when I’m drowning under emails, trying to coordinate monitoring all around the UK among the other perils of working for a small non-governmental organisation.
On the occasions when I manage to abate my imminent workload enough I get the glorious opportunity to head out into Cardigan Bay to survey bottlenose dolphins. It is on those occasions that I KNOW I have an amazing job.Kathy on survey in Cardigan Bay. Photo by Ellie Kent/ Sea Watch Foundation.
Another incredible opportunity that I’ve been afforded recently was to attend Sea Watch Foundation’s annual Orca Watch event up on the north coast of Scotland. Orca Watch, now in it’s sixth year, was the brain child of Sea Watch volunteer Colin Bird. At the time of it’s conception, Colin acted as our organisations’ Regional Coordinator for North-east Scotland and he was troubled by the prospect of a series of underwater turbines being erected in the Pentland Firth, that separates Orkney from the mainland, and the same area that he was seeing killer whales on an annual basis. Not one to rest on his laurels, Colin decided the best way to document any effect on the number of killer whales using the area or indeed, how they use the area, was to set up a dedicated watch. The very purpose of Sea Watch is to maintain a database of these sorts of observations to offer a nationwide resource about all the whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans) that use our waters. We make this information available to researchers, students, consultants and government bodies in order to ensure the protection of these animals going forward. Colin’s records and observations throughout the year (and throughout the years!) have added greatly to this database and the specific addition of Orca Watch adds further to our knowledge of these animals as well as providing an unrivaled platform to see these magnificent creatures from UK shores.A plethora of cetacean enthusiasts at Orca Watch 2016.
Still volunteer-led, Colin along with his successor as Regional Coordinator, Anna Jemmett, were overwhelmed by the number of people who managed to attend the event in 2016 and so it was decided that it would be a worthwhile use of our limited resources and staff-power to send me up to John O’Groats for the occasion in 2017. As you can imagine, I was over the moon!
Putting the stars of the show to one side for a moment, what struck me most about the event was the collection of wildlife enthusiasts that gathered in this remote location at Duncansby Head, the most north-easterly point of the British mainland. All abilities came, from the most incredible, experienced bird and cetacean spotters, to people who just really wanted to spot a killer whale. We had all ages in attendance and I have to give a special mention to a young family from Ullapool who patiently waited on that cliff top for five days. That would be a difficult task for many in our society and yet these two under ten managed it whilst keeping us entertained too! It was a real privilege to share the experience with this enthusiastic and friendly bunch – thank you!Diligent whale-watchers from all walks of life at Orca Watch 2017. Photo by Kathy James/ Sea Watch Foundation.
Throughout the week we were making observations from both Dunscansby Head and twice daily on the John O’Groat’s ferry. We’re hugely grateful to the owners of the ferry for letting our observers on free of charge and I’d also like to give my personal thanks to the staff on board for making us all so welcome and at home. As I said at the time, it was the most relaxed bridge I’ve been on. The guys are so experienced that they do their job with such ease and grace. It was a pleasure to work alongside them.
Our first day was a wash out. After much anticipation we sat up at the headland in a cloud. People came and went, but that incredible commaradary I alluded to got us through. I realised that by the end of the day we looked like those crazy British folks who rocked up at beauty spot and were determined to have a picnic whatever the weather!Kathy, Alan Airey (SWF Regional Coordinator for the Moray Firth area), Emma Powell (SWF Intern from 2016) & Colin enjoying the Great British Summer!
We didn’t have to wait long for success though. The following day, Sunday 21st May, we had glorious weather and our ever-optimistic observers were out in force. In fact, the very sighting came at 6am when Colin and a few others who had camped onsite were around to spot a lone fin over by the Pentland Skerries (the islands depicted to the east of the firth in the sightings map below). Most people had sought accommodation in nearby John O’Groats or slightly further afield and arrived for the chosen daily watch times. At 11:45am, the shout “Orca!” arose as the keener-eyed watchers had isolated four killer whales many miles away over by the Pentland Skerries again. The four traveled west through the firth and we lost them somewhere close to Swona (even further from our watch site). Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t find them. It was terribly frustrating and I couldn’t believe that I would struggle to keep up with something as large as a killer whale! There were many of us there at that point who couldn’t get on to them which was some consolation, but what if that was it? What if those distant fins were our big killer whale sighting of the event? I couldn’t help but feel slightly despondent.
The weather continued to be beautiful and we enjoyed the fulmars and bonxies (Great Skuas) coming to check out what we were up to. Then, at 6:30pm, the war cry “Orca!” went up again and around 70 people were on the cliff ready to spot them. At first I couldn’t spot them, but avid sea-watcher Steve Truluck from the Moray Firth was on hand to point me in the right direction. Bingo! I helped other people in the congregation pinpoint them as four enormous killer whales swam directly towards the cliff on which we were stood! UNBELIVEABLE! Before I’d commenced my journey up to Orca Watch I had tried to imagine that I wouldn’t see any so that I wouldn’t be too disappointed. Even if I had not done that, I could not have hoped for a better sighting! The four killer whales, including a huge bull, swam so close under the cliff on which we stood that we could not see them any more!
The killer whales headed east and south around the headland so most of the party rushed over the hill to catch them on the other side and we had sightings for around fifteen minutes as they progressed southward. My first killer whales and in the UK. I couldn’t have been happier!
The following day CBBC Newsround came to film the event which was very exciting for our young watchers. The TV crew joined me on the boat the next morning too. You can see their two-minute coverage just below and I would like to take the opportunity to thank Orca Watch supporter, Rachel Iveson-Brown for her video contribution to the end of the piece.
Throughout the week we continued to have sightings on a daily basis. None were quite as close as my first experience, but I was thrilled that they were turning up with such regularity when we had so many people there wanting to see them. Our dedicated Sea Watch volunteer, Chloe, who’d traveled up from Swansea even managed to record killer whales from the ferry so she was very happy about that. We were all very happy, an incredible location, breath-taking wildlife and wonderful people to share it with.Sightings recorded during Orca Watch 2017. Please note that at the time of writing we are still processing data from the event so this may not be all encompassing.
All in all, there were 19 killer whale sightings reported throughout the watch period (20th-28th May) as well as harbour porpoise, Risso’s dolphin and minke whale being recorded. Outside of the set event dates the killer whale sightings continued to pour in from the area and you can keep up-to-date with these on our recent sightings page: www.seawatchfoundation.org.uk/recentsightings.
Whilst I was incredibly busy throughout, trying to keep on top of my other work from my accommodation in the mornings and evenings as well as driving folks around between the ferry, the clifftop and the loos (!) it occurred to me that there aren’t many times in ones life where we are able to spend ten days in the same place watching, waiting, contemplating. For that alone I would recommend joining us next year.
Kathy is our Sightings Officer and you can contact her directly on firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to add to her burgeoning email inbox! 😉