FINALLY! After a very long week wishing and waiting for killer whales to appear the day finally arrived. Beautiful sea conditions and visibility greeted one and all in the morning and despite seeing no cetaceans from the morning ferry, there was a potential sighting of three killer whales from Thurso Bay (further west) so many of us decided our best bet was to maintain our base watch point at Duncansby Head and hope they come past us if the sighting is true. As if like magic, it wasn’t long after midday when just above the subalpine warbler (which had attracted more attention from keen birders and orca watchers and subsequently had many eyes on it!), three killer whale fins appeared about a quarter of a mile north of Duncansby Head! The word ‘ORCA’ sounded around the headland like music to our ears and everyone rushed down to the fence line to get a closer look.
Three males and a suspected female (based on dorsal fin shape and width) milled around in front of Duncansby Head, showing off their gorgeous eyespots to onlookers and got ever closer. After some time, the killer whales headed for the end of the headland and we all knew we would have to do the ‘Orca Run’ soon (over the headland and following the undulating fence line to the stacks), made famous by last year’s encounter with Hulk, Nótt and an unknown orca who followed a similar path along the edge of the cliff during orca watch 2017. So off we ran, across the headland and followed the fence where we met the group again as they made their way towards the headland. Lots of ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhhs’ and some language I cannot repeat resonated around the cliff top along with numerous camera clicks as the larger male surfaced at the bottom of the cliff with another male in the group, so close that the blows could be heard from the top of the cliff. The group continued onto the stacks where we saw them spyhop and then watched them move further out to sea. Just as we thought our fantastic sighting was over, the whales started heading back north at a considerable speed and we had suspected they were chasing down some dinner (i.e. another marine mammal) and a few people saw something much smaller leaping amongst the orca and ahead we saw some Risso’s dolphins travelling at speed away from the killer whales. We suspected some orca-Risso harassment but soon lost sight of both the killer whales and Risso’s as they headed north east towards the skerries.
Elated (and exhausted) from our orca encounter, we all were feeling fantastic and mentally energised after the well-needed first orca encounter of orca watch 2018. We are hoping that more killer whale groups head our way over the next few days.