The annual Orca Watch event took place from Saturday 26th May until Saturday 2nd June 2018 in Caithness, around the Orkney and Shetland Isles and it was full of fantastic cetacean sightings!
Sea Watch Foundation in collaboration with their Regional Coordinator Colin Bird have been organizing an annual national recording event, the Orca Watch for the past 7years. The idea of organizing this event originated from the possibility of underwater turbines installed in the Pentland Firth, which initiated the first seasonal watch to gather information on how killer whales use this area and what might be the consequences of such an installation. This week-long event saw hundreds of whale enthusiast volunteers scanning the sea of the Pentland Firth to try catch a glimpse of orcas, and any other cetacean species passing by. This annual event has been created to increase public awareness of how and when orcas utilise waters of the Pentland Firth during the summer months. This event also draws attention to the need for conservation, protection and continued research into the status, distribution, and abundance of this iconic whale species around the UK.
The team of Sea Watch Foundation lead organizers did a wonderful job of getting people involved, chalking up over 10 hours of effort data collected each day, totalling over 100 hours for the week. Observers coordinated by lead organizers Anna Jemmett, Chloe Robinson and Steve Truluck, were stationed at Duncansby Head, the main view point. They looked out not only for orcas but also other cetacean species (the collective name for all whales, dolphins and porpoises) as well as making sightings onboard the John O’Groats ferry connecting the Caithness mainland with Orkney, and onboard North 58 Sea Adventures offering tours of the Moray Firth coastline and its abundant wildlife.
This impressive effort resulted in sightings of orcas, minke whales, Risso’s dolphins and harbour porpoises. Orcas were spotted on May 30th right after midday when three males and a suspected female (based on dorsal fin shape and width) appeared about a quarter of a mile north of Duncansby Head.
Risso’s dolphins were also sighted surfacing and leaping amongst the orcas the same day, the dolphins having previously been sighted on May 27th, breaching and tail slapping in John O’Groats harbour. Orcas were then sighted and photographed two other times onboard the John O’Groats ferry boat in two pods of 4 and 5 individuals respectively.
For the bird aficionados, spoonbill, subalpine warbler, fulmar, guillemot, puffin and gannet were also recorded in the Caithness area at the same time.
“For me, the highlights were watching a pod of Risso’s dolphins breaching in John O Groats bay and seeing a spoonbill fly overhead, a very unusual sight for Caithness!” said Anna Jemmett.
“Once again it was a phenomenal week. A chance to be around like-minded orcaholics and share the exhilaration of seeing this iconic species on home soil” added Steve Truluck.
“What really struck me during the week – besides of course seeing killer whales less than 100m below me from the cliff and from the ferry – was the sheer passion and determination of the public, most of which stuck out long watches in abysmal weather and rallied around one another to keep spirits high and bellies full of hot tea and coffee”, continued Chloe Robinson.
More watches were also conducted in Orkney where lead organizer, Steve Sankey, an experienced local wildlife guide and cetacean spotter, was stationed at Hoxa Head on South Ronaldsay with four telescopes. A total of 25 volunteers joined him at that location and looked out for cetacean species with him although no animal was sighted that day. The following marine seabird species were sighted: black guillemots, kittiwakes, arctic terns, great skuas, guillemots and razorbills.
“We had a lovely afternoon watching the antics and fly-pasts of our seabirds, so I’m sure that people weren’t disappointed. I always say that you don’t see orcas, they come to see you – so next time!” said Steve Sankey.
In Orkney, orcas were first sighted from Westray ferry on May 27th in the morning. The following day, a pod of five orcas was sighted around 4:30 pm on the east side of the Orkney Mainland at the Brough of Deerness by Neil and Deborah Kermode, who were out for a walk with a visitor in the area. Harbour porpoises were sighted near Copinsay, and Risso’s dolphins off Evie and Yesnaby.
In Shetland, Karen Hall, lead organizer and Regional Coordinator for Shetland, started with a full day of survey at Sumburgh Head, followed by watches organized at Hillwick, Mousa Sound, Noss Sound, Eshaness, Nesting and Fair Isle. Forty people attended the event and watched at the sites: killer whales were spotted off Fetlar, a small pod of 5-6 porpoises – called Neesick by locals, were sighted off Mousa Sound. Risso’s dolphins were seen off Olnafirth, and a close encounter with a minke whale was reported off Noss by the Shetland Wildlife group aboard Seabirds-and-Seals MV ‘Seabird on May 26th, and another one on June 1st off Nesting Bay.
“Despite extensive fog, the last weekend is one that will go down as the best one we have ever had with minke whales, Risso’s dolphins, porpoises, basking shark, a bearded seal and a walrus sighted in Shetland. What a great end to Orca Watch 2018, and a great start to the summer season” reported Karen Hall.
Orca Watch has also enabled researchers like Marie Mrusczok, founder and president of Orca Guardians, an independent conservation non-profit dedicated to the protection of orcas in Iceland, to help unravel the mystery behind the movement of orcas between Iceland and Scotland, and understand more about their behavioural ecology, distribution, and migration patterns. Sea Watch Foundation organized an evening of whale talks on May 26th at 7 pm, at the Pultney Peoples Centre in Wick, Caithness, where Marie provided valuable insight into the seasonal movements of orcas between Iceland and Scotland.
“The Orca Watch week brought together people from all over the country and showed them that vital data for the protection and conservation of orcas and other cetacean species are easy to collect and anyone can help out. Sightings data collected at all watches around Scotland, the Orkney and Shetland Isles can really help us to improve our knowledge of numbers and conservation status of orcas. This event, in conjunction with distribution and abundance surveys, will contribute towards the knowledge base for researchers, the local communities, and dolphin watching operators in the area, and in evaluating the effectiveness of existing management actions” reported Dr Chiara Bertulli, Sea Watch Foundation’s Sightings Officer.