A report from the Irish Whale & Dolphin Group showed that Sunday 5th July was a big day for killer whale sightings in Ireland, with two pods being reported at 13:00. The first pod consisted of 5 individuals, 2 males and 3 females, of which at least three have been identified. The two males were ‘Floppy Fin’ and ‘Aquarius’ and a female was ‘Nicola’, all members of the Scottish ‘west coast community’. They were seen here c. 250 miles from their normal location. At the same time over 130 miles away, another group of 4 individuals was seen between the Aran Islands and Black Head, Co. Clare at the mouth of Galway Bay. Amongst these was ‘John Coe’ an old male who is often part of the Hebridean group but also known to cover a wide range. It is thought that the remaining 3 in the group were most likely also from the Hebridean community .
Killer whales can be recognised by photo identification, which enables matching of features that are unique to individuals. For killer whales, nicks of their tall dorsal fin and scars as well as the shape of the greyish saddle patches situated behind the dorsal fin, can be used for identification. Results from photo identification can provide important information about group structure, habitat use and ranging movements, as established by the recent sightings of these pods.
Nicola and Floppy Fin have been seen regularly particularly around the Inner Hebrides but also around the Minches which are close to the Outer Hebrides. Floppy Fin was first photographed and named by Dr. Peter Evans, SWF, in August 1980 west of the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, making him well over 30 years old.. There have been several sightings of these two killer whales around the Hebrides in the 1990s, sometimes with and sometimes without John Coe.
John Coe was originally named by Christopher Swann of Western Isles Sailing Company on a Sea Watch survey in the early 1990s, and known to have ranged around the Hebrides since at least the late 1980s where it was regularly seen by different groups, including Sea Watch, Sea Life Surveys, and the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT) until 2000. He then disappeared from view until being seen in a pod of 10 orcas between Tory Island and Malin Head, CountyDonegal, in September 2004, then off the Pembrokeshire coast in June 2008, and now this most recent sighting.
The sightings, say Sea Watch Director Peter Evans, who has worked closely with both IWDG and HWDT over many years to collate sightings and identify individual whales, suggest that the whole of this Hebridean killer whale community might have been on the move to distant pastures.
Dr Evans said: “What they were doing off County Mayo remains a mystery, but as elsewhere, these killer whales clearly regularly range over a very wide area. We have in the past followed this pod travelling more than 100 km in a single day down the entire chain of the Hebrides, and we’ve observed these individuals shift from feeding upon herring to going after seals”.
The piecing together of the movements of this group of killer whales was achieved through collaboration between the Irish Whale & Dolphin Group, Aberdeen University, Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust and Sea Watch Foundation.