The 5th Annual Sea Watch Foundation Orca Watch Week 2016 took place from the 21st to the 28th of May and it was the most successful year to date!
The aim of the week is to collect vital data on the both the orca and other whale and dolphin species that pass through the Pentland firth. The watch week is chosen as it coincides with the annual passage of Orca from Iceland to hunting areas around Orkney and the Pentland Firth.
Many dedicated volunteers spent hours and days at Duncansbyhead, John O Groats, tirelessly watching the water for signs of cetaceans. At this point we must thank the most dedicated seawatching team of Phil, Peter, Rachael and Peter who gave many extra hours to the watch (resulting in some very wind burnt faces) thank you all. And of course Colin Bird, Orca Watch founder who, as always, out lasted us all! These hardy watchers were rewarded with not one but 16 orca sightings over the course of the week. As well as the orca there was also harbour porpoise, minke whale and an unidentified dolphin species spotted, seabirds galore and quite a bit of sunshine! Perfect!
2016’s Orca Watch week saw both the return of old friends and a great number of new faces, some of whom who had travelled long distances to join us for the watch. That so many people can meet and share their joy of seeing a cetacean is very special. I was lucky to speak to many of the people who attended the watch and to hear the stories of why they are passionate about whales and dolphins.
Whale and Dolphin Conservation were also at this year’s event holding many successful talks and shorewatch workshops. Their team of shorewatch volunteers spent many hours watching both from land and by boat, adding to the invaluable data collected over the week. Both the Highland Council rangers and RSPB led guided walks along the coast, showing visitors the other species found along the coast from seabirds to wild flowers. Huge thanks goes to Ivor and the John O Groats ferry team who both keep us up to date with sightings of whales and also allowed us to conduct boat based surveys from the ferry. It took many people coming together to make this Orca Watch such a success.
2016 Orca Watch week was extra special for me, as after 3 years of helping at the watch I FINALLY had my first orca sighting! It was on the first Sunday of the watch, which was also (luckily) the busiest day. There were over 50 people at Duncansbyhead when we heard a shout from the keen eyed Tibor of “ORCA” I haven’t run that quickly in a very long time! There were 5 orcas in the distance, one very obviously a large bull, with his enormous dorsal fin cutting black against the grey of the sea. I am not embarrassed to say I had a tear in my eye when I saw them, I was very, very happy and felt very, very lucky. It turned out that this group was one of the Icelandic groups that had a very young calf with them. We know this because we can use photographic ID to tell individual whales apart. This is why watches like these are so important, because we know what this whale looks like we can monitor his movements between Iceland and Scotland, monitor population trends and even individual health. The more we know about the orca the easier it is to protect them.
If you are interested in getting involved, then Orca week 2017 will take place from the 20th to the 27th of May 2017. You can also join Sea Watch and do your own sea watching until then, you can see whales and dolphins all around the UKs coastline- more details are available on the website. I hope to see many of you at Orca Watch next year.
Written by: Anna Jemmett, Sea Watch Foundation Regional Co-ordinator