A huge male killer whale, known to researchers as John Coe, has excited scientists from the Sea Watch Foundation by appearing close to shore off Girdleness and Peterhead this week- the first time he has been seen off the east coast in more than 20 years.
John Coe, identifiable by a very distinctive nick in his dorsal fin, has been known to Sea Watch since the late 1980s when Christopher Swann first coined his name. He is exceptionally well traveled, and has been recorded many times around West Scotland including west of the Outer Hebrides, as well as in past years off West Wales and western Ireland. In June, he was sighted with two of his regular companions off the coast of the Isle of Skye.
Until now, he had never been seen in the North Sea. But sightings this week of John Coe with two or three other smaller killer whales near Aberdeen on the east coast of Scotland are causing a major rethink on population ranges.
Sea Watch Director Peter Evans said: ” These confirmed sightings are shattering the idea that there is an exclusively west coast community of killer whales. They are clearly ranging further than we had thought, and presumably are seeking out prey in the region. Although some had thought that the northern and west coast communities not only had distinct ranges but specialised in taking different prey, they have been observed by Dr Evans in the Inner Hebrides moving from feeding upon fish to chasing harbour seals.
Killer whales are seen annually in the North Sea (but not commonly), but this is the first time that a member of the West Coast community has been seen here. They have been assumed to be confined to the west coast and not to overlap spatially with the Northern Community that ranges around the Northern Isles and Norwegian waters. We first saw John Coe in the 1980s. It was physically mature then which means that it is at least 40 years old and probably rather more. All sightings of John Coe until now have been on the west coast of Britain or Ireland, and mostly in the Hebrides.”
John Coe had been seen in a group of killer whales off John O’ Groats at the weekend, but it was Sea Watch’s South Grampian co-ordinator Kevin Hepworth who was next to positively see him.
He had been watching white-beaked dolphins off Girdleness on Tuesday morning when he saw a tall blow of water, indicating a whale. He says: “I had been expecting it to be a minke, but was hopeful it might be a humpback which we have had annually in the bay. I was totally unprepared for what it actually was! To my surprise and delight, it was a huge bull killer whale, only about 600m off the beach and slowly drifting northwards. The nick in the dorsal fin was very clear.”
He alerted fellow watchers and on Wednesday the same animal was video-ed off Peterhead together with up to three other killer whales.