Killer whale (orca)

Only recently have researchers, primarily Dr. Andy Foote of Aberdeen University, uncovered the facts about the orca populations found off our coasts. While the pods found off the northern and eastern coasts are migratory, following the mackerel and herring shoals, the small population seen off the west coast are resident year round and number only nine individuals. These nine, dubbed the ‘West Coast Community’, never interact with the migratory pods and never has a calf been recorded within the group.

Orcas are instantly recognisable; large black dorsal fins (an adult male’s dorsal can stand 6 foot!) and distinctive white and black colouration. Orcas are actually the largest member of the dolphin family; – the name ‘killer whale’ comes from the fact that some populations prey on whales.

Orcas are highly mobile and can travel at speeds of 35 mph, which enables them to travel vast distances in short periods of time. The animals are very intelligent and can be inquisitive; approaching boats, spy hopping and tail slapping. While the migratory orca pods are opportunistic feeders and will eat a variety of prey (including eider ducks!) the small pod off the west coast are thought to be exclusively marine mammal eaters.

Thanks to the Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust for this information.

The west coast community can be seen through-out the year - however, with such small numbers and a huge range, you’re very lucky to encounter them.

Hotspots include around the Small Isles and Skye. However, pods in the north can be regularly seen from head lands in the summer months, particularly off Shetland, Orkney and Caithness.

While recent discoveries are interesting there is still a lot to learn and you can help. If you spot an orca please report the sighting to the Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust (www.hwdt.org). Moreover, if you manage to take an image of its dorsal fin please send that too – HWDT can identify the individual, allowing for a more detailed picture of their movements to be built.

Bottlenose dolphin

Bottlenose dolphin

Tursiops truncatus

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Common seal

Common seal

Phoca vitulina

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Grey seal

Grey seal

Halichoerus grypus

The larger of the two seals found around the British coastline. Two key field identification points are its relatively deep, long muzzle when seen in profile “hauled out” on land, and when seen face-on in the water their closed nostrils with almost...

Minke whale

Minke whale

Balaenoptera acutorostrata

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