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Orca Watch in Scotland

For the past few days, as part of its Shorewatch programme, WDC has been participating in the annual Orca Watch in Caithness in the very north of Scotland.

The event is run at this time of year to coincide with peak sightings of orcas that visit the Caithness coastline and the Northern Isles of Shetland and Orkney.

Orca Watch Week is an opportunity to engage with both the local community and the visitors who make the trip to this stunningly beautiful part of the country.

Depending on tides and, of course, the great British weather, everyone is invited to get involved in some orca watching from several prominent headlands in the area but most notably the lighthouse up at Duncansby Head.

In the week before we arrived, we had heard stories of two separate film crews – including BBC Springwatch – that saw orcas from the cliffs from practically the moment they arrived so we were hopeful for a great week ahead.

Caffeine, chocolate biscuits, wet weather gear, binoculars and cameras are the staple tools for all orca watchers and armed with this essential kit we settled down to scan the waters of the Pentland Firth which separates mainland Scotland from the Orkney Isles.

After a slow start where we quickly trained our eyes to appreciate the difference between the distant black flash of a gliding gannet’s wing from the dorsal fin of a harbour porpoise, we were rewarded with the sight of an elusive minke whale as it surfaced several times at the foot of the cliffs at Duncansby Head.

Rain soon stopped play and we retreated back to the car where we kept watching through the intermittent windscreen wipers while listening to the radio. Hotel Song, by Regina Spektor came on where she sings about orca whales so we all took that as a good sign.

Our music appreciation was interrupted by the sight of a huge splash – a humpback whale breaching about 300 metres off shore. We bundled out the car and caught up with Orca Watch coordinator, Colin Bird, who was watching the same scene. We watched as the whale continued to slap his or her huge pectoral flippers repeatedly against the surface before taking a deep dive and disappearing. Colin informed us this was the second humpback in two days he had seen. But still no orcas.

Later that day we did have two reports of orca: one from the Shetlands in the north where 6 whales were seen and one from Wick in the south where a local man had spotted 7 – 10 whales swim by. Wick was only 16 miles away so we set out at 7pm taking advantage of the long hours of daylight we get this time of year at this latitude. Even though we had several other reports that night we failed to catch up with them. It was good to know they were back in the area though.

Usually, when the whales head south along the coast they quite often, at some point, turn around and head back north. Clinging to this shaky theory we headed back up to the lighthouse the following morning and, sure enough, were met with reports that orcas had been sighted in Sinclair Bay just to the south of us and were heading our way.

Other keen watchers had spotted three orca outriders – two males and a female – just off the beach heading towards the harbour at John O’Groats as the cry went up that more were coming around the headland.

We chose our position along the cliff in time to see a further 6 – 7 whales file past just beneath us.

The mood amongst the crowd who had witnessed this orca procession was a mix of sheer awe, elation and gratitude at being in the right place at the right time.

In the evenings, when we weren’t scanning the waters of the Firth, WDC delivered an ‘Orca Evening’ in the main town of Thurso as well as several Shorewatch training events for those wanting to get more involved in local conservation. 

The orcas that frequent the Caithness coast at this time of year are thought to be a part of the Icelandic herring eating population. Their presence in Scotland coincides with the seal pupping season which raises the question that they may be switching prey at certain times of the year.

Our orca sightings bode well for the rest of Orca Watch week and in the next blog I will run through a complete list of all the sightings this spectacular coastline has produced.