Wilderness guide and wildlife expert Jonathan Willet shares his experience and research on how to spot killer whales (orcas) in Scotland.
These amazing animals are the biggest members of the dolphin family. They are truly enormous. The biggest one ever measured was a male 30ft (9.6m) long and 10 tonnes in weight. The ones seen in Scottish Waters are closer to 21 feet long (7m) and 6 tonnes, but that is still a lot of dolphin.
The Latin name for killer whales is orcinus orca, which means the whale of the kingdom of the dead.
Some authorities think that the name Killer Whale came from the Basque whalers of the 18th century who named it the whale killer as some groups do specialise in killing whales. Orca has become the more commonly used name recently as killer is somewhat pejorative and they aren’t whales; mind you orca does mean whale in Latin.
Summer is the best time to see these magnificent creatures usually from May to July when the common seals are pupping.
Any areas with lots of seal pups are good places to look for orcas, so Orkney, Shetland and the Pentland Firth. The seal eaters are from the Icelandic population and follow the Herring shoals (and trawlers) south and stay for the seal feast. Photo identification has shown that between 1-200 individuals are regularly visiting these waters in the summer. A few have been spotted during our Wilderness Scotland trips over the years, often around the Inner Hebrides and Skye.
There is a resident West Coast population that ranges from the Outer Hebrides to Galway all year round. It is made up of ten individuals, five males and 5 females. In 20 years of study they have never been seen with a calf, so it is thought they are post-reproductive. This population does not communicate or mix with the fish eater from the north but specialises in hunting other cetaceans up to the size of a minke whale. Some scientists think that they are most closely related to the antarctic orca.
If you look at www.atlantickillerwhales.com you can see pictures of their dorsal fins and colouration. The big male “John Coe” has a notch at the base of his dorsal fin making him easy to identify.
If you see a killer whale report your sighting on the Killer Whale Hotline 07500 380 524. Our trips occasionally come across orcas by boat, while sea kayaking or just viewing from the shore.
We also specialise in Wildlife walking trips where you can go on an adventure in Scotland’s landscapes and witness the diverse nature that lives within.
Check out Wilderness Scotland’s article about 5 different types of wildlife that can be found in the Scottish area.