Sunday, 5 August 2018

Orca!


I knew that orca had been sighted in the Caithness area in the days before I left home for a week in the far north of Scotland, thanks to a series of messages being posted on the "Caithness and North Sutherland Cetacean sightings" Facebook group, but catching up with them was always going to be a challenge. They seemed pretty wide ranging, often going north into the Orkney archipelago as well as all around the coast to the west and south. I resigned myself to the fact that they were just the stuff of dreams, something to look out for while I was in the area, but not a serious proposition.

The town of Lossiemouth is on the most northerly point of the south coast of the Moray Firth near Inverness, and it can be hard to believe that from here there is still enough land left in the UK for you to be able to drive north for another four hours, but that's exactly what I was faced with today as I left my hotel and started my journey to Melvich on the extreme north coast of Scotland.

When I set off I had no intention of looking for orca, they were something I might look for on another day, today was just a day of travel. However, soon I received news that a family party of seven orca had been seen passing Duncansby Head near John O'Groats and later they were seen feeding to the north of Freswick Bay. I was tempted but would they hang around? It seemed the perfect day for viewing, with good light and relatively flat calm seas with just a light breeze, so I decided that it was just too good an opportunity to miss and I set my SatNav for John O'Groats.


I think that this is probably a male orca, perhaps a youth rather than an adult, based on the size and shape of the dorsal fin

Duncansby Head lies a mile or two to the north east of John O'Groats, a small, scattered village famous for being the most northerly inhabited point of mainland Britain. The scenery here is dominated by the islands of Orkney, less than 10 miles away to the north, whilst to the south lie the oddly shaped Stacks of Duncansby with their mighty cliffs and seabird colonies. It's a very wild and remote place, where the Pentland Firth meets the North Sea and though never matching the west coast for seascapes and rugged beauty, it has a remoteness almost unique in mainland Britain. None of that matters to me now though, Duncansby Head will be forever associated with surely the most dramatic and exciting wildlife experience of my life.

However all of that still seemed a long way off and the orca were still a dream, because at the moment that I set the SatNav for John O'Groats I was still a good two hour drive from where I needed to be. Would the orca stick around for that long?


After a long and thankfully uneventful drive I finally arrived at the car park at Duncansby Head and found that there were no obvious signs of whale watchers never mind whales. After such a long drive it would have been reassuring to have seen people looking out to sea through binoculars or telescopes, but if they were here then they were keeping a low profile and it looked like I'd have to do it alone. Unsure of what to do next and not even certain that I was in the right place for viewing, I headed to the highest point on the headland, the place that gave me the widest field of view, across the Pentland Firth to the north and the North Sea to the east.

The sea wasn't quite like glass, but it was probably as flat as it gets up here and the light was perfect. Surely if orcas were out there I'd see them? But no, there was nothing, not even a dolphin or a porpoise. All I could do was sit it out and wait and hope...


I didn't have long to wait! Suddenly I noticed something large moving through the water close in to the cliffs. I held my breath - surely not? Then I saw the dorsal fin.... incredibly it was two orca swimming right towards me! I allowed myself a moments celebration to fully take in the experience before realising that I could get a lot closer, I abandoned my vantage point and ran down to a fence at the top of the cliff, some 100m closer to the water. The orca were still coming towards me! They appeared to be a male and female and they were pursued by a boat full of camera wielding tourists.


These photos don't really convey well the size of these animals, it's only when you have something familiar to compare them with that it becomes obvious.

Note the guillemot flying towards the orca, which helps give a sense of scale to the photo. The RSPB website gives the a wingspan of a guillemot as 64-73cm and its body length as 38-45cm. That dorsal fin must be at least 2.5x the length of the wingspan of the bird, making it around 1.8m (6ft) and making this probably a full grown adult male orca. The males can grow up to 9.8m!


One of the orca twisted over and then arched out of the water  before raising and slapping it's tail. I'm no cetacean expert, but in my opinion this was a sign that it was not happy with the boat. I know that tail slaps are not always negative, but in this case I believe that it was. The boat was almost herding the animals in towards the cliffs. And where were the other five? How come these orca were separated from the rest?


When the boat came up alongside this animal, its size was very apparent, it was huge, maybe half the length of the boat.




I've seen humpbacks behave like this in Australia, so I am aware that tail slaps are not always a sign of an agitated animal.





This is a photo that I never thought I would take anywhere in the world, let alone in UK waters and from the mainland. To see an orca break the surface is one thing, to see it underwater like this is just a staggering experience, and especially so from mainland Britain. I have to pinch myself to remember that I was standing on the mainland when I took this photo, not on some remote Scottish island group, or on a guided boat tour miles out at sea, no, I was standing alone on the Scottish mainland. Like I said, staggering, the greatest wildlife experience of my life, enhanced because although I knew that they had been in the area, it felt like I'd found them for myself.

I guess that this is either a young male or a female. Look at the size of the animal behind it but further under the water. I'm pretty sure that this is the adult male from the previous photos.

Eventually the orcas disappeared around the headland and I thought that I had seen the last of them and I had a walk to the stacks. However, on returning to my vantage point a little later, I noticed a boat stopped a respectable distance from what I took to be dolphins about half a mile out at sea. Closer investigation revealed that they were actually the orcas again, but this time all seven were together, and the animals which I had thought were dolphins were actually baby orcas with dolphin like curved dorsal fins. I watched them for about another 20 minutes until it started to rain and I decided that I needed to continue my journey.

What a fantastic day. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned that I called in briefly at Findhorn near Lossiemouth this morning and jamed onto a group of birders watching a stunning adult Pacific golden plover in full summer plumage. That's been almost forgotten now...





Don't forget me! I was good too! Only my third ever Pacific golden plover in the UK and what a cracker, easily the best looking individual I've seen. This bird was at Findhorn, right at the start of my adventure today. Next time I see one of these will probably be back in Australia later this year.


The Stacks of Duncansby.


Duncansby lighthouse with Orkney behind.

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