The sighting of a pod of very rare Orcas caused great excitement on our August Skye and The Inner Hebrides Cruise. Our guest Tony Bradhurst managed to get some photos if the pod of 4 Orcas as our vessel was heading across Loch Snizort after leaving Portree on the morning of Tuesday August 5th heading to Dunvegan Castle.
Later that day as the vessel headed from Dunvegan Castle to Loch Harport, passing the most westerly point on Skye, the Orcas were seen again. Tony believes it was the same pod - the Orca with the notch in the back of its dorsal fin is in both lots of photos.
Orcas, also known as killer whales, are actually the largest members of the dolphin family. Excellent information is provided on the Scottish Orcas on theHebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT) website which we have borrowed from to provide this post.
There is only a small population in the Hebrides, which ranges over quite large distances, and is constantly on the move therefore sightings and encounters are rare. Groups of up to 8 animals have been recorded off the west coast of Scotland; different combinations of Orcas known to Hebridean HWDT have been seen together over many years; group composition appears to be fluid and can change between years. Adult animals can be individually identified by the size, shape and distinctive nicks and markings of their dorsal fins, and the HWDT photo-identification catalogue recognises about 10 individuals. However, HWDT think it is likely that there are Orcas in the area of the Hebrides that have not been photographically identified. Orcas can swim at speeds of 35 mph, which enable them to travel vast distances quickly. One of the most distinctive male animals, named ‘John Coe’, has been identified regularly since 1992 throughout the Hebrides as well as off the coast of Ireland, England and Wales.
HWDT has been studying the group for two decades and sadly, in that time there have been no calves recorded. It is likely that the females in the group are post-reproductive and due to their social isolation they are unlikely to recruit any killer whales from other populations. This means that the conservation status of this group is critical.
Orcas are very intelligent and can be inquisitive and approachable. They rarely bow-ride like the other species of dolphins seen regularly on our cruises. Globally they feed on fish, shark, octopus and squid, as well as birds, seals and other cetaceans. It is unclear what Orcas in the Hebrides feed on, although HWDT has one confirmed report of an animal killing a harbour porpoise. There have been no recorded incidents of aggression towards humans in the wild.
Distinctive features of Orcas
Adult orcas measure 5.5 to 9.5 metres in length and can live for up to 90 years; females are generally smaller and longer-lived than males. The robust body is mainly jet black, with a bright white lower jaw, side patch and eye patch. The belly is also white, as is the underside of the tail. There is a grey patch behind the dorsal fin, known as the ‘saddle-patch’. The adult males’ dorsal fin is the largest of all cetaceans at up to 1.8 metres and is an important identification feature. Females and young animals have a smaller falcate (curved) dorsal fin. Pectoral (side) fins in all animals are paddle-shaped.