Famous killer whale from 1977, “Dopey Dick” never left the neighborhood
In November 1977 a killer whale sparked intrigue when he swam up the River Foyle and into Derry City, apparently in pursuit of salmon. The whale remained 5 km upriver of Loch Foyle for two days. Incredulous at the sight and confused about its intentions, locals dubbed him “Dopey Dick” (presumably because Moby Dick was the only celebrity whale at that time!). Nearly four decades later, it has been revealed that “Dopey Dick” is the killer whale known more affectionately as “Comet” - a member of the highly vulnerable West Coast Community of killer whales.
The West Coast Community is at risk of imminent extinction. The Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust (HWDT) has been documenting the group’s movements and interactions since 1994, when the charity was established. The group – four males and four females – are not known to interact with other populations in the north-east Atlantic and since studies began, have never successfully reproduced. Sadly in January this year, one of the females, Lulu, perished and was found stranded on the Isle of Tiree.
The discovery was made when old photographs of ‘Dopey Dick’ were uploaded onto a Facebook page. Comet has been photographed many times in both Scotland and Ireland by researchers and members of the public, enabling scientists to track his movements. Killer whale expert Andy Foote and HWDT Science Officer Conor Ryan recognised the whale as “Comet”, who was last recorded by the Hebridean Whale & Dolphin off Dunvegan, Isle of Skye in September 2014.
The Trust encourages people to report their sightings using the online form found at www.hwdt.org. Photographs are extremely valuable when researching whales and dolphins as they allow scientists to identify individuals through unique markings.
Comet has a distinctive dorsal fin about 1.8 m in height: it leans to the right and has a notch near the top. Photographs confirm that he was an adult male (at least 19 years old) when seen in 1977 making him at least 58 years old today. The latest match was made possible thanks to the Scottish Orca Facebook page which shares great images of killer whales in Scottish waters.
This is significant because it confirms suspicions that some of the whales in the endangered West Coast Community are very old. They have not produced any calves since records began. Fears for their survival are heightened following recent discoveries that other killer whales in the region have very high pollutant burdens that can cause toxic effects including infertility.