Famous killer whale from 1977, “Dopey Dick” never left the neighborhood

 Comet the killer whale, one of the endangered West Coast Community

Comet the killer whale, one of the endangered West Coast Community

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. 

When I saw the photos on Facebook, I noticed that the white eye patch of ‘Dopey Dick’ sloped backwards in a really distinctive fashion. This is a trait we see in all the West Coast Community whales, but it’s not that common in other killer whale populations. The photographs were all quite grainy, but it was still possible to see some of the distinctive features unique to “Comet”. I couldn’t believe it, he was already a full grown male back in 1977, when I was just 5-years old!
— Dr Andy Foote
Most of what we know about this precariously small and isolated population comes from photographs submitted to us by members of the public. The population is too small to study in a targeted way, so the public have a big role to play.
— HWDT Science Officer, Dr Conor Ryan

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.

This match places Comet very much at the upper limits of the typical life expectancy of male killer whales. Adult males generally live to around 30 years, but with an upper range of 50-60 years. So clearly time is not only running out for this individual whale, it is equally running out for whale biologists, who may not have much time left to gather information on this unique local population of killer whales that have made the waters of the British Isles their home.
— Pádraig Whooley, Sightings Officer of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group

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.

 2 males and 2 females from the West Coast Community surface

2 males and 2 females from the West Coast Community surface