*PRESS RELEASE* Mystery killer whale pod investigated off Scotland’s west coast
The identity of a group of nine killer whales off Scotland’s west coast, encountered during the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust’s annual marine research expeditions last year, remains a mystery – despite extensive research and a flurry of sightings of killer whales in the Hebrides over recent weeks.
The Trust now hopes to encounter the mystery pod again during its surveys this summer. It says that the unexplained killer whale pod sighting highlights how much there is still to learn about the remarkable marine life in Hebridean waters, and the need for long-term monitoring of cetaceans – the collective name for whales, dolphins and porpoises – and basking sharks.
The unidentified killer whales – which included two large males and two juveniles – were seen just 300 metres away from the charity’s research yacht Silurian after it left an anchorage at Vatersay last June. The animals were observed for some 30 minutes, with one of the males even swimming over to Silurian to have a closer look at the boat and crew.
Because it has not been possible to find a match with any known individuals for the mystery killer whales, researchers have suggested these animals may belong to part of a wider offshore population of killer whales that roam Scottish seas.
Globally, killer whales – also known as orcas – are one of the most widespread cetaceans, and they range from warm tropical waters to the polar regions.
There are two well-known communities of killer whales found in Scottish waters, and there have been several sightings of animals from both of these groups in recent weeks.
The wide-ranging West Coast Community can be seen along the whole west coast of the UK, with most sightings in the Hebrides. This group – the most frequently seen or reported to the Trust, and which consists of eight individuals at most – is at imminent risk of extinction, as the Trust has recorded no calves in 25 years of monitoring. There have only been confirmed sightings of two individuals – the males John Coe and Aquarius – in recent years.
On 8 July, Hebridean Whale Cruises spotted two members of the West Coast Community out of Gairloch. There was another reported sighting of the animals on 14 July, off County Clare in Ireland.
Scotland’s other group of killer whales, the Northern Isles Community, is mainly seen around Orkney, Shetland and the north coast of Scotland. Five of its members – including a well-known and highly recognisable male called Busta, and a female called Razor – were spotted on the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust’s most recent research expedition, as Silurian made her way into Loch Laxford, just north of Handa Island on 30 June.
Five individuals from the Northern Isles Community swimming around Silurian as she approached Loch Laxford, June 2019
Each year Silurian travels thousands of nautical miles to survey the seas off Scotland’s west coast for cetaceans and basking sharks. The latest sightings show how exciting the expedition surveys can be. Whether it’s spotting a mystery group of killer whales or seeing resident or regular visitors, each of the Trust’s surveys is different, with the opportunity to learn something new.
These surveys rely on volunteers who work alongside researchers as citizen scientists to record sightings of marine animals and seabirds, assess human impacts such as marine debris, and monitor sounds using an underwater microphone. The crew spends the days scanning the seas for wildlife, and the evenings exploring some of the most remote and beautiful anchorages on the west coast.
With marine mammals at risk from human activities including climate change, entanglement, pollution, underwater noise and habitat degradation, ongoing and long-term research is crucial to improve understanding of the impacts on cetaceans, and how to protect them.
The Trust is looking for volunteers to join its team onboard Silurian for one to two week surveys running between now and October 2020. Anyone can take part, with some trips held specifically for 16 to 17 year olds. Participation costs cover boat expenses, accommodation, training, food and insurance, and support the charity’s research. For details, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, call 01688 302620, or visit hwdt.org/silurian.
The Hebrides is one of Europe’s most important areas for cetaceans, with 23 of the world’s estimated 92 species recorded – including many species of national and international conservation importance.