Friday, 8 August 2014

Orcas - Always expect the unexpected

A moderate rain shower as we got under-way from Tobermory harbour for our Whalewatch Explorer on Monday 7th July. The natives would call it 'dreich' but the forecast said things would improve as the day went on. 

We were making our way through an area of sea nicknamed 'the middle grounds' which is a little bit more exposed and it was a bit of a bumpy crossing going into a force 3-4 westerly wind. Due to the welfare of all the passengers on board, the skipper (James) was contemplating turning around and focusing on more sheltered waters, but he did end up committing to the crossing to reach the leeward side of the isle of Coll. 

As we were approaching the sheltered coastline two French passengers shouted out in great excitement at something they had seen at eleven o'clock to the boats bow. Knowone knew what was seen for sure so we all persisted for a few minutes and then suddenly a huge black sail surfaced with two smaller fins surfacing just afterwards!...Orca!! After capturing some ID shots of the bull it was confirmed that it was the dominant male John Coe! Along with JC there were two cows and they were travelling on a direct course to the north at a good 6-7 knots with real intent. They surfaced with such arrogance like they own the sea, as is the case with the behaviour of all apex predators in their own environment.   

 A special encounter and while we were watching the animals the skipper James recalled how he remembered seeing John Coe when he was a 'wee boy' in the early 90s and he was so small he was looking through the railings as the bull surfaced metres from the boat. 

John Coe and three other orcas were reported off the isle of Harris the next evening (8th July) by Christian Latham to the HWDT so the animal had travelled eighty miles in twenty four hours! 

Wonderful observation skills and persistence by the French gentlemen to track the orca in challenging viewing conditions. It represented the rewards you can get from hard work, commitment and dedication to the natural world and I certainly remembered to thank them for helping provide a life changing moment in nature for all on board. 

John Coe was first identified in 1980 and named after a character in a poem in the early 1990s partly by Sea Life Surveys founder Richard Faribairns (Popz). He was mature when first recorded so he is at least 40 years old with wild orca recorded living until over 60. 

There are only nine individuals identified in the isolated pod of orca and they are known as the West Coast Community, which patrol huge areas of sea having been recorded down the entire length of Ireland's Atlantic seaboard, the southern Irish sea and also last year (2013) on the north east coast of Scotland in the Moray Firth. That is over five thousand miles of coastline so the odds of striking an encounter with the king of British seas and the rest of the group is slim, but the exciting thing is that you always have a got a chance!