'Once in a lifetime' experience as west coast killer whales appear off Caithness
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An experienced sea-watcher has described an orca encounter off the east coast of Caithness yesterday as a "once-in-a-lifetime" event.
Colin Bird was scanning the coastline from Swiney Hill, above Lybster, when he spotted two adult males belonging to the west coast community of killer whales.
Known as John Coe and Aquarius, they had never been reported in Caithness waters before. The pair were later seen from Clyth, Sarclet, the Trinkie, Staxigoe, Noss Head, Duncansby Head and Stroma as they headed north.
Colin was able to identify John Coe from a distinctive notch on the back of the dorsal fin. He quickly alerted Latheronwheel-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation volunteer Andy Knight, who caught up with the orcas as they passed Clyth and took a picture that confirmed the sighting.
Orca enthusiast Karen Munro, who lives at Scrabster, was also kept informed and she managed to photograph John Coe and Aquarius as they continued northwards.
Colin (71) founded the annual Orca Watch in 2012 when he was regional coordinator for the Sea Watch Foundation. He lives in Lybster and regularly checks for passing cetaceans from the Swiney Hill viewpoint.
He said it was by "pure chance" that he observed the killer whales just before 10am on Thursday.
“They were probably 200 metres out from the cliff edge," Colin said. "I always look right towards Berriedale and look left across Lybster Bay, and I was watching those two areas from time to time.
"It was pointless looking too far out because the sea was rough. There was a one-metre swell, there were whitecaps cresting waves... it was not ideal for sea-watching.
“Normally I would have said 'this is a waste of time' and gone home. But for some reason I thought I'd give it a while.
"I watched the sunrise at nine o'clock, which was quite impressive. I started scanning around with my binoculars – they're 20x80, so they're on a tripod.
"I kept hearing splashing but I couldn't see where it was coming from. I spun the binoculars round and they were there, almost filling the binoculars.
"They were moving slowly on the surface and going down. I must have watched them for about eight to 10 seconds and the thing I noticed straight away was the big chunk missing from the bottom of the dorsal fin – that was leading, the other one was just behind, and they were at a slight angle away from me.
"I had a good look. I didn't see any white on them – they weren't far enough out of the water. But I saw the dorsal fin and I thought, 'That is John Coe, without a doubt.' It is very distinctive.”
Asked how the experience ranked among his many other orca sightings over the years, Colin replied: “That is a once-in-a-lifetime one. To see that particular one off Caithness is unbelievable."
He added: “The big question coming into most people's minds is: which way did they come? Did they come along the north coast, down the east coast, not seen in the rough weather, and then turn round and come back up?
“They've been missing for about five months so one wonders whether they went down to Cornwall, through the Channel and up that side.
“It seems unlikely they'd go that way, because it's such a long way to go. But it does make you wonder.”
The last glimpse of John Coe and Aquarius was towards dusk, around 3.20pm, off Stroma lighthouse.
Colin has found that the main period for orca-spotting from the Caithness coast has gradually extended from spring through to late summer.
“April through to June used to be the best period but now it seems to have changed," he said. "It seems to be early April right through to about July and even into August.
"It has changed over the years. I can't explain why – it could be something to do with their food sourcing. It's more unpredictable than it used to be.”
Karen Munro was delighted that it was Colin who made the initial sighting.
"It was an unbelievable day, and all thanks to Colin Bird," she said. "I can't begin to tell you how happy I am that it was Colin who spotted them first. Nobody has put more time into Caithness cetaceans and he was the founder of the annual Orca Watch.
"None of the west coast community orcas have ever been identified in Caithness waters, nor Orkney or Shetland for that matter, so Thursday's sighting was a big deal for the regular watchers in the county.
"The orcas we usually see here are from the northern isles community.
"Colin messaged at 10am to say he had just spotted John Coe passing Swiney Hill, moving slowly north. I was a little taken back, to say the least – but I knew there was no way Colin was calling that unless it was a definite.
"As I was driving over to the east coast I was on the hands-free to fellow orca-watcher Steve Truluck, who lives in Moray. He knows these two individuals well and I was asking him his thoughts.
"Steve told me if they were staying relatively close to shore then he estimated they would be at Clyth by that point [11am] and then Sarclet around midday.
"Within minutes of this conversation, he said Andy Knight had just posted to say that the two bull orcas had just passed Clyth and that he had also posted a photo which showed them still relatively close to shore.
"So I made my way to Sarclet and sure enough, a little before noon, they appeared relatively close to shore – much to the delight of everyone watching and in keeping with Steve's time prediction.
"After that they passed by the Trinkie, Papigoe, Staxigoe and Noss Head, moved a little further offshore by the time they reached Auckengill, but came back close in shore for one final close encounter at Duncansby Head.
"We last saw them heading towards the Stroma lighthouse, by which time the light was going and the wind had picked up."
Karen pointed out that the two killer whales can travel over great distances, sometimes over 100km a day. "They also feature on the front cover of our Scottish Killer Whale Photo Identification Catalogue, and John Coe is number one in that catalogue."
She added: "It was a great day, and very unexpected for all the sea-watchers in the county."