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Orca sighting off Caithness solves scientific riddle

By Catriona Metcalf

The fin of one of the orcas spotted by lucky boat trip viewers.
The fin of one of the orcas spotted by lucky boat trip viewers.

Within-year movements of the creatures from one country to another, spending the winter taking advantage of the herring bonanza and in the summer going elsewhere, had long been believed to be the case, but had not been confirmed.

Caithness Seacoast skipper William Munro said: "We’ve been doing small trips recently for locals who are keen and we head out if we find a weather window.

"It’s been quite popular and we go around places like Noss Head, Buchollie Castle, Duncansby Stacks and the Pentland Skerries.

"We took in the seals and a famous shipwreck and just west of Muckle Skerry we saw the orcas."

First spotting what he thought to be a puff of smoke, Mr Munro soon realised what he was seeing was the vent holes of the orcas.

"We brought the boat to a near stop and they came to investigate us to what must have sometimes been less than 10 metres away," he said.

"They’re very inquisitive and we’d had reports of orcas being spotted in the firth, so we had an idea there must be something around. We stopped for about 20 minutes but had to get going in the end because it was getting late.

"One of our passengers, Fergus Mather, is a very good photographer and he managed to get a picture of a fin profile, which we posted on our Caithness Seacoast Facebook page the next day."

Mr Munro said almost immediately there was interest because the Facebook page is linked to various other wildlife sites, including Caithness Sea Watching, which in turn is followed by other wildlife enthusiasts.

"A few UK sites picked it up and then a girl in Iceland, Filipa Samarra, spotted it and apparently Fergus’s picture had managed to allow the identification of an older female from Iceland, IF-4," said Mr Munro.

IF-4 was first identified in the 1980s and just a few months ago she was being followed by researchers sailing the waters of Kolgrafafjordur in Iceland.

The scientists are conducting a study gathering years of photographs to look at the movements of orcas around Icelandic waters and other locations where they might be found, such as Scotland.

They rely on contributions from local tour operators and the public to help them in their understanding of where the whales go throughout the year.

"It’s just a matter of being there at the right time," said Mr Munro. "We’d been out for a couple of hours that night and were just lucky.

"Our tours sometimes involve looking for seals and we know when we can’t find them that the orcas are probably in the area, so they must be around quite often."

The company’s main trips will be starting again in the summer and the fantastic wildlife on offer around the coastline was pointed out by Mr Munro, who said most locals did not realise it was there.

"The puffins at Duncansby Head are amazing right now and we regularly take retired Wickers out who have no idea whatsoever what’s out there to see," he said.

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