Colin Bird and Karen Munro have been watching orcas in Scottish waters for more than ten years. They record orca sightings off the Caithness coast in Scotland, working closely with researchers who hold the identification catalogues for orcas in the North Atlantic.
Colin and Karen started the Caithness Sea Watching Facebook page that shares sightings with the general public and Colin also founded the Orca Watch week, which attracts local and international visitors to Caithness each year to see the orcas.
Sam: How did you become involved in watching the orcas that visit Scotland’s coast and how long have you been watching them for?
Colin: That goes back to 2004 when I started sea watching for the Sea Watch Foundation. Orcas were just another cetacean [whale, dolphin and porpoise] for me to record and I knew no more than what I had read in various books. It wasn't until Dr. Andy Foote gave a presentation before he started studying the Scottish orca and compiling the identification catalogue that I became more interested. I can now recognise the orcas, providing they come close or I can get a picture.
Karen: I also became interested in cetaceans in 2004 having seen some whales and dolphins in Thurso Bay from our house. When I started hearing and seeing photos of orcas nearby, I was really keen to see them. I really made an effort to start looking for them in the summer of 2005 and had my first sighting in June 2006. Not long after this sighting, I attended a talk by Dr. Andy Foote on orcas and his fieldwork in Scotland. This got me interested in their movements and it just went from there.
Sam: What can you tell us about the orcas that visit Scotland's waters?
Karen: The ones we are seeing here in Caithness are from the Northern Isles community, and are a separate group from the Western Isles community. One pod that visits Caithness in the summer is known to winter in Iceland, so obviously travels a great distance each year. We know that this particular pod feed on herring whilst in Iceland, but then hunt seals whilst in Scotland.
Two of the other pods we see around Caithness some summers have been photographed in Scottish waters during the Autumn and Winter months and have not, to my knowledge, been photographed outside of Scottish waters. These orcas are presumed to winter in the North Atlantic/North Sea waters off Shetland.
In Caithness I have seen orcas kill and feed on seals, feed on fish and on the very first Orca Watch, we witnessed a group of orcas hunt down a white-beaked dolphin. Their diet can be quite varied whilst in Caithness.
Colin: We also know that the U.K.'s West Coast Community population has visited the Moray Firth, led by one famous orca known as 'John Coe'. This sighting was thanks to pictures taken by a boat operator. During this year's Watch, another orca (not belonging to the West Coast Community) was seen in the Moray Firth; this is the furthest south that these have been recorded.
The peak time for orca around the Scottish mainland is between May and July, although last year they were seen in January and then from March to September.
Sam: What do you do with the information and photos that you collect?
Colin: They are passed on via Karen to Andy and to the Sea Watch Foundation for entry into the National Database.
Karen: I only recently discovered that one I saw in Iceland during 2014 was in fact one that visits us here in Scotland. His left-hand saddle patch had changed quite significantly since the last photo I had taken back in 2008, so I did not recognise it at the time. We don’t get too many photographs each year in Scotland, and usually the photos are only good enough to identify individuals with significant features. For example, one female known as 'Mousa' sighted in both Icelandic and Scottish waters has a large notch in the centre of her dorsal. Luckily, Andy responds very quickly with identification for any animals unknown to us. We also send everything we collect onto Dr. Filipa Samarra of the Icelandic Orca Project and post on the Caithness Sea Watching social media page for anyone who is interested.
Sam: Why did you set up the Caithness Sea Watching page and how has it helped you?
Colin: The Caithness Sea Watching page was set up on Facebook to engage and encourage the local community to sea watch and feed back their information. It was Karen's brainchild and it's very popular, not just in the U.K., but also internationally and with a number of scientists.
Sharing information through citizen science projects like this one is always important; that's how we learn and support scientists. Very few people even in Caithness knew little about orcas and other cetaceans. In some cases, they were unaware that they could be seen around the Caithness coast. Publishing when orcas are about enables us to track their movements and to get someone with a good camera to a location on the orcas' route. By doing this, we can get those very important identification pictures that are needed. Orcas are easy to track along our coastline, but without the Facebook page, that wouldn't be possible.
Karen: I can't begin to tell you how much work Colin has put into this page over the years. The more information that is gathered, the better for those studying the animals, and it’s nice to know you have played a small part in it. It also goes to show anyone can get involved. I also love it when people get to see the orcas and thanks to our network of sharing information, the list of people who want to see them but haven't is getting smaller.
Sam: Can you tell us more about the Orca Watch week that takes place in Caithness each year?
Colin: I set up the Orca Watch in 2012 with the support of the Sea Watch Foundation. It was after I attended a meeting with representatives from the company MeyGen, which intends to harness the tidal power of the Pentland Firth. I soon realised that although we knew what cetaceans were seen in the Pentland Firth, we didn't know about the areas they passed through and therefore, what risk these underwater turbines posed.
The Watch was so named because I considered orca to be at greatest risk from the turbines; they feed on seals within the Pentland Firth and I had seen them feeding in the area where these turbines are going to go. I decided that a one week intensive watch in late May would provide the answers we needed. And it has been successful because we are getting as many people watching as possible.
Sam: What impact do you think the turbines could have on orcas?
Colin: No one really knows what effect underwater turbines will have on orcas. Scientists think that cetaceans will detect them with their echolocation, which is probably true. But it's unclear whether they can detect the movement of the rotating blades. Studies of wind turbines on land have suggested that birds have problems with rotating blades and are being killed. Where wind turbines turn at 12 rotations a minute, underwater turbines only rotate three-five times a minute. It boils down to whether cetaceans understand and can adjust for the fact the blades are moving.
It's also unknown how development will impact cetaceans. A Danish study found that during the development of wind turbines, Harbour porpoises were frightened away, although they did in fact return when the development was complete. Under water turbines are very different because the only reports that have been published relate to some turbines that have been installed in a sea loch in Ireland - the report said that seals avoid going near them.
Sam: Why is it important people get involved with watching for orcas off the Scottish coast?
Karen: We are starting to see a small network of people getting interested in the movement of our killer whales, especially the Icelandic group. The more sightings we are getting especially with photos that ID individuals is a great help to the scientists studying them. And I personally want as many people as possible to see these amazing animals in their natural environment, not some swimming pool in Florida or elsewhere. Once most people see them in their natural environment and learn the distances they travel in their family groups, they begin to realise just how cruel it is to keep such creatures in captivity.
Thank you for chatting with us about Scotland's orcas Colin & Karen!
Visit the Caithness Sea Watching page to keep up-to-date with and report your sightings of orcas off Scotland's coast.