The killer whale or orca (Orcinus Orca) is a particularly charismatic species of cetacean. This is undoubtedly a cultural occurrence that is thanks in part to their highly controversial presence in marine parks alongside starring in the popular 1993 film Free Willy.
Ecologically, the killer whale is a cosmopolitan species found in all the world’s major oceans and seas. This includes British waters, as these animals can be found off the coast of northern Scotland. There are in fact two communities of orca, one resident population on the west coast and one more transient population moving between Iceland, Shetland and the north east coast. It is this latter group that have proven to be of particular interest to the Cetacean Research and Rescue Unit, led by Dr Kevin Robinson. It has long been thought that orca feed only on fish or marine mammals depending upon their social group. Indeed, this strong, culture-driven behaviour has led some researchers to wryly denote them as the xenophobes of the sea. These whales however seem to be acting, quite atypically, as feeding upon local fish stocks, marine mammals, and seabirds alike.
This summer, I participated in a CRRU pilot project contributing to long-term studies of the Northeast Atlantic orca population, in an attempt to gain a better understanding of these animals.
I was able to develop basic power boat handling and competent crew ability, photo-identification procedures and mark capture-recapture analyses for dolphins and whales, community outreach, participation in shore-watches and received an introduction to biopsy procedures and use of hydrophone. This data would help determine whether this group are truly a new ecotype, using both genetic and dialect analysis. Genetic sampling can also provide information about pollutant levels, an urgency that is perhaps more poignantly felt following the death of Lulu, a well-known Scottish killer whale.
We covered a survey distance of 843.2 km however the killer whales were rather elusive to say the least, largely due to our inability to locate them in mostly inclement conditions. Nevertheless, we gathered a great deal of intelligence about the local area and how the orca may be using this geography.
Map: Conor Bamford
Despite the elusiveness of the orca, we had some fantastic encounters with other species including 50+ bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), some very active Risso’s (Grampus griseus), porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) and my first ever minke (Balaenoptera acutorostrata). And of course, a personal highlight of mine has to be the naming of a new dolphin after me in the CRRU database.
A huge thank you to Dr Kevin Robinson and the other members of the Orca Expedition Team 2017.
- Robinson K.P., Bamford C.C.G., Airey A., Bean T.S., Bird C., Haskins G.N., Sim T.M.C. & Evans P.G.H. (2016) ‘The occurrence of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the outer Moray Firth: incidental sightings, behavioural observations and individual identification‘. Aquatic Mammals 43:(1): 26–32.
- ‘UK killer whale died with extreme levels of toxic pollutants’, Damian Carrington
- ‘SeaWorld vs Blackfish: the film that introduced the world to the plight of Tilikum’,
- Icelandic Orca Project
The CRRU Orca Expedition 2017 was a collaboration with this research project.
‘Killer Whales: Beneath the Surface’ BBC Two TV Documentary
Icelandic orca research was also featured in this documentary, with images of the work conducted in Grundarfjörður.