West Side Story

The team are ready to announce the winning name chosen for the young female orca that lives in the pod known by scientists as the West Coast Community. Drumroll, please...

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The dorsal fin of a young female orca swimming in the sea.

Meet the newest member of the West Coast Community, a young female orca called Ocassus. 

The name means ‘sunset’ and ‘west’ in Latin – quite appropriate for a magnificent creature that patrols the western coasts of the British Isles, roughly from Pembrokeshire north to Shetland.

Until August, this particular orca or killer whale was known only as W010, according to a code researchers use to identify the different members of her pod. 

She was the tenth member of this group to be identified and named, using a combination of her unique dorsal fin shape and the extent of the pale saddle patch on her upper back.

What’s in a name? A little background may help…

 
In the July issue of BBC Wildlife, we published an article by Rob Lott, a marine mammal scientist for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. He told the story of Britain and Ireland’s very own resident orca pod, and of his own – so far unsuccessful – quest to see John Coe, one of the biggest adult males in the group.
 
The article revealed that when you’re able to put a name to an individual orca, you can, painstakingly, with many hours of observation, begin to piece together its life history. The animal’s complex relationships with the rest of its pod – and other pods – gradually start to take shape.
 
Orca scientists such as Dr Andy Foote maintain an online photo database of all the orcas they have got to know in the North Atlantic, from Icelandic waters south to the Straits of Gibraltar. It’s a bit like Facebook for orcas. Check out the West Coast Community page here.
 
At the end of the article we asked BBC Wildlife readers to come up with a suitable moniker for the only unnamed member of the West Coast Community. After all, it seemed unfair that she should be the only one to go without an honorific.
 
We were promptly deluged with suggestions. Some were maybe tongue-in-cheek (‘Sophie’? Perhaps that one was in honour of a well-known magazine editor). Some took their inspiration from local geography – we particularly liked ‘Iona’.
 
But in the end our judges chose... Occasus, suggested by Abi Gazzard. Well done Abi! And many thanks to Dr Foote and the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust for helping us choose the winner.
 
So what are your chances of seeing Occasus – or indeed any wild orca – in British waters?
 
Let’s be honest. Watching orcas ain’t easy – these predators are highly mobile and can comfortably swim 100km a day in pursuit of prey.
 
What’s more, the seas they inhabit can turn from millponds into boiling cauldrons in a matter of hours, you’re trying to keep upright on the deck of a churning boat – and keep your lunch down – and you often get only a brief glimpse of the orcas’ fins as they surface between dives.
 
But I’m reliably told that just about the best place in the UK to encounter wild orcas (and otters, breeding storm petrels and much else besides) is Orca Island – otherwise known as Shetland.
 
Go in July and try watching from Sumburgh Head or spend a day going back and forth on the Yell Sound ferry.
 
You can read about the remarkable Shetland adventure of BBC Wildlife environment editor James Fair here.
 
If you can’t get that far, you might just get lucky and spot those tell-tale, 2m-high dorsal fins on a boat trip off the Pembrokeshire coast in late May or June, or in Scotland’s Western Isles any time during the summer. The waters around Mull and the Treshnish Isles and to the south of Skye are particular hotspots.
 

One final thought. Many cetacean conservationists refer to Orcinus orca as the ‘orca’, whereas marine biologists and scientific journals usually opt for ‘killer whale’. Don’t ask me why!

 

Ben is features editor of BBC Wildlife Magazine. To find out more, click here.  

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