Orcas in the British Isles

You don’t need to travel overseas to encounter orcas. Rob Lott introduces the largest, most exciting hunters in British waters – and wonders if our only resident pod has a future here.

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Male orca surfacing with dorsal fin slicing through the water.
You don’t need to travel overseas to encounter orcas. Rob Lott introduces the largest, most exciting hunters in British waters – and wonders if our only resident pod has a future here.
 
Missed him again! I’m in my local pub in Wiltshire when I receive a call from another avid cetacean watcher who has just been on a dolphin-watching trip in the Irish Sea.
 
“You’ll never guess who I saw today!” she says. I instantly know she means John Coe – an adult male orca, icon of Britain’s west coast and one of the most distinctive animals in our waters.
 
John Coe has a tell-tale notch low down in the rear of his dorsal fin, and for the past few years I have been receiving a steady stream of calls and emails from people who have spotted him.
 
But due to sheer bad luck, I’ve never managed to be in the right place at the right time and have yet to glimpse the mighty hunter for myself. I wonder if our paths will ever cross, and sip my beer ruefully.
 
Old-timer
 

John Coe is named after a character in a poem. He was given the epithet in the early 1990s by the skipper of a sailboat on a Sea Watch Foundation survey of cetaceans in the Western Isles. But he was first identified in 1980, when the use of photographs to recognise, and thus track, individual orcas was still in its infancy in Britain.

 
The photo-ID technique was pioneered by orca researchers in the north-west Pacific in the early 1970s. It relies on the fact that an orca can be recognised by its unique markings – particularly the nicks, scars and scratches on its dorsal fin and the size and shape of the grey ‘saddle’ patch immediately behind it.
 
This is a huge help to researchers, who are able to gather important data about the group structure, social interactions and migrations of different orca pods.
 
John Coe, or W01 as he is also known, was already an adult when photos of him first appeared in the fledgling British orca database three decades ago. That makes him at least 40 years old now. Since male orcas can live for over 60 years in the wild, he could evade me for some time yet…
 
West side story
 
The pod to which John Coe belongs is called the West Coast Community. It’s a resident, British and Irish group currently made up of four males and five females. These orcas patrol a huge area to the west of the British Isles, from the southern Irish Sea north to the Outer Hebrides and west along the entire length of Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard.
 
The dedicated army of orca watchers braving choppy seas and gale-lashed headlands to track these individuals is, slowly but surely, building up a detailed map of the pod’s annual movements.
 
Orca community
 
Some reports of John Coe, the pod’s best-known member, come from Pembrokeshire in late May and June. But he seems to be just passing through with the rest of his pod, on his way north.
 
The west coast of Scotland is John Coe’s main home: the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust often records him in the stretch of water between the Isle of Mull and the islands of Coll and Tiree. The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group has also started to log him off the west Irish coast.
 
The orcas in the West Coast Community are often spotted en masse, but also in smaller groupings, and some of them seem to prefer the company of certain individuals. John Coe, for instance, is frequently observed swimming with a single female, who is probably his mother.
 
Cut off from their kind
 
Researchers believe that the West Coast Community could be an isolated pod, since it appears to lack links with the orca groups that visit north-east Scotland, Shetland and Orkney.
 
The population also seems to have different physical characteristics from orcas elsewhere in the North Atlantic, including larger overall size and different dentition. This indicates separate ancestry; there is even evidence that the group’s closest relatives are found thousands of kilometres away in the Antarctic.
 
Perhaps surprisingly, we still don’t know exactly what the West Coast Community orcas feed on – but other cetaceans are thought to be on the menu.
 
Different diets
 
There has been at least one confirmed incident of these orcas hunting a harbour porpoise, and several reports of dolphins swimming extremely close to shore, as if avoiding a predator in deeper water. Minke whales have been seen abruptly turning and fleeing when the West Coast pod passes nearby.
 
By contrast, the orcas seen in Shetland and Orkney are mainly summer visitors, timing their visits to coincide with the common seal pupping season. Some of them have been identified as members of Icelandic pods that feed mostly on herring, and which in turn form part of a wide-ranging north-east Atlantic population.
 
This also includes herring-eating groups from northern Norway, and several from the Faroe Islands and southern Norway that tuck into mackerel.
 
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