The UK’s only group of killer whales hasn’t produced a calf for 25 years – and no one knows why
The coast of the UK is not well-known for its whale watching opportunities. However, the seas around the British Isles do receive regular visits from an array of marine mammals, from the diminutive harbour porpoise to the 70 ton fin whale. And Scotland’s west coast is home to the UK’s only resident orca population, a group of eight individuals that scientists now believe is doomed to extinction.
The pod, which today consists of four males and four females, has not produced a single new calf in the 25 years they have been scientifically monitored, nor have any new animals entered the family. Last year, the “west coast community” lost a key female, Lulu, who was washed onto the Isle of Tiree after getting entangled in a fishing rope.
Scientists are yet to draw a definitive link between the plight of the west coast orcas and the prevalence of industrial toxins in European waters, however it is highly likely that a chlorine compound known as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) has played a part in their difficulties.
Once applied to industrial fluids in factories around the world, PCBs have been bringing about health defects in animals for decades. The seas around Europe are known to be a particular hotspot for these substances, which are now mostly banned from use but take a very long time to decay. Killer whales are the largest members of the dolphin family, and are right at the top of the oceanic food chain, making them particularly susceptible to high concentrations of contaminants.
They also have the second-largest brains of all ocean mammals, and are believed to be one of the smartest animals on the planet. Like elephants, this intelligence helps these whales to build complex family lives as well as sophisticated hunting techniques. They have very tight social groups, and display a rare behaviour in the animal kingdom where males remain with their mothers for the entirety of their lives, only leaving their maternal group in search of mating opportunities.
Their apparent intelligence makes them one of the world’s most successful predators. Orcas are found in every ocean, and in some parts of the world have been known to feed on other whales, including the world’s largest animal, the blue whale. It is thought that the west coast pod mostly feeds on other marine mammals, principally seals.
What little we do know about this group of animals has been derived from both scientific study and sightings from amateur observers. “Much of what we know about the west coast community is thanks to the involvement of the public,” explains Pippa Garrard, HWDT’s Community Engagement Officer. “With the pod covering such a large area, we depend on people to report their sightings and send in photographs, from fishermen to tourists.”
While other killer whale pods are migratory, and regularly enter the waters of Scotland in pursuit of prey, the west coast community is the only group known to stay exclusively off the UK coast. According to Dr Andy Foote, a marine biologist who studied this group, the west coast killer whales have also been sighted off Pembrokeshire in Wales, and Cork, Ireland, as well as Scotland.
Surprisingly, recent research by Foote and others has also shown that the pod is more closely related to the “Type 2” orcas found in the Antarctic, than the smaller “Type 1” whales that visit the UK’s shores. This might be one reason why the pod doesn’t interact with the other whales that enter the area, further contributing to their isolation and breeding issues.
The HWDT has given the whales nicknames: Nicola, Moneypenny, Floppy Fin, John Coe, Comet, Aquarius, Puffin and Occasus. They’re identifiable through marks and coloration on the parts of the body that are visible when they surface.
As his name suggests, Floppy Fin has one characteristic in common with Keiko, the captive whale who starred in the 1993 film Free Willy. Male killer whales sport tall dorsal fins that can grow up to 2m high, but this one is permanently “flopped” to one side, a common condition in captive animals, but a relative rarity for wild orcas. Tilikum, the large male orca from the 2013 documentary Blackfish, also had “dorsal collapse”.
Another male, John Coe, has a distinctive nick in his fully upright dorsal fin, as well as a large patch missing from his tail fluke, presumed to be the result of a shark attack.
While the west coast community is likely to die out, the UK’s seas remain a fertile fishing ground for both other pods of killers and other species of whale. Although they may not be as isolated as the Scottish orcas, the risks to these animals through PCBs, discarded fishing nets and disruption to their echolocation are still significant.
“There are two regions in the world where there are high concentrations of PCBs”, says Dr Paul Jepson from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). “North America, where there might be around 600,000 tonnes of PCBs during the period in which they were made. Then Europe where we made slightly fewer.”
The chemicals can remain inside an animal’s body for years, causing problems for their reproductive and immune systems. A recent ZSL report into the effects of the toxins concluded that the prevalence of PCBs found in whale blubber samples “greatly exceed concentrations at which severe toxic effects are known to occur”.
A notoriously robust chemical, PCBs are believed to be re-entering the oceans through un-lined rubbish dumps and dredging, which stirs up the sea floor and brings the toxins back into the water.
Dealing with these toxins is extremely expensive, and not high up the environmental agenda for most European countries, despite being signed up to the Stockholm Agreement which commits the signatories to taking action on PCBs.
In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies the areas that are most contaminated by the pollutants, such as brownfield industrial sites, but also rivers and estuaries, where the toxins come up through the sediment and into the water. The EPA then decontaminates these areas by physically removing huge amounts of sediment.
Unsurprisingly, the costs of such operations can run into billions of dollars, and that’s before you try to destroy the chemicals themselves.
“For PCBs, you have to heat them to about 1200 degrees for about five minutes in enriched oxygen, just to destroy them properly”, says Dr Jepson. “Very few incinerators are able to do that. If you don’t heat them to the right temperature, for the right period, you risk creating dioxins, which are one of the few chemicals that are even more toxic than PCBs”.
Out of sight for the majority of Britons, the UK’s whales and dolphins are poorly understood but attract huge amounts of public attention during mass strandings. While a solution to the pollution problems they are facing is yet to be found, the HWDT is encouraging the public to help them build a better knowledge of these animals.
Reporting sightings and strandings, or even joining the trust on a monitoring trip, can help build a better picture of these under-researched and often endangered animals, before we lose them forever.
A RARE autopsy carried out on a killer whale washed up on a Scottish beach has revealed a tragic story known all too well known to humans.
Experts believe the orca lost her calf during birth and then likely died as a result of complications from pregnancy.
The post mortem examination revealed that the previously healthy whale had suffered a prolapsed uterus and had a severe infection which had affected her stomach, liver and intestines.
A team from the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme (SMASS) arrived on the island of Linga, Shetland, on Monday after the whale washed up last Thursday.
The four-strong team took four hours to carry out their investigations and concluded that although she was alive when she washed up, she wouldn’t have survived if anyone had been there to help and was unfortunately in severe pain before she died.
The team now hope to learn more about the species from the samples they have taken back to their laboratory in Inverness.
Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary in Shetland, uploaded gruesome video footage of the killer whale being dissected by the SMASS experts.
The sanctuary wrote: “This video is not for the faint hearted as it shows graphic images of a killer whale being cut up by experts carrying out a necropsy.”
The clip starts as the dead whale is towed off the beach and taken to a nearby landing for the experts to carry out their examination.
The camera films as the team open up the carcass to reveal its innards and start to saw and chop different sections away from the body.
At one point, the team can be seen unravelling the killer whale’s intestines which can grow to over 50m in length.
The footage ends with shots of different sections of the whale, including a part of its mouth with teeth and what appears to be its heart.
Andrew Brownlow, part of the SMASS team said: “We’ve been lucky enough to do quite a comprehensive post-mortem on a female killer whale, which is quite a rare species for strandings.
“They feed right at the top of the food chain and are a good representation of what’s going on in the marine environment.
“This one is an interesting story. She has a few things going on. One is that she’s prolapsed her uterus which we think has led to her stranding.
“There’s evidence she was alive before she came onto the beach. In addition to that, she has a really quite severe infection through her abdominal cavity.”
He continued: “We’ll now get some samples back to the lab and work out if it was because she was very poorly she lost her calf or was it the other way around?
“My gut feeling is that she was happy and healthy until very recently and whatever has done this has happened relatively quickly.
“She had been pregnant and for some reason, something went wrong with that and she lost the calf and got very sick.
“That’s the reasons that she then ended up on a beach and an animal that size, it’s very difficult for her to recover from that.
“Nobody wants to see an animal like this wash up dead but we’re probably going to be able to find out a lot more on this species.”
A group of killer whales could have departed their traditional hunting grounds in the waters of Orkney and Shetland to prey on seals in the Moray Firth.
Data from the Cetacean Research and Rescue Unit, a north-east organisation, dedicated to the study and preservation of marine mammals, such as dolphins, porpoises and whales, has highlighted that sightings of orcas have spiralled in the waters between Moray and the north since 2001.
The group spotted only around four of the creatures along the northern and southern coasts of the firth 15 years ago, but by 2015, that number had shot up to 34 definite sightings.
In a research paper, published in the scientific journal Aquatic Mammals, the CRRU indicated there had been a total of 143 confirmed sightings during the 14-year period, with a total of 18 individual whales identified.
The work highlighted a number of potential factors behind the surge in activity, including the rise of online social networks and the number of people actively looking for the animals.
The authors of the report added that one of the possible reasons for the increase in killer whale sightings in the Moray Firth could be due to a drop in the population of common seals in Orkney and Shetland.
They stated: “The observed increase in Orca (killer whale) sightings in the Moray Firth from 2001 to 2015 also coincides with the exaggerated decline in P. vitulina (common seal) populations in Shetland and Orkney during this period, as whales are perhaps compelled to move further south in search of this pinniped quarry.”
In addition to seals, the researchers also observed the predators feeding on smaller cetaceans, and even seabirds like ducks.
The CRRU, which has been saving marine life in the region for more than 20 years, will use its insights into the Scottish orcas to increase efforts to preserve the species.
As a recognised charity, the CRRU depends on significant support from the public to carry out its research and life-saving rescue missions.
Killer whales have been spotted in Cornish waters and are some of more than 2,500 different whales, dolphins and porpoises seen around the coast in just nine days.
Overall, a record 14 different species of whales and dolphins were spotted from ferries and cruise ships. A total of 2,526 individual whales, dolphins and porpoises were sighted as part of the ORCA OceanWatch, a nine-day period of recording marine wildlife from July 23 to July 31 this year.
The project, organised by UK-based whale and dolphin charity ORCA, is a conservation initiative involving seafarers in the collection of research data on whales, dolphins and porpoises that they encounter at sea. Experts say their efforts are playing an increasingly important role in raising awareness about the diversity of wildlife that can be seen in UK and European waters.
Bridge crews and ORCA volunteer marine mammal surveyors collected information on marine mammals in local waters while sailing offshore during a concentrated period of time. The findings have provided the conservation charity with a “comprehensive snapshot” of whales, dolphins and porpoises in UK and European waters.
Among the different species spotted were blue whales, pilot whales, common dolphins, Sowerby’s beaked whales and harbour porpoises. The second annual ORCA OceanWatch involved 13 commercial ferry, cruise and shipping companies including Brittany Ferries, Isles of Scilly Travel, Red Funnel, Saga, Swan Hellenic and WightLink.
Sally Hamilton, director of ORCA, said: “OceanWatch 2016 was a great success, with more vessels and partners involved than last year, building an even better picture of marine life in our oceans. Fourteen species of whales, dolphins and porpoises, collectively known as cetaceans, were sighted in six European sea regions, which is an outstanding result.
“Having the support of a variety of different ferry and cruise ship companies is vital so we can get an accurate snapshot of marine wildlife in our oceans as possible.”
An orca expert has said recent killer whale visitors to Shetland are regulars in the summers.
Dr Andy Foote has been instrumental in setting up the North Atlantic Killer Whale ID (NAKID) project, which gathers knowledge on the movements and behaviour of individual animals.
Dr Foote, who now works on the genomics of killer whales at the University of Bern in Switzerland, said he could easily identify individual whales in photos taken over the last few days.
The predators have been watched by hundreds of delighted islanders and visitors over the last three days as the mammals came close in to hunt at Sumburgh, Gulberwick, Lerwick and South Nesting.
Tour operator Hugh Harrop of Shetland Wildlife said there was “an enigma” about killer whales that made them so attractive to watch, similar to other top of the food chain predators such as polar bears.
“We know very little about them and it is one of the ultimate animals to see in the wild,” he said.
Dr Foote said that most of the groups of killer whales seen around Shetland return to the isles each summer.
“We also know that some groups are spending the winter in Iceland feeding on herring before moving back to the northern isles and Caithness in the summer,” he said.
During fieldwork in 2008 and 2009, Dr Foote, then a PhD student at Aberdeen University, spent summer months in Shetland compiling an ID database of the killer whales roaming these northern waters.
And he confirmed that a photo of two orca calves in one pod, taken by on Tuesday at Sumburgh, was an unusual sight due to the small group sizes more commonly found in Scottish waters.
A killer whale has been spotted off the coast of west Kerry. The whale, known as W01 ‘John Coe’ and who is easily recognisable by the large notch on the base of his dorsal fin, was spotted on Monday afternoon in the waters off the Slea Head Peninsula.
The appearance of the killer whale, or Orcinus orcs, follows an early season of sightings off the coast of west Kerry, with as many as eight humpback whales recorded on a single day in mid May as well as appearances from a number of minke whales.
While the appearance of a killer whale in Irish waters is not unheard of, it remains an uncommon occurrence.
John Coe was first photographed off the Scottish Hebrides 33 years ago and has been spotted in Irish waters a handful of times over the past 12 years.
The first time he was seen was in May 2009 off Annagh Head in Co Mayo and since then he has appeared off Co Cork, Co Down, Co Donegal, Co Antrim and Co Kerry.
Before Monday’s sighting, John Coe had been last seen off the coast of Co Mayo in July 2013.
John Coe was already an adult whale when first spotted in 1983 and is considered very old for his species.
In the images taken by local Kerry photographers on Monday it’s noted that John Coe was swimming alone.
He has previously been seen travelling with at least one other member of his pod (family group) and is usually accompanied by a female known as Nicola W03.
The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) has warned of its “grave concerns” for the future of John Coe’s pod whose territory extends into Irish water.
“One major concern is that it is many years since there has been any new additions to this group, and zero recruitment means that this group will ultimately die off; something which would be of great loss to our marine biodiversity,” said the IWDG.