Killer whale bonanza off the north coast....UPDATE

13th Jun 2012

Report II, 13/06/12
In the past week we've received quite a few queries from both IWDG members and public alike asking where would be the best place to go in Co. Donegal to see these killer whales?  Of course we've not been in a position to answer this question, as Killer whales don't generally hang around.

This morning's sighting (Wed 13/06/12) from Nick Massett provides us with an update, and you guessed it, if you've been looking for this pod off Donegal in recent days, you've been looking in the wrong place.  As of this morning anyway, they were observed off Slea Head in SW Kerry by Nick, and although they were c4 miles offshore, there was sufficient detail on the IWDG scope to record that one of the bulls had a completely drooped dorsal fin. This individual is almost certainly "Floppy Fin" # 002 on the Scottish West Coast Community group, who was also present in last week's pod at the Mouth of Lough Swilly, Co. Donegal.  (Photo below).

There was no evidence that they were hanging about, and their fast travlleling through Nick's study area offered him no opportunity to launch his RIB to gain the all important photo ID evidence.  They were last seen heading towards the Skelligs and at this rate of travel, may even be in West Cork already. This pod has travelled a minimum distance of 300+ miles between 6th-13th June.

It never ceases to amaze us how the IWDG sighting scheme can be used to track the movements of well marked animals such as humpback and killer whales....oh in case you've not been reading the daily sighting reports on www.iwdg.ie, Nick also had 3 humpbacks off Slea Head area on 9th June and the following day no less than 400 common dolphins. So perhaps hardly surprising, killer whales are now added to the mix.

Let's see who picks them up next and where?
 

But as always there is just wonderful whale watching potential currently available in Irish waters and it's not all off the Northwest or Southwest coasts.  Andrew Malcolm has just called from Ram Head, Co. Waterford (pm 13/06/12) to report upwards of 15 fin whales blowing along the distant horizon.  That's a lot of blubber.  And we have just validated a record from 10/06/12 in mid Irish Sea of a whale that was >30ft and lifted its tail clear of the water prior to diving. This is most likely another Irish Sea humpback whale record, supporting our view that this species is returning to this area in recent years during June-July period.

So there is plenty to see, and plenty to report.  Just please keep us informed, and remember, if in doubt take a photo.

By Padraig Whooley
IWDG Sightings Co-ordinator    

Report I, 6/06/12

Since June 1st mariners have enjoyed several killer whale sightings along the North coast.

The activity began on 1st June when Mark Stronge sent IWDG a sighting report along with video footage of 3-4 killer whales off White Parks Bay, Co. Antrim in the evening. Although the footage was good enough to confirm species, it was too distant to tell us much more.  It now transpires that a few hours earlier, what are likely to have been the same pod were also filmed by Richard Groves from his yacht c2 miles south of Bull Pt., Rathlin Island.

On June 6th local NPWS ranger for Inishownen, Co. Donegal, received a call at 12:00 from Kevin Doherty that a large group of killer whales had been seen off Banba's Crown area of Malin Head.  Emmett, who many of you will know from his basking shark tagging collaboration with Simon Berrow, launched his RIB and before long had found a group comprising 8 animals off Fanad Head at the mouth of Lough Swilly. (image below)
 

Emmett and team spent the next 2 hours observing, filming and securing photo ID images of this large pod as they swam slowly but powerfully around the Swilly mouth.  I don't think he was too keen on taking a skin swab with a kitchen scourer on a pole, (standard practice with basking sharks) and rightly kept an appropriate distance!  Although they were not seen actively foraging, the fact that they spent most of the day in a small area between Malin and Melmore suggest they may have made a kill.

So who were they?  Now this is the interesting bit and serves to remind us just how important your images of cetaceans can be to IWDG.  Cast your minds back to 5th July 2009 when the Irish Naval Service vessel L.E. Ciara photographed a killer whale pod off Erris Head, Co. Mayo (image below). In this frame the bull on the vey left with the dorsal fin drooping to the left is #002 "Floppy fin", and the female next to him (his left) is #003 "Nicola".  The large bull to the extreme right is Aquarius #008. All 3 of these also appear on image above. As we have previously documented, these are focal animals in the Scottish "West Coast Community" group that IWDG have been recording in Irish waters since 2005.  
 

Most of these individuals can be clearly seen within the same pod almost three years later on June 6th off Lough Swilly (photo below).  Clearly the concept of "family" is an important one within killer whale social structure.  In fact such re-sightings of tight matrilines go some way to explain why wild killer whale populations such as those in the Pacific Northwest are among the planet's most studied cetaceans.
 

It is worth mentioning here, that Peter Evans, Sea Watch Foundation first observed "Floppy fin" in 1980 West of the Isle of Harris, and he was confident back then that this male was already a young adult of c10-15 years, and that was 32 years ago; putting this bull comfortably in the 40-50 yr age bracket. See full article on IWDG's Miol Mor, Issue 35 Summer 2009.

Further images (seen on 9th June) also confirm the presence of John Coe #001 in this pod (Photo below). This adult male is likely to be the most frequently observed killer whale in the British Isles.  Suffice it to say that this is another record of this "Scottish" group in Irish waters.  Of course no one country can lay claim to these predators, which are capable of travelling impressive distances in short periods, while moving within a large home range.
 

At the recent Killer whale workshop at ECS Galway, it was agreed that research groups and NGO's interested in killer whales would collaborate even more closely, and that all killer whale sightings data and images would be shared.  This approach will we hope produce even further insights into this highly mobile group. There are real concerns that several individuals in this group are now quite advanced in years and with no evidence of any recruitment into the group, there are justifiable concerns for the group's long- term survival.

As always, IWDG would be delighted to receive any online reports on www.iwdg.ie and images of this group in the days ahead.  In reporting them, you are protecting them.

By Padraig Whooley
IWDG Sightings Co-ordinator