Scotland’s Killer Whales

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Scotland is famous around the world for the Loch Ness Monster. Whilst Nessie is rarely seen, Scotland’s killer whales are frequently sighted, and surprisingly close to shore. Where is the best place in Scotland to see these majestic animals?

By Angus Wright

Scotland is known for its wide variety of wildlife throughout the country and its surrounding waters. While dolphins and seals are regularly spotted around Scotland’s coasts, there is another community of animals which are lesser seen despite being ever present. Killer Whales (or Orcas) have established communities here with sightings all the way up from the west coast to the north coast, Orkney, Shetland and Hebrides.

There are a couple of Orca communities residing in our waters. The first has settled off the West Coast, travelling not just the length of Scotland but also across the Irish Sea, making their way along the Irish Atlantic coast. The other main community is located around the Hebrides and North West coast; however, they have been sighted as far afield as Orkney and the Firth of Clyde!

Killer Whales ScotlandThe pods living around the Hebrides and North Coast are migratory, moving away to follow the mackerel and herring shoals who come to Scotland for the winter and then move back to the West coast of Ireland for the Summer. Unlike their northern counterparts, the West coast pod of killer whales tend to reside in Scotland year-round.

Due to their migration patterns, you are more likely to see the pods around the Hebrides and North coast during the winter as they begin their migration around March time and do not return until later in the year. Despite being in Scotland perennially, you can count yourself very fortunate to catch a glimpse of the West coast Orca pod as they are a small group of eight with a vast expanse of water to move freely in.

The Northern Orcas are opportunistic hunters, shown by their habit of chasing the herring and mackerel during their migrations. While their main diet consists of fish, they have been known to snap up ducks resting on the water’s surface!

The West coast pod is thought to have a diet based exclusively on other marine mammals, common with Orcas across the world. They hunt seals, porpoises, dolphins and even other species of whale! Especially when hunting larger prey such as whales, they carry out coordinated attacks.

Killer Whales Scotland
You can get almost within touching distance of the Killer Whales in Scotland if you are lucky

To give yourself the best chance of seeing one of these fantastic creatures up close, there are a few hot spots around Shetland, Orkney and Caithness where you can see pods regularly. To try and catch a glimpse of the Western pod, Skye and the surrounding islands can be a good place to set up! If you’re not satisfied trying to spot a pod from land, you can always take a whale cruise; companies all over the West coast will take you out for the day and will know the best places to give you a chance to see an Orca! Even if you don’t see some Killer whales, you might still get to see some Minke whales, dolphins and other marine mammals up close – maybe even sharks!

While Orca sightings are becoming more regular, there is still a limit to what we know about the pods residing around Scotland. It also seems, that there are more whales than we thought in our waters. In 2019, an unidentified pod of whales made up of two adults and two juveniles was the subject of a flurry of sightings throughout the Hebrides. It is not known whether these wayward animals are permanent residents or, like the Northern pod, were just migrating.

Outside of the known areas such as the West & Northern coasts and islands, there have not been many sightings of Scotland’s Orcas. There was one highly unusual sighting though; in 2018, a pod of Orcas pushed past their usual hunting grounds of the Firth of Clyde and actually made their way up the River Clyde, surfacing around Gourock and Dunoon. The so called “Urban Orcas” were seen by locals with a calf being caught on film. It is thought the calf was being taught to hunt by adults in the pod and they were attracted this far up the Clyde by the abundance of seals and other marine life in the area.

Killer Whale Bone
A Killer Whale Bone in the Shetlands

This sighting so close to land shows that despite however much planning you do, there is a large element of luck with any Orca sighting. ‘Orca Watch’ is an annual event where people from all over the world travel to the Northern coast and Islands of Scotland to try and spot Orcas while also documenting their sightings of other aquatic species. One attendee of Orca Watch 2019 was Rob Lott. In a blog about the event he recalled landing at a small harbour in Orkney, as he was settling in on a coastal path for a day of solo spotting, a WhatsApp group set up for the event alerted him to a pod of Orca coming his way! Rob sprinted back to the harbour which he had landed at no longer than an hour before. Through the haar (Scottish for Sea fog), Rob saw a fin slicing through the water. He was fortunate enough to see the whale pass within 20 metres of where he was standing!

It seems that 2020 has been a great year for Orca sightings with pods being seen throughout Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides especially. With the government-imposed lockdown to control the Covid-19 pandemic, it is thought that reduced water traffic has encouraged the Orca to travel to areas where they would normally be avoiding.

Despite the vast array of marine wildlife living around Scotland, nothing quite compares to the sight of a pod of Killer Whales sailing through the water, looking for their next destination (or meal!). They are another beautiful addition to our country’s gorgeous wildlife collection.

Have you seen an Orca or an entire pod in Scotland? Did you manage to snap some pictures or get them on video? Let us know!