Monday, June 20, 2022

Caithness part 2. Orca.

 This post is mainly to show the wildlife that we saw and if any info can help potential visitors.

Lets start with the absolute stars of the show that were worth the trip alone - 


Before we went and when booking up, I was not aware of how regular these magnificent predators are along the Caithness coast. I thought they were 'Shetland or no chance' sightings, so they weren't even on my radar until I was having a hunt around the internet a week before we went.

One contact on Twitter told me that we just happened to be starting our holiday on the first day of Orca Watch.

Orca Watch? Really, what are the chances though? As it happens, they are very good!

There is a WhatsApp sightings Group run by Steve Truluck and a couple of others to gather info and spread details of up to the minute sightings of Orca. Also there are a couple of good Facebook pages, Orca Watch, Sea Watch Foundation and Caithness and Moray Firth Cetacean Sightings.  

For the two weeks of our stay, they were reported in the region on most days. The Orca Watch base camp is in John O'Groats and the best places for shore sightings are, starting from the south and moving anti-clockwise, Wick, Noss Head, Auckengill, Duncansby Head, John O Groats harbour, St John's Point and Dunnet Head to the west.  

If a pod or individual animals are spotted heading in a direction, it is best to try and head them off at the next good view point ahead of their direction of travel. There are several small pods and groups in the area between late April and late July so chances are good, but especially during the Orca Watch week as there are many more observers looking.

Also the foot ferry from Groats to St Margaret's Hope, Orkney gets good sightings and during the watch week they detour 'off piste' to give passengers a better look, though it can be quite expensive so we didn't try this option.

How did we do?

On our very first day, the 28th May, we arrived around 4pm. Immediately there was a report of two males passing Noss Head, north. This is visible from our cottage window, but, not being fully clued up as to what they would do, and we were tired after an 8 hour drive we missed them. We could have gone to John O Groats where they were visible for up to two hours, but we weren't even sure how far Groats was. We hoped for a 'next time'

As days passed, sightings came from Orkney and further south until Sunday 5th June, when around 4.30pm these same two males were seen heading south from Duncansby Head towards us. Although we were set back in Sinclairs Bay, at Keiss, the sea was calm and we had a good view in nice light so I set up in the garden with the scope and scanned. It was like waiting for a Feas Petrel at Cullernose. I kept checking the WhatsApp for more news until it said they were visible off Keiss! Where were they?

Sure enough, a tall black triangular fin broke the surface. Though distant, it was unmistakeable, then I lost it just as quick. Frantic scanning to try and get Jane on to it came to nothing, until half an hour later, they were reported in Sinclairs bay, NW of Noss Head. This was where we were looking. Soon a frenzy of gulls gathered so I concentrated on that spot. Again a huge fin and back broke the surface. Apparently they had killed a seal and were hanging around. Jane got a couple of views too, then they seemed to vanish...

Views, but not wholly satisfactory. 

In our second week, I was loitering around the house scanning the sea when a message came through of 2 Orca off Wick heading north, quickly past Staxigoe, very close in.

What to do? Hang fire for info then try to head them off somewhere for closer views. The animals rounded Noss very close in so we jumped into the car to head North to Auckengill a couple of miles along the road, but not back into the bay.

Up in Keiss village, a couple of vehicles were parked in a high layby with people scanning below with bins so we stopped. They had seen a distant glimpse across the bay but nothing more. I set up the scope and scanned. One vehicle next to us got a call through to say they were at the south of the bay around 3 miles from us but they had just left and were heading straight towards our vantage point.

A tense half hour seeing nothing followed. There were another seven observers,down at the bottom of the field were we were above, right on the rock edges, scanning too. Then Jane noticed these people started jogging along their path so I dropped the scope to scan the shore edge. There, 2 fins emerged and were coming our way. They came right in to the rocks where seals lay out. The Orcas were so close the seals began barking and mobbing at them from the safety of dry land. It was amazing to hear.

A bull Orca crosses Sinclair bay towards us.

Whilst these views were good, the people below were only yards away so we all headed along to a better point at Auckengill. Here the small car park was almost full and people were gathered on the rocks below. We waited, again. Soon I saw cameras being raised below us and all of a sudden a large bull Orca emerged around the point only about 30 feet from the shore. It was breath taking making the hairs on my arm stand up seeing this mega predator right at our feet. I don't think I've been close to an animal in the UK that could eat me if it wanted!

The bull was leading another three Orca, 2 females and a small juvenile. this was the '64's' Pod, well known and recorded from several areas.

All of a sudden the male took a turn of speed, slashing into a rocky channel where he seemed to catch a seal. The others just waited behind him until he returned and the hung around for a while. It looked like they were feeding but there was no blood so the prey seemed to have had a lucky break. After this, the group headed off north towards Duncansby with an attendant entourage of cars and camper vans wanting more views. We were blown away by what we had seen, so left and headed back to the house. 

As he emerged around the corner, the hairs on my arms stood up, what a beast.

Orcas, the 64s pod, down to 30 feet at Auckengill, Caithness 8th June

The words awesome and stunning are often over used  hype for things like Blyths Reed Warbler or Double Crested Cormorant but in this case, I can say these animals are truly stunning and awesome!

More ( albeit less dramatic, stuff to follow...)


Dylan Wrathall said...

Hi Stewart,
If encounters with creatures of this stature doesn't cause an adrenaline rush, you might just as well be blind? Great post - Dylan

Stewart said...

Cheers Dylan, with out doubt you are right. It doesn't take mega fauna either, I was excited yesterday with a Hummingbird Hawkmoth in the garden. Best wishes, Stewart...

Gavin Haig said...

Lovely stuff! Those photos convey the atmosphere superbly.

Stewart said...

Cheers Gav, looking back now its scarcely believable how close they were...