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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Visitors spellbound as a pod of 14 orcas have a whale of a time off the coast of John O’Groats in ‘unprecedented’ sighting

By Alex Ward

..More than a dozen killer whales made a rare appearance off the most northerly point in mainland Britain on Monday morning.

Visitors to the John O’Groats coast were spellbound as 14 killer whales splashed and played in the harbour.

In an unprecedented sighting, the killer whales, also known as orcas, are believed to have been attracted by seals and were part of two or three different pods.

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Rare appearance: Usually sighted in groups of four or five, visitors got an unprecedented glimpse at 14 killer whales off the John O'Groats coast

Searching for food: Usually seen in groups of four or five, the rare sighting of 14 killer whales could have been attracted to the coast by seals

Fred Fermor, of John O’Groats Ferries, was one of the first people to spot the whales and described it as a spectacular sight.

He said: ‘We first spotted the 14 killer whales at around 7.30am at John O’Groats and they stayed around until about 11am.

Record sightings: There's been a record number of killer whale sightings because of cooler summers in recent years

Whale watching: Since April there's been 24 sightings of killer whales, exceeding the annual average of 15-20

‘They were just swimming around the harbour and were not engaging in any hunting but they may have been attracted to the seals that were on the shore.

‘This is the usual time of the year whales are spotted in the Pentland Firth but the number has definitely increased.

‘There were lots of tourists at the pier who witnessed them and with the number of whale sightings going up, it truly enhances their visit here.’

There have been a record number of whale sightings off the Caithness coast in 2012 because of cooler summers in recent years.

Since the whale watching season began in April, there have been 24 sightings of orcas alone. The annual average is usually between 15 and 20.

Seawatch Foundation coordinator Colin Bird said it is very rare to see so many whales swimming together like what was witnessed on Monday.

He said: ‘Most sightings usually involve between three to five whales but what was seen at John O’Groats was unprecedented as there were two or three pods coming together.

‘As they come from Iceland, the killer whales usually follow the herring trails and, due to the very cool summers, the fish have travelled more south than usual.

‘When they do arrive at the Pentland Firth, they find that there are a great number of seals living in the area, which is part of their main diet.

‘This time of year seal pups are more common and are oblivious to the dangers orcas pose which make them easy prey.’

A pod was also spotted off the coast of Stroma on Saturday by a group of 30 people from the Islands Book Trust who witnessed the mammals hunting seals.

Sightings are common during the summer months in the Pentland Firth strait as the whales travel from Iceland on their way to the Moray Firth.

Sightings of killer whales have also been reported at Scrabster, Wick and at Strathy Point in Sutherland.

Mr Bird said anyone who wants to increase their chances of catching a glimpse of the mammals should visit Duncansby Head where they can be spotted at Stroma and the Pentland Skerries.

Despite the record number of whales being spotted off the Caithness coast, the number of dolphin sighted have dropped due to the cooler weather.



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