Scientists researching the abundance of orcas in Shetland’s waters have spotted the largest group so far with up to 200 sighted, 50 miles east of the isles.
Dr Andy Foote, from the University of Aberdeen, and his colleague, Harriet Bolt, took the photograph during a week aboard the Shetland pelagic trawler Adenia while at the mackerel fishery.
Robb Lott, from the policy team at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, said such large groups of orcas were very rare. “For UK waters, I would say it’s unprecedented. I would love to have had the opportunity of seeing them. It sounds incredible.”
He thought it likely the creatures were following a migration of herring, on which they feed. But Mr Lott did not think they would remain off Scotland’s coast for very long. “These animals are capable of easily covering 100km a day,” he said.
Dr Foote was following up a visit to Shetland during the summer to record killer whales regularly seen in coastal waters in order to identify individual animals as part of an ongoing study that now has 25 mammals listed.
Killer whales feed on mackerel in offshore waters and researchers hoped that they might be able to recognise some of those recorded in the summer on their latest trip to the area.
“None of these individuals match with the individuals seen in inshore Shetland waters during the summer and it seems likely that these are two distinct populations,” Dr Foote said.
He said that their recent trip proved there were “a lot of whales out there”, but scientists could not tell if populations were growing as their research project had been going for only two years.
“Working from the fishing boat is the only way to reach these whales in pelagic waters. They appear from nowhere when the net is being hauled in and disappear into the ether again, once the fishermen have finished.
“We would just never be able to find them in such a large expanse any other way. The cost of such research would also be prohibitive due to rising fuel costs,” he added.
Mr Foote praised the hospitality of the Adenia’s crew whom he said “give us all our board and food for free”. Both parties plan to continue their successful collaboration in the future.