Friday, 19 August 2016

Polluted Orca – How Chemicals Are Killing the World’s Killer Whales and What Can Be Done

by Suzie Hall and Sam Lipman

Male orca in Icelandic waters (Photo © Orca Aware)

Orca are apex predators. With their advanced cognisance and culturally diverse populations, they predate on a variety of fish, bird and other mammal species. Their prey ranges from comparatively small mackerel and herring, to whales almost twice their size. If orca even take on great white sharks for breakfast, what then is one of the most concerning killers of killer whales?

The anthropogenic threat – Humans.  

Orca have had frightful, sometimes fatal encounters with humans. They have been targeted by the captive display industry, struck by boat propellers, entangled in discarded fishing gear, and found with significant quantities of plastic in their stomachs. Some populations are even struggling to find food as a result of human interference with the natural environment.

But it’s the effect that persistent organic pollutants (POPs) have on orca that is perhaps the most harrowing concern: POPs, particularly polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), are threatening orca populations worldwide.

What are POPs and PCBs?

POPs are chemical compounds that are resistant to degradation. The persistence of these chemicals was deemed a threat to human health, as well as the environment, and their production has now been curtailed. PCBs are a type of POP. They are lipophilic, meaning that they collect in the body’s fat reserves. As a result, PCBs pose a health threat to mammals with large fat stores – like the blubber-coated orca.

There were very few regulations surrounding the production and disposal of these pollutants when they were first introduced. During production, chemicals are released into the atmosphere and can be transported over long distances. A significant proportion of waste material has ended up in landfills, which has resulted in chemicals leaking slowly into rivers and oceans. 

Research has shown that there are high accumulations of pollutants in areas far from where they were produced, especially in Arctic regions. The implication of this long-range transport does not bode well for orca; studies have found populations around countries with a relatively low output of POP production, such as Norway, are contaminated, rendering this a much wider global issue.

How do chemical contaminants affect orca?

Upon entering the marine environment, POPs, including PCBs, are absorbed by plankton and other creatures existing at the bottom of the food chain. Species that eat these creatures will become contaminated and so on it goes, up through the food chain, until eventually, larger marine predators at the top end of the food chain have accrued the largest concentrations of toxic chemicals. This process is known as bioaccumulation, which is a build-up of substances in a living organism. Bioaccumulation occurs when the organism, in this case an orca, absorbs the substance at a higher rate than it can eject it from its body.  

Once PCB contaminants have entered an orca’s body, they are stored in fatty tissues (lipids). The pollutants primarily target the immune and endocrine systems, which are responsible for bodily functions like fighting disease and healing, metabolism, as well as growth and reproduction. Strong links have been found between chemical contamination, survival rates in orca populations and declining reproduction, making this one of the largest threats to the species’ endurance.

The contaminants become especially dangerous should the orca experience a shortage of food. The body will start to metabolise the lipid-rich blubber, releasing the harmful chemicals stored there into the bloodstream. A recent study on orca of the North East Pacific Ocean has highlighted the adverse physiological effects that pollutants can have. The study found that the pollutants can cause severe mutations in several critical life processes that shape an orca’s growth, reproductive capabilities and development. Although current research does not yet include all known orca ecotypes or populations, it is likely that the effects from pollutants will affect all of them in a similar manner.

Transient or Bigg's mammal-eating orca at the very top of the ocean food chain (Photo © Josh McInnes)

But even when orca are otherwise healthy, PCB contaminants continue to have adverse effects.

PCBs are also stored in the fatty milk of nursing mothers. This means that pollutants are passed to already vulnerable new-born calves. Studies on cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) species have revealed that a female may offload up to 90% of her body’s burden of PCBs to her first calf, significantly reducing her overall PCB concentration with each successive pregnancy.

When very high concentrations of PCBs have been documented in reproductive-age females, this might suggest that there has been no chemical offload to calves. This could be indicative of reproductive failure – either in the female, or in her population’s males. Male orca cannot offload contaminants to calves like females can as they have no fatty milk to pass on. Holding onto these high levels of chemicals throughout their lifetime may be the cause of reduced fecundity and lifespan in males.

According to Dr. Paul Jepson, a European Veterinary Specialist in Wildlife Health Population at the Zoological Society of London, and member of the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) team, “Killer whales are the most heavily PCB-contaminated mammalian species on Earth.” They have such high levels of contaminants in their bodies that they are sometimes treated as hazardous waste when they strand and die, or are washed dead ashore.

In Europe, some orca have recently been found to have 857 parts per million (ppm) of PCBs stored in their fatty tissue. To put this into perspective, the US Food and Drug Administration recommends no more than two ppm of PCB contamination for human consumption. Although a direct comparison cannot be drawn between humans and orca, these astonishingly high levels are known to be having devastating consequences for these large marine mammals.

Research has indicated that marine mammals with PCB levels greater than nine ppm are likely to suffer noticeable disruption to their bodies basic biological processes; this can be seriously damaging.

Where did PCB contaminants come from?

The commercial production of PCB contaminants started around the 1920s. They were used extensively for a wide range of industrial applications as they are resistant to acids and bases, as well as to heat. Although their toxicity was recognised early on, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the negative impacts to the marine environment were realised. Generally, PCBs are not very soluble in water, despite being readily soluble in fat, (which explains why they can build up in animal fat, and to significant levels in animals higher up the food chain).   

The production of PCBs was first banned in the US and Canada in 1979, and was outlawed throughout Europe by the late ‘80s. Over a decade later, in 2004, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants was implemented, with 180 member states pledging to eliminate the production of certain POPs.

Unfortunately, this does not mean that oceans are now in the clear. As PCBs do not naturally degrade, they can continue to exist in the environment for decades. And “PCBs can persist in blubber for a lot longer than 10-15 years,” Jepson explained, adding that it is “probably more like 100-200 years if the animals were able to live that long.”

If the burden of contaminants does not start to decline, we could suffer a catastrophic loss of entire orca communities.

Which populations of orca are known to be at high risk?

Orca populations across the globe are exposed to different levels of contaminants, depending on their location and food preferences. Although available research is limited, it is known that the orca found in the North Atlantic, Pacific Northwest, Alaska and New Zealand are suffering adverse effects of contamination.

Orca in the North Atlantic

Orca in the Strait of Gibraltar (Photo © Orca Aware)

A 2007 study on Norwegian orca indicated an average of 25ppm of PCBs in the animals’ fatty tissues. This significantly exceeds the concentrations found in the Norwegian population’s prey, suggesting that orca have a high capacity to metabolise these contaminants – this is certainly detrimental to their health.

The latest research, carried out by Jepson and the team from CSIP, has collected data from cetacean strandings that occurred between 1994 and 2012. This included samples from 24 orca in the UK, Canary Islands and the Strait of Gibraltar. And the results don’t look good.

Orca in European waters were found to have alarmingly high levels of PCB contamination. The average concentration across males and females ranged from 107–243ppm. The data suggests that male orca of the Canary Islands and the Strait of Gibraltar have higher PCB burdens than females, which is consistent with reports of new-born calves in these populations, (suggesting that females have been able to offload some of their PCB burden in their milk).

The same cannot be said for the West Coast Community (WCC) orca found in waters off the UK coast. Much like the AT1 transient orca population found in Alaska (see below), the WCC is a small population that has not been sighted with any new calves for over two decades. There are thought to be as few as eight orca left within this group.

In the CSIP study, the WCC females were recorded with the highest levels of PCBs (243ppm) out of all the orca tested, including their male counterparts. Additional information has since been collected from another WCC female who died and was found ashore in January of this year. This recent analysis should provide more clues about the levels of chemical contamination not only in this population, but also throughout the North Atlantic Ocean.

For the WCC population, however, it is too late. The UK’s only “resident” orca are already on the path to extinction.

Pacific Northwest Orca

Southern resident L pod orca in the Pacific Northwest (Photo © Orca Aware)

There are three distinct orca ecotypes in the Pacific Northwest: The resident fish eaters (made up of two communities), the transient marine mammal eaters and the offshore population, which feeds on fish, probably including sharks. Data collected from the resident and transient ecotypes in 2011 revealed huge differences in their PCB burden. On average, the resident population revealed contamination of 3.2ppm, while the transient pollutant levels were a huge 81.1ppm. This is in line with the bioaccumulation of toxins through the food chain; mammal-eating species are at significantly greater risk from contaminants. 

Although the transients appear to be more contaminated than the resident orca, threats to the salmon populations that form the most substantial part of the resident diet is of growing concern. If these orca can’t eat enough salmon, they will start to metabolise their fat stores in lieu of metabolising food for energy, and this will release the harmful PCBs into their bloodstream.

The third ecotype in this region, the offshores, is less well studied. Although no research into offshore contaminant levels has been carried out to date, it is possible that this population is at lower risk of chemical contamination due to their prey preference and their offshore range, meaning they predate on organisms lower down the food chain and typically inhabit waters further from land.

Orca in Alaskan Waters

Northern resident orca venture yearly into Alaskan waters (Photo © Josh McInnes)

Resident, transient and offshore ecotypes are also found in Alaskan waters, with some areas having some of the highest orca densities that can be found anywhere in the world. Two populations in particular, however, are seemingly in unrecoverable shape.

The AB resident orca are comprised of around only 22 individuals and the AT1 transients (also known as the Chugach transients) consist of a mere seven. These populations seem to be in a similar position to the UK’s WCC – but what has brought these tiny Alaskan groups to the brink of extinction?

Chemical contamination. The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in the Prince William Sound in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez supertanker smashed into a reef. This catastrophic event resulted in the deaths of both resident and transient Alaskan orca.

The AB resident population lost 14 out of 36 individuals and still hasn’t recovered. And of the 22 AT1 individuals, nine were initially lost, followed by a further six. The AT1 transients have not reproduced since the spill, which means it’s not a matter of if this pod will die out, but when.

New Zealand Orca

New Zealand orca (Photo © Sam Lipman / Orca Research Trust)

In New Zealand, pollutants settle in industrial harbours and are ingested by molluscs, which are in turn eaten by bottom-feeding stingrays. Rays are thought to make up as much as 80% of the New Zealand orca population’s diet, which may explain the high levels of PCB contaminants found in blubber samples taken from two deceased individuals.

PCB residue in the New Zealand marine environment isn’t the only chemical threat for these orca. Modern flame retardant chemicals, typically polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), are also an increasing concern for the New Zealand orca. PDSEs are similar in chemical structure to PCBs and exhibit the same resistance to degradation. However, they are not regulated or restricted.

How does the future look for orca when there are contaminants in the water?

The outlook for some orca populations is fairly bleak, with 97% of historical PCB use having occurred in the Northern Hemisphere and marine ecosystems being the ultimate sink for chemical deposition.

Trends would suggest that in the US, PCB concentrations are continuing to decline (albeit only slightly), creating a small sliver of hope for the orca of the Pacific Northwest. Possible causes for this include the outlaw of PCB production ten years earlier than in Europe and the comparatively larger US landmass, the latter of which might have resulted in fewer contaminants reaching rivers and ultimately, the ocean.

As well as Europe’s smaller landmass and more recent ban, there are also considerably more industrial sites located in coastal regions across the continent, with shorter distances between landfills and bodies of water. Following an initial decline in contamination since the ban in the late 1980s, PCB levels in Europe now appear to have stopped declining, which is no good thing as the figures at which the contaminants have stabilised are worryingly high.

As is already recognised in New Zealand, PBDEs may also present another major concern facing all orca and marine mammals. Not all PBDEs are outlawed by the Stockholm Convention and as is the case with PCBs, their production and disposal is not properly regulated. Scientists are already putting pressure on governments to introduce a ban.

What hope is there to shift the tide on ocean contamination?

Not all is lost. Research into the effects of contaminants is still considered to be in its nascent stage, and for effective conservation strategies, further studies are needed on the effects of pollutants.

Although production of PCBs has been banned for over 30 years, there are still around 1.1 million tons of contaminated materials to dispose of in Europe alone. It is also thought that contaminants are still leaking out of old, poorly sealed landfill sites into rivers and oceans.

Stephen Marsh, Operations Manager for British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), explained that there are also other ways PCBs are being redistributed as a result of human action, “The current fashion for pile driving to build offshore windfarms, dredging of sand and gravel banks and the ‘reclamation’ of coastal areas, may stir up the sediments that have acted as inert stores of these compounds, releasing them back into marine habitats”. These freshly churned contaminants are then consumed, and the cycle of bio-accumulation begins again.

“This report [by Jepson and team] shows how the use of chemicals that were thought to be of benefit to us can have long-lasting and cumulatively disastrous effects on our wildlife,” Marsh said. “Not only do we need to find a way of damping down these existing pollutants,” he expressed, “But industry also needs to think before it jumps when producing anything that could leach into the natural environment.”

Comprehensive regulations are an integral step in ensuring that these issues progress no further, and to this end, there are plans to feed the latest PCB data to policymakers in the European Union, such as OSPAR and the European Commission.

There is also the need to push for countries outside of Europe to fully implement the Stockholm Convention. This is not only to better protect national waters, but to also limit the circulation effects too. The ‘global distillation’ of POPs to Arctic regions is cause for concern, with research showing1 that PCB concentrations in juvenile Arctic orca are stabilised or increasing; a threat that cannot go ignored and must be deterred.

The continued good work of CSIP and other organisations contributing to the data collection effort, such as BDMLR, will help to provide an improved understanding of this grave situation, with the aim of finding policy-based and other effective solutions.

Icelandic orca sighted off the Scottish coast during the summer months with calf  (Photo © Karen Munro)

What can you do to help?

We have recently seen with captive orca welfare how public pressure can create waves for orca and other marine mammals suffering in captivity, and still being captured for the captive industry. You can raise your voice about this issue too!

Share information about how chemical pollutants are impacting orca and our oceans with others. Social media is one great tool and you can also write polite letters to your local politicians, expressing your concern and asking them to take action.

And there are also small lifestyle changes that you can make to benefit our delicate marine ecosystems, as well as to help conserve the habitats and food sources for our world’s orca populations. Here are some examples:

Reduce the amount of disposable plastics (food wrapping, straws, plastic bottles, etc.) that you use on a daily basis; buy scrubs and toothpastes free from harmful ‘microbeads’ that are ingested by marine life; and take your own bag to the supermarket. There are even many handy hints and ‘recipes’ for home-made shampoos, conditioners, soaps and more, which help to dramatically reduce an individual’s plastic and other contaminant consumption.

Proper recycling and responsible disposal of electrical waste also plays a huge part in conserving marine environments. If in doubt about how to recycle properly, contact your local government or visit its website for guidelines. The more people that start to make a conscious effort, the bigger the impact will be.

“The resurgence of an ‘old enemy’, the PCBs, is certainly sad, and something of a defeat for grey bearded campaigners like me who thought we had ‘won this one’,” Mark Simmonds, Senior Marine Scientist with Humane Society International, reflected in his latest article. But his resolute words linger: “…We must buckle down, refocus and demand that those who can act do so expeditiously.”

As with most issues in conservation, the protection of the orca species is not simply down to one factor. Eliminating PCBs and other contaminants alone would not guarantee the survival of every population. There are other conservation threats at play – and for some populations, it really is too late.

But for those that still have a chance, if we act today, we will see them tomorrow. 

(Reference 1 - Paul Jepson, Robin Law, Richard Moxon, 2016. Seminar: "What's killing the killer whales?" Zoological Society of London.)

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The Orca of Marineland Antibes

by Sam Lipman 

Few remember Calypso. She was a six year-old orca captured from Canadian waters in December 1969. Calypso was transferred to England
and then France, where she was the first orca at Marineland Antibes. Forced to swim alone and invaded with some of the first attempts at artificial insemination, she only survived for one year. Calypso’s heart-wrenching existence served as a symbol of questionable ethics and an omen of darker things to come.

Calypso died in 1970 from an abscess on her lung. Since her death, eleven orca have died at Marineland Antibes. With the exception of Freya’s four stillborn calves, each of these individuals had their own name, given to them by their captors, and their own story. 

Clovis was the second orca to arrive at Marineland Antibes after he was captured by SeaWorld. At just two years-old, he was a victim of the horrific 1970 US Penn Cove orca captures that decimated the Southern resident population from which he originated, (the population is still endangered today).

The young calf was captured at the same time as Lolita, a female orca who is still alive today, isolated in one of the world’s smallest orca tanks at the Miami Seaquarium in Florida. In a distasteful twist over forty years later, Parques Reunidos, the company that owns Marineland Antibes, now also owns the Miami Seaquarium (and Lolita) under its US subsidiary, Palace Entertainment. Parques Reunidos itself is owned by Candover, a private equity fund managed by London-based Arle Capital Partners.

Free-ranging members of the endangered Southern resident population (Photo © Orca Aware)

When Clovis was shipped to Marineland Antibes, he was put into a tank with Calypso. Where Clovis was a Southern resident, Calypso was from the Northern resident community. “In the wild, these populations do not mix,” Howard Garrett, co-founder of the Orca Network and Free Lolita campaign remarked, adding, “Clovis and Calypso would have had no social affiliation or language similarity and it is unlikely they would have been able to socialise without sorting out their dominance roles. That could have been a violent process and one which may never have been resolved.”

Shortly after Clovis arrived at Marineland Antibes, Calypso died, leaving the young male swimming by himself for the two and a half years he survived.

Between 1976 and -89, a further five orca were captured from the wild and taken to Marineland Antibes. Kim, Betty, Kim 2, Freya and Sharkan were all Icelandic in origin. Kim was thought to be five years old when he was taken in October 1976 and he only survived for five years in confinement. Betty was three in October 1978 during her capture and she survived for a meagre nine years. Kim 2 was captured in October 1982 at less than a year old. He survived 23 years at Marineland Antibes and died without reaching the average age expected of male orca in the wild. Sharkan was the last orca to be captured from the wild and sent to Marineland Antibes. She was four years-old when she was taken in October 1989 and she only survived for nineteen years in captivity.  

Of the wild Icelandic orca captured for display at Marineland Antibes, Freya was the last to die. She was captured at the same time as Kim 2 at only one year of age. Over a period of twelve years, Freya had four stillborn calves (that we know of) and she would have been only nine or ten years old when she gave birth to the first. By orca standards, she was too young. Freya passed away in June of last year due to an alleged heart attack.

Freya at Marineland Antibes before she died (Photo © Orca Aware)

John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld orca trainer and supervisor of orca training at Marineland Antibes, saw first-hand how captivity affected several of these orca. During his time at the French park, Hargrove witnessed the orca displaying aggressive behaviours towards the trainers and he personally dealt with several severe aggressions by multiple orca in the water (you can read more about these incidents in his book ‘Beneath the Surface,’ which was released in paperback today). Hargrove also administered medication to the orca, and observed them displaying stereotypic (abnormal repetitive) behaviours due to boredom and stress.  

“One stereotypy Sharkan would display was particularly heart-breaking,” Hargrove recalled, explaining how the young orca would “isolate herself in a corner of the tank, bobbing vertically, up and down, up and down all day long as she made a noise that [he] had never heard any other orca make.” Hargrove also observed the orca swimming in repetitive patterns, obsessively burping, chewing the sides of the concrete tanks until they irreparably damaged their teeth and banging their heads against the concrete walls.

Valentin, an orca born at the park in February 1996, also displayed these self-damaging behaviours. He was Freya’s only surviving offspring and he also died last year, outliving his mother by just four months. At the time of his death, Valentin’s tank was flooded with mud from a storm that Marineland Antibes’ staff did not appear to be prepared for. This was despite the fact that there was a history of flooding in the area and that it had affected the park before. Marineland Antibes has only recently reopened its gates to the public following the 2015 flooding event and it is unclear what measures it has put in place to better protect its animals going forward.

Valentin at Marineland Antibes prior to his death (Photo © Orca Aware)

Although Valentin was the latest orca to die at Marineland Antibes, he will not be the last; four orca (and possibly a fifth, unborn) still remain. But where Calypso’s tragic death marked the start of a long trail of dead orca, Valentin brings the company full circle, dying in October, the same month of the year that his mother and all the other wild-born Icelandic orca were stolen from their native waters for display at Marineland Antibes.

The park currently has one captive-born female, Wikie (who is reportedly pregnant) and three captive-born males, Inouk, Moana and Keijo. All four animals are related and at least one is believed to be inbred. Despite this and the growing scientific evidence that orca welfare is severely compromised in captivity, Marineland Antibes has stated that, unlike SeaWorld, it will continue with its captive orca breeding programme.

“This decision shows poor leadership and a lack of vision,” Hargrove stated, going on to say that, “It is proof that Marineland Antibes is living in a world that is past and gone. The writing is clearly on the wall that the overwhelming majority do not want to see captive orca, or really any captive animals, performing tricks to line pockets.” 

An orca performing a trick at Marineland Antibes (Photo © Orca Aware)

Yvon Godefroid, founder of Belgium-based Dauphins Libres, believes that Parques Reunidos, the company that owns Marineland Antibes, should now feel “obligated to make the same change as SeaWorld in all of its parks throughout Europe and the US.” Godefroid maintains that SeaWorld’s decision to phase out orca captivity is indicative of the emerging acknowledgement that it is not ethical to keep these sentient animals in captivity. In an interview, Godefroid told Orca Aware, “This signal is loud and clear, and is the result of a changing paradigm that is being created by the way that people feel about animal welfare today.”

After perceiving how the general public’s opinion and behaviour towards orca captivity has changed in France in recent years, Godefroid believes that Marineland Antibes, as well as France’s other dolphinaria, will eventually be forced to close if they do not move away from keeping whales and dolphins. In the meantime, there is concern about how Marineland Antibes will continue breeding its orca now that genetic material from SeaWorld is no longer an option for use in its artificial insemination programme.

Godefroid explained, “It is possible that Marineland Antibes will now turn to parks with captive orca in other countries, such as South America and China, or to Russia, where wild orca are still being captured for display.” Parques Reunidos already appears to have a “cooperation agreement” with an entertainment park in China, which Arle Capital Partners announced last year.

Left to right: Wikie, Moana, Freya and Valentin at Marineland Antibes (Photo © Orca Aware)

In light of Marineland Antibes’ decision to keep breeding its orca (and other marine mammals), three organisations have teamed up to bring attention to the welfare plight that these animals are continuing to face. Orca Aware, in partnership with Dauphin Libres, US-based group Tilikum&Co, and with assistance from French organisation Code Animal, is organising a Tweetstorm event for the captives of Marineland Antibes.

“When we first started talking about doing an event for Marineland Antibes, it seemed pretty straight forward,” Haze Sommer, co-founder of Tilikum&Co, explained, “But what the research showed was a dark and insidious history with many layers, like that of an onion. Each time a layer is pulled away, another shocking revelation is exposed. What the captives of Marineland Antibes have endured is absolutely gutting and we have in excess of 200 Tweets for this event that stand testament to that fact.

Sommer believes that such social media actions are a great way to reach a lot of people, “Tweetstorms are online events where like-minded people can join together at a designated time to Tweet a page of carefully researched, pre-scripted content. The page contains a story that has been adapted for telling on Twitter.” Sommer added that with such powerful momentum in the US to move away from whale and dolphin captivity, “it is now important to take that momentum to other parts of the world. Tweetstorms are one way of doing this.”

Inouk in a tank at Marineland Antibes (Photo © Orca Aware)

When asked why people should join the Tweetstorm, Sommer said that, “With all these animals have suffered, as human spectacles and assets for greedy corporations, they’ve earned their place in history. They deserve to have their stories told and they deserve to be remembered. This Tweetstorm will be doing that for Marineland Antibes’ captives.”

Join the Tweetstorm to help tell the stories of Marineland Antibes’ orca! The event will take place at 12pm EDT (5pm BST) on Friday 22nd April, which is also this year’s Earth Day. You can find out more by visiting the Tilikum&Co Marineland Antibes Tweet sheet and by “attending” the Facebook event, where you will be provided with all of the information you need to participate.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Your Guide to Orca in UK Waters

by Suzie Hall 

Orca sightings in the Northern Hemisphere are often associated with the shores of Iceland, Norway, the USA or Canada. But did you know that the UK has its own resident population of orca? Furthermore, the north of Scotland is also visited by other North Atlantic populations throughout the course of the year. So grab your binoculars and head to the British coast; this short blog will take you through the best locations and times of year to spot the majestic orca in UK waters.

West Coast Community Orca

The UK has its own small, resident population known as the West Coast Community (WCC), consisting of only eight or nine individuals. Although rare to find, the WCC can be spotted year-round in the Hebrides, along the West coast of Scotland. They have also been seen off the North West coast of Ireland, and some individuals have even been seen as far south as Pembrokeshire, South Wales in the summer, typically around June and July.

Photo: © Orca Aware
This orca population is believed to be the North Atlantic Type 2 ecotype. Although relatively little is known about the WCC’s feeding habits, their ecotype would suggest they feed primarily on other marine mammals. They have been seen hunting dolphins and porpoises, and it is possible they feed on other whales too. These North Atlantic type 2 orca are generally larger than their Type 1 counterparts. Studies have also shown that they have larger and sharper teeth than the Type 1’s, which makes them more specialised for hunting larger mammals.

Scientists at the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust in Tobermory, Scotland have been gathering data on the WCC since 1994, and have recently made an interesting discovery. In the 1970s, a lone orca, dubbed Dopey Dick, swam up the River Foyle in Northern Ireland and it has just been identified that he is in fact a well-known member of the WCC, known as Comet.

The WCC also made the headlines earlier this year when a female, known as Lulu, was found dead on the Isle of Tiree in Scotland. The early necropsy released by the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme reported that there were deep lesions all over her body and that she had swallowed large amounts of sea water. They report that the most likely cause of death was entanglement in abandoned fishing gear, which subsequently led to her drowning.

Probably the most recognised member of the WCC is a male known as John Coe. He has been sighted by various organisations and members of the public since 1980 and is easily recognisable by the large notch towards the base of his dorsal fin. He is one of the individuals who has been sighted off the Irish and Pembrokeshire coasts, often accompanied by females. He hit the headlines in January 2015 when he was photographed with a large chunk missing from his tail fluke, believed to have been caused by a shark attack!

Sadly, the WCC are in danger of becoming extinct. No new calves have been seen since studies began and their dwindling population is already of a tiny size. In my next blog, I’ll be exploring how chemical pollutants found in the marine environment are likely impacting the WCC, in line with the latest scientific findings.

Photo: © Orca Aware
Visiting Orca 

During the summer months, the UK is visited by other North Atlantic Type 2 orca, as well as an entirely different ecotype, the Type 1 North Atlantics. Both visiting groups of orca are frequently sighted around the Shetland and Orkney Islands, as well as from the Scottish mainland, off the coast of Caithness.

Type 2 North Atlantic orca are actually more closely related to the Type A Antarctic ecotype. Type 2 orca, including the WCC, are larger than Type 1's and there are also differences in the orientation of their eye patches

Where Type 2 mammal-eating orca are ‘specialist feeders’, the Type 1 orca are considered to be ‘generalist’, primarily predating on fish species (such herring and mackerel), although they have also been known to feed on seals. This difference in dietary preference is the cause of severe tooth-wear in the Type 1 fish-eating orca, which results from friction between fish scales and an orca’s teeth when the orca ‘sucks up’ the fish.

At least seven of the Type 1 individuals sighted in Scottish waters have been identified as members of the Icelandic orca population. Although the Icelandic orca visiting UK shores primarily feed on herring, it is thought that they make their journey to the UK to coincide with the local seal-pupping season, which takes place from April to July.

How You Can Get Involved

Our knowledge of the WCC and the visiting groups of orca is increasing. However, there is still much that we have yet to learn about them.

Photo: © Orca Aware
Since 2012, a dedicated team of enthusiasts have been meeting at the northernmost tip of Scotland each May to participate in an Orca Watch week. The week, coordinated by the Sea Watch Foundation, aims to collect vital data on orca and other cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) species found off the North East Scotland coast, as well as to inform the public about the abundance of marine life right on their doorstep! From the coast of Caithness, it is possible to see the visiting Type 1 North Atlantic orca cruising around the shores in search of food. During last year’s Orca Watch week, orca were spotted, as were several other cetacean species.

This year’s Orca Watch will take place from 21st – 28th May and all are encouraged to participate. You can find out how to get involved in the week, and in other events, by visiting Sea Watch Foundation, Caithness Sea Watching, Whale and Dolphin Conservation and Orca Aware.

During the week there will be ample opportunity to whale watch from Duncansby Head, Caithness alongside orca experts and fellow orca enthusiasts. While it is not guaranteed, there is a good chance that orca will pass by the shoreline during this time. I will be there, along with Sam, Orca Aware’s founding manager, and we hope to see you there too!

Photos (top to bottom): Orca off the Scottish coast sighted at last year's Orca Watch, Orca from the Icelandic population & Orca dorsal fin sculpture near Duncansby Head.