Orca Watch 2019

After what has been an incredibly busy few months for me, I finally have some time to write up my adventures. So let’s start with a very good one – Orca Watch 2019. Some of you might remember that last year I attended this event for the first time and saw my very first orcas (yay!). This is an annual event that takes place in Caithness, and is organised by the Sea Watch Foundation and WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation). This year promised to be bigger and better than ever before, with watches and events simultaneously taking place in Caithness, Orkney and Shetland. So, having had such a good time last year, and with such promises of more fun on the horizon, how was I to resist? I booked a holiday cottage, counted down to the end of May, packed my bags and then with two good friends (and lots of Percy Pigs) I headed to John O’Groats. 

Now, Orca Week is an organised week – however, you have to be prepared for a lot of waiting. There is not a schedule of big family events, nor are there many facilities, ice cream vans etc – it’s not that type of week! Patience, persistance, communication and a healthy dose of luck is the combination needed for success. With that in mind, we went to the first night of talks, and we spent a lot of time at the headland – Duncansby Head. We also bought the wristbands (the money raised from which goes towards WDC and SeaWatch) which meant we could get the ferry at a very good discounted price, and get yummy discounted food from the Cabin. We checked the Facebook group regularly and we met up with our friends and chatted to new people. All of this helps to make the most out of the experience and to have fun, as well as increase your chance of getting a sighting.

Duncansby Stacks

There is a daily cycle of hope, watching, hope, watching, doubt, watching, disappointment, and hope again. If someone sees a sighting which you miss, dare I say it, there’s a bit of good natured jealousy too! It can’t be helped, it’ll be your turn next time, just keep going. 

As it happened, this year I saw my first orcas very quickly. On my second day there, I went with some other friends to Orkney on the ferry, where we got off to have a walk, a watch, and some lunch. My two good friends who I was staying with decided to stay in John O’Groats and explore the coast. The group I was with were watching off the South of Orkney when information came through (I think by a phone call, though it might have been whatsapp) that Orca had been seen around the other side, near where the ferry stops, a place called Burwick. Well as you can imagine, that’s high alert for orca watchers – action stations. We lined the coast and waited, hoping that the orca would come our way.

It was very foggy so we weren’t sure how lucky we would be. Some of the group had spread out, so we weren’t all together, but we were all watching the same bit of sea and scanning furiously for a glimpse of a fin. Then, out of the mist came a booming shout of “ORCA” from one of the group – he had seen the orca. We couldn’t really hear anything else, nor could we see him, so the rest of us just kept scanning and asking eachother excitedly what was going on. Then, sure enough they appeared. Dark, tall fins out of the misty sea – like something from television (but this was real life – I was actually here).

Orca move very quickly, and I often find it hard to find them and keep sight of them through my binoculars. But thanks to the help of the others, I saw three individuals (I think there were a few more than this in the pod) as they swam along the coastline. I almost can’t describe to you the feeling – except that it took my breath away and left me speechless. Our group spent the rest of the day in what can only be described as merriment, especially when we caught up with the watchers who had first seen the orca and given us the tip off. It was a very happy day. 

However, it was not such a happy day for my two good friends who had missed it (remember what I was saying about luck). So, I was on a total mission to see orca again this holiday, and for my friends to see them. Sadly we did miss them again – there was an incredible sighting from the morning John O’Groats ferry on the Tuesday of that week. Lucky early birds certainly caught the worm that day, with amazing photos appearing on Facebook as we were just waking and eating our porridge! “Oh darn it” I said and then gave my friends the good/bad news. Still, there was still time. 

Orca seen from the ferry © Steve Truluck

We spent the week watching and waiting, watching and waiting, laughing and joking, watching and waiting. It also started to get quite wet – so we  spent the week in our waterproofs. That didn’t stop us though. We did our orca dance in the rain at our favourite watching spot, and had a look around the nearby town of Thurso (in the rain) when it really was hopeless watching weather. We even kept catching the ferry, even on the Thursday afternoon, when the waves were so high that they splashed over the side of the boat! Why? Because you need persistance (and it is also a bit addictive  – like a lottery, so be careful of that; make sure to save up your pocket money!).

A rocky ferry ride!

Finally on the Friday night, it looked like it was not to be. We got off the last ferry with my friends not having seen orca. We decided to forget about it, say “we tried our best” and go and have our meal which we had always planned and booked in. We enjoyed an amazing meal at the wonderful Stacks Coffee House & Bistro and joked about how orca watch was great except for there being no orca. During the meal, I went outside for a little bit of a break, and noticed that there was something different about the sea and the light. In that moment I wanted to go to Duncansby Head. So I went back in, we finished our meal, and we headed up there. If nothing else, it meant we could say goodbye to our friends, as we would be heading off first thing the next morning. 

The moment I wanted to go to Duncansby Head

We got to Duncansby Head and it was a little bit bizarre. There were discarded drinks and plates, jackets and hats. No-one was sitting inside their cars or vans. I joked that I was going to go and watch from our favourite spot, and my friends got out of the car at that point and insisted that I shouldn’t do that (they were right, it was getting dark and it would have been unsafe). As I turned back towards them, I could see lots of people arriving in cars and running off the other way across Duncansby Head. Something was going on. “Guys, I think we need to go that way” I said, and so we went. 

Once we were over the hill, we could see loads of people lined up along the fence line all looking one way. That can only mean one thing at Orca Watch: Orca. I rang my friend Steve, who helps to organise the week as I knew he would be down there. Steve answered and I said: “Steve, are you watching orca?”. I can’t actually remember exactly what Steve said, but it will have been some sort of excited way to say “yes!!”. Now, I don’t run, not even for a bus, or an ice cream van – but I ran when I knew Steve was seeing orca! We all ran – with full bellies, full rucksacks, full layers, and bobble hats, we ran across that headland because we were not going to miss these orca!

And we didn’t miss them! They had first been spotted very far out, by someone with a powerful scope. Because there are so many skilled watchers at this event, and everyone communicates, it really helps make sure as many people catch the sighting as possible. These people then helped everyone to spot the orca as they got closer. At one point, Steve stopped watching, and walked down the entire fence line to make sure everyone could see. That is a unique kind of atmosphere – being part of a group of people, helping each other to experience an amazing moment together. 

We watched in awe as a large group of orca – I think at least 9, made their way around Duncansby Head. Once they had gone past us everyone ran back up the hill (towards the car park) so that we could try and see the orca again as they headed around the top of the headland. When you all do a run like this, it is known affectionately as the orca sprint. As I said, I’m not used to running, so I did have to take a little pause during my orca sprint, but I got there in the end!

We all gathered to watch the orca as they passed us again, heading off North across the sea towards Orkney. At this point, the sun had gone down and we struggled to see them in the fading light. After having watched them for just over an hour, the crowd celebrated and shared their joy. We cheered and hugged, and smiled big beaming smiles. “This was the best week ever!” said my friend Sally – the waiting, waterproofs and the rain had all been worth it for that moment, that shared experience, that sight, and that feeling.

orca watch last night (C) Sally Tapp
Having just seen orca © Sally Tapp

I have now had two amazing holidays during my time spent at Orca Watch. Both years I have had the privilege to see these beautiful, masters of the sea at home in their natural environment – I’m an observer in their world, and witnessing a moment in their life. While it takes a lot of patience, persistance, and luck for it to happen – it is unequivocally worth it for that experience. 

Orca from the ferry © Steve Truluck

If you would like to attend Orca Watch, keep an eye out on the Sea Watch Foundation’s website and social media towards the end of the year, which is when they tend to announce the dates. Other good social media sites to follow for sightings in the North and East of Scotland are: Orca Watch; John O’Groats ferries; Orca Survey Scotland; Shetland Wildlife; Caithness and Moray Cetacean Sightings.

Give it a go – but be warned: you may become an Orcaholic!