Orca Week

This diary entry is all about an amazing seven days that I recently spent on holiday, in Caithness – right at the top of Scotland. We went to John O’Groats for these specific dates – why? Because this is when a special event was being organised by the Seawatch Foundation, known as Orca Week.

I have known about this annual event for a while, but I’d never been before and I had never seen orca. So this year I thought “why not?!”. I spent the week with friends, and we did everything we could to spot the killer whales. When you go to an event like this, the atmosphere is really friendly and fun. Everyone wants the same thing (to see orca) and so you can just get chatting to people, and help eachother to watch the waves. If you don’t know people at the start of the week, you will by the end – I really enjoyed this side of things, and managed to catch up with friends I had not seen for a while as well as having the chance to meet some lovely new people!

As the week went on, we watched from land, and we watched from the sea (the John O’Groats ferry) but still there were no orca. In the meantime, the surrounding area proved brilliant for a bit of bird watching. I got to see all my favourite seabirds (puffins, fulmars, razorbills, guillemots to name just a few) and even saw my first ever peregrine, and hen harriers!

One special bird sighting happened by complete fluke. Me and my friends were trying to identify a little bird we had seen and we narrowed it down to what it looked most like: a Dartford warbler. However, I knew it wasn’t quite as it should be, as its chest was far too light. So we guessed that it was a juvenile and put a photo on twitter to see if people could help us. People definitely could help, and within hours we had been informed that we had seen a super rare visitor to Scotland – the Moltoni’s warbler. As the days went on, people who had seen the news started to travel from across the UK to see this little bird,it became a local star! It was a special moment for me, and one I’ll never forget.

Photo © Andrew Scullion

On the Wednesday, we took the ferry over to Orkney, planning to come back as usual (we used the ferry as a boat to watch from, rather than to get off at Orkney, which is the usual purpose!). However, when we got there my friend and I decided to get off the boat – we would watch from Orkney and that way more eyes would be on the sea from different places and directions. We moved along the cliff top, and found a great place to watch from, looking out across a vast stretch of water that the orca are known to travel through. It was a beautiful spot, and I enjoyed watching the fulmars as the flew past us, right by our heads. As we were watching and scanning the sea, messages started to come through on my friend’s phone (I turn my phone off when I am wildlife watching, so mine was quiet). Messages during Orca Week mean one thing: a sighting, and this was the most important type of sighting in this context – ORCA. There was a group of them swimming close to the cliff at Duncansby Head – exactly where we had been for three days, and where we could now not get to, until the ferry picked us up in the early evening. We had missed it, and I will be the first to admit that I was VERY disappointed.

Still, as the saying goes: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. With the help of our friends, old and new, we quickly picked up our spirits and continued to try and spot orca. This was made difficult during the week, by a dense sea fog known as a “haar”. When this rolled in, we usually headed west where it was clearer, or did a spot of birdwatching instead.

On the very last day of our stay (Friday) we decided to catch the ferry one last time. But, as we headed to the harbour, we could see it had already left! “What time is it? Why has it gone?!” we asked eachother, each of us confused by the change in schedule. I went in to ask at the ticket office – it was the 1st of June, the start of the summer timetable. As I said thank you and prepared to go, the helpful lady said “but you can catch the 6pm ferry if you like?” I lifted my head and immediately asked for three tickets and happily returned with the news.

I donned my warm layers and made my way onto the deck. We all chatted happily, making sure to scan the waves as we made our way on the now familiar journey to Orkney. We saw puffins and gannets, skuas and seals – but still no orca. We waited while people got on the ferry at Orkney and then continued our mission as the ferry returned to John O’Groats. It was a lovely boat trip, and everyone was in high spirits, enjoying our last evening together. Then someone phoned one of the organisers, who was on the boat. After a quick conversation and fact check, he shouted “ORCA!” to the boat and told us all where to look. Well, it was every orca watcher for themselves at that point, and people scrambled everywhere in excitement to catch a glimpse. At the same time, those who had spotted the animals helped those who were yet to see them, and before long the whole boat was watching a pod of around five orca swimming through the Pentland Firth (the name for this part of the water).

I was in absolute awe, I could not believe that this had happened, or what I was seeing through my binoculars. Here they were, animals that I heard so much about, seen so much footage of, and countless photos – here they were, in front of my own eyes. We watched as the pod surfaced, saw their graceful and effortless movements through the water, the spray from their blowholes as they took a breath, their close bonds evident as they swam and surfaced alongside each other. This was their water, and a moment in their life – I was privileged to witness it.

Photo © Andrew Scullion

As the boat headed back to the harbour, we couldn’t believe our luck as yet another shout of “ORCA!” rang through the air. Another pod was directly in front of us, and after a quick glimpse they went under the water as we approached. The boat went silent in anticipation, with people facing in all directions to try to spot where the orca would resurface. I remember this moment with fondness – everyone was so happy, and we were collectively wildlife watching, the entire boat looking and hoping together. Eventually the pod of orca popped up some way off the back of the boat, and we watched as they swam into the distance and (I’m not making this up) into the sunset. The perfect end to an amazing encounter.

That night, everyone parted with big smiles, group photos, and cheery goodbyes. I look back on Orca Week as an amazing wildlife holiday – a chance to spend time on my favourite hobby, with like minded, friendly people. As a group you experience the highs and lows, peoples’ first sightings (whether cetacean or other wildlife) and peoples’ latest in a long line – but it never gets boring. Every moment, every hour of watching, every experience, every sighting – is different. There’s no bad kind of different – everything is an experience to enjoy as part of the adventure. Although I would be lying if I didn’t have some stand out moments, and for me they were: the puffins, the Risso’s dolphins, the Moltoni’s warbler the peregrine, the hen harriers and, of course, the ORCA! 🙂