The largest member of the dolphin family, the Killer Whale Orcinus orca, or Orca, is a striking species by any definition. The adults measure 5.5-9.8 metres in length (Carwardine, 1995) and with black and white patterning and an impressive vertical dorsal fin they should be unmistakeable.
The JNCC Atlas (Reid et al, 2003) shows that Killer Whales were rare off northeast England and in the wider central North Sea over the period 1990 to 2000, with no records from Northumberland waters.
It is frequently reported in the media that Killer Whales regularly come to the Farne Islands to prey on Grey Seals Halichoerus grypus and their pups during the winter, but research carried out by the author for the North East Cetacean Project (NECP) – interviewing boat skippers, commercial fishermen and Farne Islands wardens (both past and present) – suggests that there is no record for this having occurred in the last 40 years. Davis and Muir (in Foster-Smith, 2000) report that Killer Whales were seen attacking seals off the Farne Islands on 30 August 1965 and described the species as “not uncommon off our coast”. As only 17 records are listed in Foster-Smith (2000), it is difficult to consider the species as anything other than rare off our coastline, with the status of “not uncommon” perhaps being a function of unverifiable anecdotes rather than any firm evidence of the species’ occurrence.
However, there were three reported sightings obtained from casual records collected over the period 2003 to 2009 by NECP. Each of the sightings was of a single animal, off Tynemouth in November 2004 and September 2005 and Druridge Bay in August 2008. In addition, on 12 December 2006, Chris Bielby saw two Killer Whales, which were about two miles off Hartlepool Headland. The whales were surfacing about 100 metres apart, initially heading south but then turned around simultaneously and returned north. During the period from 1989 to 2010 there were no stranding records of this species in our region.
Furthermore, a survey of local boat skippers undertaken during 2004/05 by Newcastle University (Stockill, 2006) indicated that Killer Whales were “regularly” (rather than rarely) seen in offshore waters off Northumberland, with a third of fishermen reported to have sighted the species recently. Perhaps more so than any other cetacean, reports of Killer Whale are tinged with the spectre of misidentification. During 2011 the author received two reports of this species, one of which, from photographs, was verifiable as a Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata, and the other of which, based on pod size, behaviour, date and location almost certainly referred to the small pod of White-beaked Dolphins Lagenorhynchus albirostris seen at the same location the following day, behaving exactly as the Killer Whales were described and at the same time of day. With Risso’s Dolphin Grampus griseus starting to occur with greater frequency in our region, it may not be an overly pessimistic view that its large body size and prominent dorsal fin make it yet another potential ID pitfall for claims of Orca, and the status of this species in the North East’s waters may remain clouded in confusion for years to come.
Written by Martin Kitching (last updated Nov 12)