Killer whales on brink of extinction in Scotland


By Niamh Anderson

SCOTLAND’S only resident pod of killer whales now seems doomed to almost certain extinction – and pollution could be to blame.

The nine, magnificent creatures – whose names include John Coe and Moneypenny – have failed to produce a single surviving calf in the past 20 years.

And Dr Andy Foote, a world-renowned expert on Orcas, believes time has run out for the community of four males and five females.

The marine biologist has been studying the group, known as the West Coast Community, with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, since 1992.

He said: “It’s probably too late to save this group. I do believe that they will become extinct in our lifetime which is very regrettable since not many people even know that such a distinctive group of killer whales exist just off our coast.” 

Little is known about the isolated community, but Dr. Foote and the NAKID (North Atlantic Killer Whale ID) project use a technique called photo identification (photo-ID) where each animal in the group can be recognised by the unique markings on their dorsal fins as well as their scars, and unique markings on their bodies.

From this, researchers have been able to track the group and can pinpoint the location of each individual when reported.

Since 1981, over 255 lucky sightings have been reported of the killer whales by members of the public from the Isle of Mull to the Isles of Tiree and Coll.

The studies show that the group’s closest ancestors are found thousands of kilometres away in the Antarctic.

Though there are regular sightings of other orcas off the North East of Scotland, the west coasters are believed to be the only resident community- meaning they live here all year round, unlike their distant relatives in the north who are most likely just passing through.

Observers even came up with names for the West Coast Community, calling the males John Coe, Floppy Fin, Comet, and Aquarius.

The females are Nicola, Lulu, Moneypenny – she is numbered 007 in the group – Puffin and Ocassus.

The group has sadly already declined however since an adult male, Moon, disappeared.

It is believed that a whale that washed up on Sandwood Bay near Cape Wrath in 2008 was probably the tenth member of the group, Moon.

The cause of Moon’s death is unknown as the body was too decayed to examine, but Dr Foote fears that this is only the beginning of the problems that the orcas face.

He believes that contaminants could be one of the factors which has stopped the pod from successfully breeding.

“Female orcas store contaminants in their body fat and they pass some of the pollutants in their bodies to their calves when they’re breast feeding. This is another possible reason why there have been no live calves seen.

“If we successfully pass legislation that will reduce the amount of contaminants in the water, other countries will look to that and use us as an example, which could in turn help their populations of killer whales also.

“Fire retardants, pesticides and industrial manufacturing chemicals can end up in the water and it is likely that this is causing such problems for the west coast group,” said Dr Foote.

Such steps are almost certainly too late for John Coe and the rest of the group.

“With large animals like these, the hope of saving them is quite slim. We’ve learnt a lesson from this pod,” he said. “We can use what we know now to prevent it from happening again to our other killer whale communities.”

Andy Jackson, managing director for Ardnamurchan Charters, which provides trips off the west coast of Scotland, said:
“We see the whales maybe once or twice a year if we’re lucky and they’re a first class attraction to our passengers. 

“Pollution, over fishing and poor fishing techniques like dredging will all impact this group terribly and you can only imagine what it’s doing to the less significant species as well.
“The Government is doing nothing to manage the amount of contaminants reaching our waters, and politicians are doing even less.
“The sad fact is that we as humans will wipe out any number of species if it means saving our economy, and it’s such a shame.”  

Sightings of the West Coast Community can be reported to the HDWT, IDWG or NAKID project.,,