There is always great excitement in Orkney when a pod of killer whales or orcas is spotted. This happens several times most years. In fact 90 per cent of sightings of orca in the UK are off Orkney and Shetland. This large member of the dolphin family can measure up to 9.75m in length. It is easy to recognise by its distinctive black and white livery. This awe-inspiring predator lives in social groups called pods with the oldest female in charge. Pods with up to 150 animals have been spotted east of Orkney. They mainly hunt for fish including herring and mackerel but also snatch seals and porpoises, often seen throwing their prey up in the air. The best time to see them around Orkney is between May and September although they are present year round. Sightings include Sanday, North Ronaldsay, Yesnaby and mid Pentland Firth.
The most common baleen whale around Orkney, which has plates and sieve-like hairs, rather than teeth, is the minke whale. These whales measure up to 8.5m and are slender with a central ridge and a small dorsal fin. Hotspots to see them are the coastal waters around headlands, islands and in channels. Sightings recorded include from Hoxa Head, Marwick Head, St Mary’s Pier and Birsay Bay.
Other whales which are much rarer but have been Orkney visitors include the pilot whale, sperm whale, humpback whale, fin whale, sei whale, and blue whale.
In days gone past a whale stranding was a cause of celebration as it meant a large source of food, oil and bone. Whales were driven ashore in earlier times. Many Orcadians joined the whale fishing fleets to Iceland and Greenland in the 18th and 19th centuries and later to the Antarctic. Now the appearance of the whale is heralded as a good thing for eco tourism, rather than food. Displays in the Stromness Museum tell the story of Orcadian whalers and show artefacts, such as scrimshaw, which is carved and elaborately engraved whale ivory.