Orcas are social animals . . .

Surprisingly, there are many cetacean (that’s whales, porpoises and dolphins to you and me) visitors to British waters. One of the largest is the killer whale (Orcinus orca), also known as the orca (of Free Willy fame). Here’s a map where you can see whales in the UK.

Over the past three nights The One Show (BBC, at 19:00) has aired a series of films, presented by naturalist Mike Dilger about a pod of resident orcas off the coast of west Scotland, between the mainland, the Inner and Outer Hebrides. These are not listed on the map I mentioned before.

Filmed several months ago, during much better and calmer weather – in some shots the sea was as calm as a millpond – the film crew caught up with a pod of four orcas, and took some stunning footage.

North Uist

The Outer Hebrides, with Lewis and Harris to the north, with North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra to the south. The northern tip of the Isle of Skye, and other islands of the Inner Hebrides are shown on the right of the map.

Now what’s particularly interesting is that not only is this pod resident in this region (and also ranges as far as the west coast of Ireland), but the individuals have also been identified. One of the bulls is thought to be at least 40 years old. And, based on some observations of their teeth (conical and not worn down to the gum) this pod could have originated from Antarctic populations that visited the west coast of Scotland, and stayed.

Orcas are stunning, beautiful, and highly intelligent animals, and have been featured in at least two David Attenborough series, the most recent being Frozen Planet.

In the Dilger reports, he travelled with his crew on a chartered vessel owned by someone who knows the waters around the Isle of Skye, and the Inner and Outer Hebrides, yet he’d never ever seen an orca. And this reminded me of my first visit to the Outer Hebrides in the summer of 1966 at the age of 17.

I was a keen birdwatcher, and decided to visit a newly-opened reserve, Balranald, run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) on the island of North Uist. Packing my tent and sleeping bag on my back, and other supplies, I hitch-hiked from my home in Leek to Scotland, where my eldest brother Martin and his wife Pauline lived in Rutherglen, just south of Glasgow. I stayed with them for a couple of nights or so, then took my first ever flight, on a British European Airways (BEA) Vickers Viscount turboprop from Glasgow (then Glasgow Abbotsinch Airport) to Benbecula, the island between North and South Uist, and connected to each by a causeway. The flight must have taken an hour.

That first night I actually camped by the side of the road on Benbecula, but the next day I hitched my way over the causeway to North Uist and the village of Hougharry on the west side of the island where I understood the newly-appointed and temporary RSPB warden was living. I don’t remember his name; he’d just graduated in geography from the University of Hull, and was lodging with a Mrs MacDonald (MacDonald is rather a common name there). I set my tent up in the centre of the village, and spent three or so very happy days tagging along with the warden on his rounds. I was even invited to dinner on a couple of occasions by his landlady.

Red-necked_PhalaropeThe main reason for visiting Balranald – and why the reserve had apparently been established in the first place – was to observe two particular bird species: the corncrake (one of the few breeding sites in the UK then) and a rare summer visitor, the red-necked phalarope (which, it seems, is no longer on the Balranald list). I heard the corncrakes, but never saw them, nor the phalarope, more’s the pity. But there was plenty else to see.

And one day, I was invited to join the warden and a local fisherman to visit a small rocky island (maybe Causamul), a mile or more from the shore. And as we were passing through quite choppy seas we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a large (maybe 10-15 individuals) pod of killer whales. I was dumbstruck, if not a little concerned. There we were, in a small boat, surrounded by water and whales, and all I could think of was their (undeserved perhaps) reputation for aggression and ferocity. But what a wonderful sight! Was this a family pod just passing through, or were they related to the pod of orcas that’s now resident in the area? Who knows? After the last of the film reports on The One Show last night, Mike Dilger told the viewers that orcas had been seen recently on the north coast of North Uist. Knowing how rare any sighting of orcas is these days, I feel privileged for my 1966 experience.

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