Mystery killer whale pod investigated off west coast

Mystery killer whale pod seen from the Silurian near Vatersay, June 2018. Photograph: Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust

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The identity of a group of nine killer whales off Scotland’s west coast, encountered during the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust’s annual marine research expeditions last year, remains a mystery – despite extensive research and a flurry of sightings of killer whales in the Hebrides over recent weeks.

The trust now hopes to encounter the mystery pod again during its surveys this summer. It says that the unexplained killer whale pod sighting highlights how much there is still to learn about the remarkable marine life in Hebridean waters, and the need for long-term monitoring of cetaceans – whales, dolphins and porpoises – and basking sharks.

The unidentified killer whales – which included two large males and two juveniles – were seen just 300 metres away from the charity’s research yacht Silurian after it left an anchorage at Vatersay last June.

The animals were observed for some 30 minutes, with one of the males even swimming over to Silurian to have a closer look at the boat and crew.

‘Securing good photographs of these killer whales has allowed us to carry out some detective work using photo-identification techniques. This involves matching identifying features on individual animals to database records to see if they have been seen before,’ said Dr Lauren Hartny-Mills, the trust’s science and policy manager.

‘But despite our collaboration with other organisations and experts to identify the animals, the pod remains an enigma. It shows there is still a lot to discover about the cetaceans visiting Scottish waters.

‘We’re hoping to encounter these killer whales again during our 2019 expeditions, and with help from our colleagues across Scotland and beyond, we really hope to find a match and learn more about this group.’

Each year Silurian travels thousands of miles to survey the seas off Scotland’s west coast for cetaceans and basking sharks. The latest sightings show how exciting the surveys can be.

The trust is looking for volunteers to join its team aboard Silurian for one- to two-week surveys running between now and October 2020. Anyone can take part, with some trips held specifically for 16- to 17-year-olds. Participation costs cover boat expenses, accommodation, training, food and insurance, and support the charity’s research. For details, contact volunteercoordinator@hwdt.org, call 01688 302620, or visit hwdt.org/silurian.