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Famous West Coast killer whales John Coe and Aquarius have returned to familiar waters in the Hebrides after a near 600-mile journey home after being spotted off the coast of Cornwall at the start of this month.
The far-travelled duo were spotted in the seas off West Cornwall by Will McEnery-Cartwright. Nine days later, on May 14, they were sighted back in the Hebrides by Anthony Rigell from Waternish Point on Skye, around 550 miles north of Porthgwarra. Then two days later they were found swimming near Lochboisdale on South Uist by the crew of the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust’s research vessel Silurian.
Thanks to photographs captured by Mr McEnery-Cartwright and his efforts to report and share the sighting, the Sea Watch Foundation, Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group have confirmed this is the first sighting of this famous pair of killer whales off England and the most southerly point they have ever been recorded in the five decades that movements of this small and unique group of killer whales have been tracked by the charities.
Mr McEnery-Cartwright said: ‘This is a once in a lifetime event. I am so happy and proud to be part of this historical moment. To see these fantastic creatures is one thing, but to photograph them is breathtaking.’
John Coe is one of the most distinctive killer whales seen around the British Isles with a deep nick near the base of his dorsal fin and fluke.
‘Many people ask how John Coe got his name’,’ said Dr Peter Evans, director of Sea Watch Foundation, who has been tracking sightings of killer whales around the British Isles since the 1970s.
‘It is the name of a character in a book called ‘Mile Zero’ by Thomas Sanchez about a
freed slave who became a student of the sea. It seemed a fitting name for this great wanderer of the ocean who must know the waters around Britain and Ireland better than most.’
These animals truly belong to the west coast, with sightings recorded largely along the west coasts of Scotland and Wales and all around Ireland. Most sightings have been recorded in the Hebrides.
Dr Lauren Hartny-Mills, Science and Conservation Manager at the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, monitors sightings of the group off the west coast, and explained: ‘We are all absolutely thrilled John Coe and Aquarius have been seen again.
‘Will’s recent sighting off Cornwall highlights how crucial public sightings are in helping us monitor the movements of individual animals year after year. It shows how much we still have to learn about their movements and it is fascinating to be able to add another important piece to the puzzle.’
During the 1980s, John Coe was spotted within groups that numbered up to 20 individuals, but that has since dwindled. In the 1990s, the largest group in which John Coe was seen was 14 and in the subsequent decades this declined further, going from 10 down to eight in recent years following the death of two of the individuals.
Since 2016, these two individual males John Coe and Aquarius have not been seen with any other killer whales and no calves have been recorded in recent years. Tragically, scientists fear this unique group of killer whales may die out in our lifetime.
These are not the only killer whales seen in British and Irish waters though. Sightings of other groups and individuals have been recorded in English waters.
A number of groups of killer whales are frequently seen in Scottish waters, as depicted in the recently published Scottish Killer Whale Photo-Identification Catalogue 2021.
Joe Coe photographed by Will McEnery-Cartwright off the coast of Cornwall earlier this month. NO F22 Orca John Coe
Aquarius, also seen here in Cornish waters, accompanied John Coe on the marathon trip south. Photograph: by Will McEnery-Cartwright. NO F22 Orca Aquarius