Mullman’s search for legendary orcas

John Coe into the sunset. Photograph: Aaron MacLean

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I woke up in my car at 4.50am and started to search the seas for the legendary orca John Coe and Aquarius from North West Mull.

I scanned the waves for more than three hours and saw one unidentified whale, one minke and lots of very distant dolphins jumping around. By midday I was in my friends sail boat in Tobermory heading out to see what we could find in perfect glassy conditions.

On the way, I received a call from the Sea Life Surveys skipper telling me that John Coe and Aquarius were off Ardnamurchan lighthouse NOW! We could not believe our luck, but, we were travelling at four knots and so were very aware we may not catch up with them. We excitedly chugged on. Approximately an hour later, we spotted the SLS vessel right out on the hazy horizon heading towards Coll, we assumed they were following the orca and changed course for that direction.

Another hour passed before we finally got a glimpse of that six foot dorsal fin we had been searching for, yet we were still at least 3km away! We plugged on following at a distance – only my telescope could pick out the fins for another hour until we could see them with our binoculars.

Fortunately, they were travelling slowly, just pottering along for a cetacean that can shoot along at at least 25 knots if they want, so we were slowly catching up with them.

Then I spotted a minke whale right beside the orca. I expected the minke to porpoise off with the killers in hot pursuit, but they appeared to either be completely unaware of each other, or, they completely ignored one another. The minke slipped off in one direction and JC and A in the other. An hour later we were still at least 1km behind them, when they passed another minke at close quarters, then a huge grey seal that was bottling very close to JC.

These orca are sadly presumed to be the last two of their group and are type 2 killer whales. Orca around the world have very distinct cultures where whole eco types specialise on particular prey items. One group might only eat fish, another might mix it up a bit and eat fish and seals.

Although there is still a lot to learn about our orca, it is believed that they eat only other cetaceans. It has never been confirmed that they prey on seals.

The only kills that have been witnessed, is of them killing porpoise. I am one of the few that have been fortunate enough to witness such a kill, when we saw Nicola, likely to be John Coe’s or Aquarius’s mother, with another male from the group called Floppy Fin catch and eat a porpoise near Staffa many years ago when I worked as a guide on the sea life surveys boat. A necropsy of one of our group found minke whale baleen in the stomach contents, so this proved minke were on the menu for this group. Maybe the orca were simply full? Or maybe they are not able to hunt such large prey without a larger pod? Yet another thing we do not know about these amazing animals.

We needed fuel, so went into Arinagour on Coll and left them heading off towards the Dutchman’s and Tiree. When we came back out we went across to Lunga on the Treshnish isles to drop anchor for the night. Something I have long since wanted to do.

We went ashore to spend some time with the puffins and immerse ourselves in the amazing energy of Harp Rock with its tens of thousands of nesting sea birds. The noise is as spectacular as the view. I sat with puffins around me and scanned the mirror calm seas for more whales.

I soon picked up the tall dorsals of John Coe and Aquarius again towards the south end of Tiree and watched as they headed further south into the sunset. A perfect day, so grateful.

Daniel’s Mullman tours are now up and running. Check out his website at


Caption: John Coe into the sunset.
Photograph: Aaron MacLean