Two days witnessing wild orcas off the coast of Orkney | Scotland

Finally, we got news that orcas were spotted not too far from us, just off the southern coast of Orkney. We zoomed off and began scanning the sea, it took about an hour to finally spot them as a few swam near a small island. They were pretty far away so we could only really watch them with our binoculars but it was still quite a sight as they seemed to be celebrating a kill. One of them kept breaching which is the most incredible thing to witness. It launched its huge shiny, tuxedo looking body out the water and created a massive splash. Sadly two boats were harassing them, chasing their every move and getting stupidly close when they were breaching. It was a shame to witness them being so disrespectful and we could see the orcas change their direction a few times to try and avoid the boats. After milling around the same area for a while the orcas began swimming parallel to the coast. The problem now was all the land in Orkney is privately owned and protected with barbed wire fences. There’s long areas of the coast where you can’t access the sea because the roads just lead down to peoples houses or farms. I scanned my map and saw a guesthouse close to the sea so we decided to risk it and take that road and luckily there was a large car park at the bottom. We ran down to the coast as quickly as possible but it was a lost cause, the field dropped into a deep gully and the orcas were now moving fast so we had to make a move ahead of them.

We dashed back to Helga, drove to the cemetery near Stromness and hiked along the shoreline where I managed to slip on an algae covered rock and throw my neck out, classic Lauren move. As predicted they came our way but they weren’t very close to shore so we continued north. We stopped at Skaill beach but it seemed like we were the only people there, everyone else went further north. We quickly ran along the headland and eventually saw the orcas swimming alongside a little sailing boat. When most of them passed us on their way north we went to the next stop, at the Brough of Birsay. We waited and waited but they never showed up. Strangely someone left a message on the sighting page saying they were still at Skaill Bay so they must’ve turned back on themselves.

It wasn’t a total disappointment though, while we sat there scanning the sea Craig spotted a Minke whale surface for a brief moment. The weather also perked up and we were treated to a clear evening so after dinner we decided to walk across the causeway to Birsay and check out the sunset. The sun was already quite low by the time we made it across to the lighthouse, it was glowing on the horizon and the sky was stained pink. As I was snapping random photos I happened to capture the very moment Craig spotted another minke whale. Unfortunately I managed to miss both of them.

The next morning we eagerly checked online for any orca sightings but there weren’t any yet, so we had a lazy start and walked into the nearby village to use the toilets. Just as we made a cup of tea before noon someone reported orcas not far from Stromness. We necked our teas and hit the road. I was constantly checking my phone for updates on their direction, and I even messaged the lady who sighted them to ask where they seemed to be heading. Her response was ‘they’re just milling around here’. Then a few minutes later she added a post saying ‘free quick boat trip to see the orcas, meet at the Stromness pier by 12:20’. We didn’t know if it was a joke or a scam, or maybe just a generous stranger but we had to give it a go, right? We were almost in Stromness and we had just 10 minutes to spare so we quickly parked up, we even went to a paid car park which is unheard of for us as we would always opt to park out of town for free and walk in but we didn’t have time for that. We ran down the pier with just 5 minutes to spare and finally we spotted the boat.

A local called Hazel runs a dive boat business and after being away for a few months she needed to get the engine running on her boat. Seeing as the orcas were just five minute’s away she thought it would be a nice gesture to offer some people a free ride. We were over the moon! The other lucky ones who made it onto the boat were three locals and a couple of tourists who had just been taking a stroll along the pier when the captain asked them if they wanted to see orcas – talk about being in the right place at the right time.

It was a foggy day with a slight drizzle in the air but I kind of like that mystical look sometimes, especially when a 6ft black fin suddenly appears through the mist. To begin with a small boat was already by the orcas and he was way too close! The bull must’ve been just a couple meters away and the boat still had it‘s engine running. While that boatmen wasn’t following the marine code, Hazel was and she kept the required distance away from the orcas. In fact she did a typical move we’ve seen many a times while on whale watching trips, which was to move ahead of the orcas in their rough direction and shut the engine off. Then it’s just down to waiting and hoping they continue in the same direction, thus swimming right by us. It worked out pretty well and they swam within about 30m of us which was just wonderful to see and a nice experience to see them from a boat rather than on a clifftop. We were probably out on the boat for about 30 minutes and we were so grateful to get the lucky trip.

While the other passengers cracked on with their day we obviously had no choice but to fulfil our orca obsession by following them along the coast. They stopped milling about Stromness and began making their way around the south western coast and we were trying to figure out if they were going to head north or south. As we walked around the coast we asked a couple of lads if they could see them as they were really far out by this point. They pointed to the direction of them…then it was a bit awkward because they obviously had no idea that we’d seen these orca before and they said “yeah there’s one male and a couple others, 5 in total” I didn’t dare correct him so we smiled and nodded, but in my mind I was saying ‘there’s actually 8 of them…and that big male is called Buster’. He’s a very obvious one, Buster, due to a little notch in his huge dorsal fin. Luckily the consensus was that they were heading north, if they went south we wouldn’t be able to see them as they’d be off the coast to Hoy, another island.

So without hesitation we headed off to Yesnaby where there were a quite a few cars already. We didn’t want to sit around the crowd of people so we headed up the coast to a rocky cliff that seemed to protrude into the sea more than the others – our hope was that it would be the point the orcas would swim closest to. It wasn’t great weather, drizzly rain was beginning to fall and it made scanning the sea with our binoculars or taking photos rather tricky. It took a while but we spotted them making their way up the coast. When they swam below the cliffs that we stood on two of them playfully rode a wave into the shore, their whole bodies were visible for a moment through the clear water. It seemed a bit of a crazy move to make, we’ve seen them doing this before and they can get worryingly close to beaching themselves on a rocky ledge. We were thrilled with the sight of it though, but we didn’t hang around long after they passed and we began running back to Helga.

Our next location was up the coast of Marwick Head and it was at this point that we realised the day was cracking on and we didn’t want to have a really late dinner…but we also didn’t want to miss the orcas swim by so Craig decided to start prepping it all. He chopped up the veg for a stir fry and fried it off, the moment he turned the hob off I spotted the orcas coming into the bay. We frantically packed everything away, turned all the gas off and ran up the cliff.

They spent some time hunting below the distant cliffs before they started swimming our way. As they did, the whole pod seemed to group together. It was actually two pods, the 27s and the 64s, both of which we’d seen in Shetland the previous week. It was amazing seeing them all together, sometimes they can be quite spread out and it’s hard to know which one to aim your camera at. But now they were swimming in a neat line! They weren’t going under and resurfacing, instead they just stayed close to the surface so we had about 9 perfect black fins coming straight towards us. I don’t know why they were doing this, maybe a hunting technique because a few of them were spy-hopping where they poke their head right out the water to have a look around. I love it when they do that as it gives a rare view of their pristine white underside. A few of them were also tail slapping where they hit the surface of the water with their tail.

They were quickly approaching us and as luck would have it they swam right below us. The tail slapping continued and one even partially leaped out the water, showing us half of its white body. It was such an amazing encounter, seeing so many of them swimming beneath us. We had to do a couple more sprints along the cliff tops as they moved along and then we drove Helga north to the Brough of Birsay.

It felt like Groundhog Day following the route we took yesterday, but in a good way, and yesterday they didn’t continue up to Birsay. This time it was looking promising so we ran across the causeway and watched as they swam alongside us, following the rocky shoreline around the island. At one point we spotted a seal darting through the water and the orcas chasing it. The lucky seal managed to get away and the orcas continued swimming so we dashed along the hill tops. They move so quickly so instead of just catching up with the tail end of them we decided to cut across the island and try to beat them. It was a great idea in theory, but after ten minutes of waiting they just weren’t coming our way.

One couple left to walk back and see what they were doing and we got a wave from them so we ran that way to find the orcas just milling about below the cliffs. They may of just killed a seal as they seemed pretty happy again with a few leaps out the water. As they passed Birsay everyone wondered if they would head around the north coast of the mainland or straight up to the next group of islands. We should of just given up there, it was already 7pm but with adrenaline rushing through our bodies we drove another 30km east. It was the first place where you could actually park up by the sea and luckily we weren’t the only crazy people to continue tracking them. The chances of them making it here before sunset was almost impossible so with time to wait we made our quick stir fry dinner with the veg all pre cooked from earlier. It was raining now and the sun had set but people were still standing outside, chatting and staring through their scopes. I certainly felt grateful to have Helga to keep us warm while we waited. They never did show up though, so when it was pitch black we drove up the road to a beach we’d stayed at before and headed straight to bed. What a day!

I’m quite behind with these blog posts, but a few days after this encounter with the orcas one was found dead on the coastline. It was a member of the 27s pod, number #151 and only around five years old. After a group of specialists did tests on the body it was discovered that the poor thing had gotten entangled in rope and could not reach the surface to get air. It’s tail had obvious cut marks and tears in the skin from where the rope had cut into it. Bizarrely there wasn’t any rope on the tail when it was washed up so I have my suspicions that it wasn’t just a lose rope in the sea but active fisherman who realised what had happened and cut the rope off. But it was too late, the orca had drowned and it was the most heartbreaking news. It was a healthy, happy orca, no plastics were found in its stomach, just evidence of seal. So yeah that was some really sad news for us to hear.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Diana Flynn says:

    Wow, amazing photos, as always! Such a shame about the one that died…😫 cheers to you both. Xxx

    1. Thanks Di! I know I was absolutely heartbroken and so angry at the fishing industry. By the way – we’re in Ireland now 🤪 (very behind on my blogs!)

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