The Orkney call to eco whale-watchers
Friday 18th March 2016
PETER FROST is off to an archipelago full of spectacular vantage points for a highly rewarding observation of its rich wildlife from puffins to whales and its ancient history
New Zealand, Australia, New England and California are just a few places advertising themselves as holiday destinations at the moment. Most of them make great play of the fact that you can watch whales as part of your holiday.
In fact you don’t need to go that far, or spend anywhere near as much money, if you want to make whale spotting a main theme of your break.
Many of us, I am sure, have had our interest in whales sharpened by the tragic strandings of five huge sperm whales in Norfolk and Lincolnshire early this year.
There are whales in waters around the British Isles and thats why I’m planning to go back to Orkney this summer, where I fully expect to see some whales and other sea mammals as well as other, just as exciting, wildlife.
Orkney is a great holiday destination, fabulous scenery, a rich history from pre-historic tombs, Stone-Age villages to memories of the last two world wars.
There is a rich cultural heritage with Orcadian fiddle music being famous around the globe.
Add to that amazing seabirds like puffins and gannets, seals, otters, even leatherback turtles and so much more to see.
Best of all are the cetaceans, the whales, dolphins and porpoises that are so often seen, not from special and expensive whale-watching boats but from the headlands and inter-island ferries.
More and more conscientious nature lovers are trying to do their whale-watching from the shore rather than the sometimes huge fleets of boats that can so often cause distress to whales.
Most spectacular of these Orkney sightings have been of killer whales. I’ve seen there a pod of killer whales or orcas, which happens several times most years — in fact 90 per cent of such sightings in Britain are off Orkney and Shetland.
The so called killer whale isn’t actually a whale at all. It is a large and truly spectacular member of the dolphin family. Orcas can measure up to 9.7m (32 feet) in length. They are easy to recognise by their distinctive black and white markings.
This awe-inspiring ocean predator lives in social groups called pods with the oldest female taking the lead role.
Pods with up to 150 animals have been spotted off Orkney.
They mainly hunt for fish including herring and mackerel but also snatch seals and porpoises, often seen throwing their prey up in the air.
The best time to see them around Orkney is between May and September although they are present all year round.
Other common whale sightings in the area are of the most numerous baleen whale, the minke whale. These marine mammals, with plates and sieve-like hairs in place of teeth, can reach up to 8.5m (28 feet) and are slender with a central ridge and a small dorsal fin. The hotspots to see minkes are the coastal waters around headlands and smaller islands.
Other, rarer whales which have been Orkney visitors include the pilot whale, sperm whale, humpback whale, fin whale, sei whale and very rarely the biggest animal ever to appear on our planet, the blue whale.
A 50-foot sperm whale appeared in shallow water near Kirkwall Pier in October a year or so ago. It remained there for some time before heading out to deeper water.
Huge whales are sometimes washed ashore during storms and often when already dead. Sometimes they perish on the beach as refloating them is near impossible and rarely can they escape to deeper waters.
In days past a whale stranding was a cause of celebration as it meant a large source of food, oil and bone. Huge pods of pilot whales would mysteriously beach themselves and people would come from all over the islands to harvest the unexpected bounty.
In earlier times whales were driven ashore by islanders. Many Orcadians joined the whale fishing fleets to Iceland and Greenland in the 18th and 19th centuries and later crewed the British whaling steamers that caused such destruction to Antarctic whale populations.
Now in Orkney the appearance of the whale is heralded as a good omen for eco-tourism, rather than food or whale oil.
The Stromness Museum on Orkney displays the rich story of Orcadian whalers with the artefacts including scrimshaw — carved and elaborately engraved whale ivory.
For the best whale-watching, I would recommend Cantick Head on the island of Hoy, Noup Head on the island of Westray and North Hill on the tiny island of Papa Westray. The latter can be reached by the world’s shortest scheduled flight that takes two minutes.
Do remember Orkney isn’t an island but an archipelago known by the collective name Orkney. The locals will quickly correct you if you refer to their home as the Orkneys. Each island in the group has its own name and its own unique character.