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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

Caithness Cetaceans (by Marina Swanson)
The Southern Wright whale was regarded as the ‘right’ whale to hunt in the Southern hemisphere during the early whaling days and was therefore named so. The species was slow enough for rowing boats to approach, floated when dead and had a high yield of oil and baleen, so suffered a severe loss of numbers. With protection measures now in place, the population has made a wonderful recovery and I recently watched 16 of these magnificent creatures during a trip to South Africa. The experience was not from an expensive whale watching expedition but from vantage points dotted along the coast of the small town of Hermanus. The mammals breached, skyhopped and dived to reveal beautifully formed tails that slowly disappeared beneath the ripping waves.

These whales attract thousands of visitors every year from around the globe and are an important part of the local economy by generating a powerful pull for tourism. Of course you do not need to travel such great distances to capture similar experiences. During the summer months in Caithness, sea watchers may be rewarded with equally exhilarating sights but unfortunately, the Caithness resource of whale species is perhaps unappreciated by many.

Last summer was a particularly good year for cetacean watching. Probably a combination of the good viewing conditions, increasing awareness that whales and dolphins (collectively known as cetaceans) are actually out there and arguably a result of climate change which is altering the water currents and food supplies.

The underwater world is vastly unrecorded and often forgotten about as many focus on terrestrial species which are easier and perhaps more likely to view. One can spend hours scanning up and down the coast and coming up with little other than the usual sea birds. There are some basic hints however, which can increase viewing chances. Firstly, choose days when the water is calm. White horses can make it difficult to notice dorsal fins and ‘blows’. The light is normally best early morning or late afternoon. It is important to choose a site which offers good views out to sea. Normally headlands such as Strathy Point, Holborn Head, Dunnet Head, Duncansby Stacks and Noss Head are recommended. Alternatively choose a section of cliff which provides some height to look down onto the sea. The East Caithness coast has many good sites such as the coastal view point at Swiney Hill, Lybster which provides some interpretation and some shelter from the elements with a high sided flagstone bench. While sea watching, scan the sea with both the naked eye and binoculars. Look for any disturbances of the sea surface and investigate further with your binoculars. Pay attention to flocks of sea birds as they indicate a food supply that cetaceans may be sharing. If you spot anything, search the area to either side. Whales can travel long distances at speed. If you spot something, pay particular attention to the shape of the dorsal fin and position relative to the animals back. Try to gauge size by comparing to other markers such as boats or sea birds. Also study the animals' behaviour. Some species will jump out of the water or bow-ride in front of boats.

The most common whale species to use our waters and therefore the most likely you may encounter is the minke whale, the smallest of the baleen (toothless) whales. The animal can grow up to a length of 9m and is identifiable by a small but pronounced sickle-shaped dorsal fin 2/3rds along its back. The white spots on the flippers can only been seen from land if the animal is particular close in to shore.

Last year, Orca or Killer Whales stirred up much excitement as large pods were seen up and down the coast. The ‘Free Willy’ whale was captured on camera at Staxigoe while giving a calf feeding lessons on hunting seals. Orcas are social animals and tend to swim in groups and are easy to identify with black and white colours and long, upright dorsal fins. Males tend to have a straighter dorsal fin than the smaller females. Pilot whales were also spotted. These smaller whales (5-6m long) are almost black in colour and have a bulbous, cylindrical head with large dorsal fin and flippers.

Moving on to small toothed whale species, the Moray Firth bottlenose dolphins are the most northerly resident group in the world and is one of the main species to be seen from the Caithness coast. These ‘Flipper’ dolphins are 2-3m in length and almost uniform grey in colour with slightly paler belly. They can be very play full and enjoy jumping and bow-riding boats.

Although normally a deep water species, another lively dolphin seen in large numbers around Latheron last year was the common dolphin. This species has a long, slender beak and an hourglass pattern with yellow or tan along each side of their streamlined body.

White-beaked dolphins are normally seen further off shore but again were observed last year. The white beak is the obvious tell tale sign of identification but white sides and rump behind the large sickle-shaped dorsal fin is also evident while jumping clear of the water. A very young white beaked dolphin was washed up at Dunnet Bay last summer. The post-mortem revealed that the animal had died of high concentrations of lungworm and therefore from natural causes.

One of the more robust species of dolphin is the Risso’s dolphin which can sometimes be misidentified with orcas due to the tall dorsal fin. From a distance the animal can appear white in colour due to scarring of tissue. This dolphin has a large and bulbous head without a beak.

If you see a triangular dorsal fin on a much smaller animal, you are probably looking at the most common cetacean in British waters, the harbour porpoise. They are often seen in small family groups in inshore bays and close to headlands. They rarely jump clear of the water and normally reveal only their curved back and small dorsal fin. The water between Gills Bay and Stroma is often good for picking up sightings.

The list of possible sighting could go on but you never really know what may swim round the next corner. 4 years ago a Northern Bottlenose Whale was seen off the Castle of Old Wick. This is a real rarity for these parts and indicates that other unexpected species may turn up at any time. So when the summer arrives, don’t forget to scan the coast during regular coastal walks and take some time to search for the wonderful cetaceans which may be swimming by you unnoticed. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you may pick up. The HC rangers have various cetacean leaflets which may help with identification and are available at public places such as local libraries.

If you are lucky enough to experience any views, records of what you are seeing are important. The HC rangers would be pleased to hear from you or alternatively send your records directly to the Seawatch Foundation. Strandings are also important for research purposes. Live strandings should be reported to British Divers Marine Rescue on 01847 851241 and dead strandings to Bob Reid at SAC Vet Science Division, Inverness on 01463 243030. If you wish to find out more about these amazing mammals, the North Sutherland Ranger, Paul Castle is organising a slide show followed by ‘seawatch’ on 25th May (11am) at Strathy Hall. Book a place by phoning 01641 521884. Alternatively take part in the National Seawatch 2005, meeting at Strathy Point car park on 13th August (11am) or at Waterlines car park, Lybster on 14th August (11am).

Marina Swanson
Highland Council Countryside Ranger (East Caithness)


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