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An over-whale-ming experience!

The last months of the lockdown have been really hard, and so like many others, I’ve been trying to make the most of walking outside and immersing into nature. It’s amazing how much exposure to just a small part of the natural world, like hearing bird song overhead or smelling freshly cut grass, can sooth and bring back a sense of well-being. For those of us lucky enough to live near the coast, it’s a wonderful place to explore as you never know what might appear from the deep!

Evening light over Portaferry and Strangford Lough ©Lawrence Eagling 2020

Just last week we were treated to a once in a lifetime experience, two bull orca right on our doorstep in Strangford Lough! Orca sightings are rare in UK and Irish waters as there aren’t many of these animals around our coast. The only UK resident group are known as the West Coast Community, made up of eight animals, mostly seen off Scotland. The pod are relatively well known, enough that each individual has been identified and documented, and so from matching markings our two visitors were quickly identified as John Coe (with a very distinctive fin notch) and his pal, Aquarius. The rest of the group is made up of Comet & Floppy Fin (males), and Nicola, Moneypenny, Puffin & Occasus (females).

Two orca John Coe and Aquarius passing in front of Strangford ©Lawrence Eagling 2020

However, the orca in our waters are in trouble. In 2016, one of the older West Coast Community orcas, Lulu was found dead off the Irish coast and a post mortem showed her body contained one of the highest concentrations of toxic pollutants such as PCBs, ever seen in a marine mammal. These were over 100 times the limit which damages animal health. PCBs were banned in the 1970s, but it is believed that the high levels persisting have damaged the orca and left them infertile. This shocking fact shows how even pollutants we have long since stopped letting run into water channels are still affecting our natural world. It’s hard to protect animals like the orca that can travel such broad distances and might run into pollutants or other harms on their travels. John Coe, as one of the more easily identified members of the group, has been spotted all over UK and Irish waters in recent years, including the Herbrides, Northumberland and Cork which covers some distance! However it does seem that the tide is turning as more and more people come together to protect and campaign for nature. The West Coast Community may not be able to replenish its population due to human actions which is terribly sad, but by studying these amazing animals and enjoying their brief appearance, we can ensure history does not repeat and take inspiration to action and protect our natural world.

John Coe and Aquarius spouting at the surface ©Lawrence Eagling 2020

For more information on the West Coast Community and conservation of cetaceans, check out these webpages:


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