Killer whales visit Strangford

Killer whales visit Strangford

20 May 2020

TWO killer whales defied the coronavirus lockdown and came into Strangford Lough last week.

The whales, also known as orcas, swam around Strangford harbour on Friday evening to the delight and amazement of local people who watched from the quayside and shoreline.

They then made their way into the middle of the lough where they were spotted by local boat operators and then returned to the Irish Sea on the ebb tide.

Brothers Simon and Jeremy Rogers, who run Cuan Marine Services, were on the lough at the time with their sons, Michael (14) and Dara (13).

Jeremy said: “This is the third time I’ve seen them in the lough in my lifetime. My son and nephew were with us and got their phones out. We were just full of excitement and stunned to see them.

“When we’ve seen them before they always seemed to be chasing something, but these ones stayed around and were swimming around us. We always try to keep our distance from them, so we just sat there for a while and they came to us.”

The orcas belong to a pod of eight killer whales which range around the British Isles — and even have names. One of them, known as John Coe, has a large notch in the bottom of his dorsal fin and a bite mark in his tail. The other is called Aquarius.

Among the people to catch them on camera was Portavogie man Adam Osborne.

He said: “I got a message to say there were whales in the lough and figured there’d be no chance of seeing them. But I went down to the shore anyway and was amazed at the sight of them. I feel very lucky.”

Hugh Thurgate, the National Trust’s head warden on Strangford Lough and the Ards Peninsula, watched the killer whales from near the Fool’s Penny in Killyleagh.

He had been alerted to the whales by the captain of the Strangford ferry.

He said: “Seeing these orcas was a joyous moment and truly a once in a lifetime experience and for that I feel privileged.

“They must have been three nautical miles away, close to 5km, and I was struck by their enormous size, particularly the dorsal fin that was close to six feet in height.

“One could sense their power as they breached against the tide, forcing a wave to break over their noses with a splash of white followed shortly afterwards by their blow 

which propelled an aerosol above their heads.

“When they submerged it was with a shallow dive, almost in slow motion and it took a long time for the dorsal fin to disappear under the water. They breached repeatedly and then disappeared for a few minutes before emerging again.”

Local marine biologist Dr Bob Brown said the sight of the killer whales was a “real treat” for those lucky enough to see them.

“If whale populations  — at least some of them — continue to recover from the disastrous slaughter of the last century, we may hope to see more whale visits,” he remarked.

“Whales are dramatic participants in the world’s rich marine life, as any follower of David Attenborough will testify. They are brilliant tourism spectacles, and, if they became a regular feature of our local wildlife, they’d be a real money-spinner, and our rural economy could do with some of that.

“So we should welcome these enormous and highly intelligent animals.  That means respecting their space and not behaving in a way that disrupts their behaviour and even frightens them.”

Dr Brown said there were well established rules for small boats engaging with whales and dolphins. These include:

Limit the encounter to 15 minutes

Leave and arrive gently and slowly, avoiding sudden changes of course and engine revs

Keep speed well below five knots, the slower the better

Never approach head-on or directly from the rear; travel in parallel direction and slightly behind

Stay at least 100m away

If dolphins or other whales start bow-riding, keep constant speed and direction, and let them decide whether to come and when to leave

Don’t herd, corral, surround or chase

 If there’s more than one boat, they should keep 200m apart, no more than two boats within a kilometre

 If a whale or dolphin approaches a boat put the engine in neutral and let it decide what to do

If the whale suddenly changes its course or speed, moves away or hastily dives, it’s a sign it’s not happy and disturbed. In that case back off slowly.