Killer whales spotted off the Cornish coast for the first time in 50 years
Experts have confirmed two British killer whales which appeared off Cornwall were the most southerly ever recorded in 50 years of observations.
Nine days later the pair were seen back in the Hebrides.
Then, the following day, they were spotted by a research vessel in the waters off Lochboisdale, Scotland.
Multiple organisations confirmed this is the first sighting of this famous pair of killer whales off England and the most southerly point they have ever been recorded in five decades.
Movements of this small and unique group of killer whales have been tracked, over time, by The Sea Watch Foundation, Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.
One of the killer whales is known as John Coe – and has a deep nick near the base of his dorsal fin and fluke.
‘Many people ask how John Coe got his name,’ said Dr Peter Evans, Director of Sea Watch Foundation who has been tracking sightings of killer whales around the British Isles since the 1970s.
‘It is the name of a character in a book called Mile Zero by Thomas Sanchez about a freed slave who became a student of the sea.
‘It seemed a fitting name for this great wanderer of the ocean who must know the waters around Britain and Ireland better than most.’
These animals are a West Coast Community with sightings recorded largely along the west coasts of Scotland and Wales and all around Ireland.
Most sightings have been recorded in the Hebrides off the Scottish west coast although John Coe has also occasionally been seen even off the north-east coast of Scotland.
The previous confirmed sighting of the pair was reported off Skye in the Inner Hebrides in October 2020, whilst in Ireland, John Coe was last seen off the coast of Co Donegal in August 2020.
The lockdown during the winter months has meant that fewer people than normal were out at sea and around our coasts and as a result the charities have received a smaller number of sightings from the public than normal in the last 18 months.
Dr Lauren Hartny-Mills, Science and Conservation Manager at the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, monitors sightings of the group off the west coast of Scotland.
‘We are all absolutely thrilled that John Coe and Aquarius have been seen again,’ she said.
‘Most of what we know about animals like John Coe and Aquarius is thanks to dedicated members of the public who send in their sightings and photographs of whales and dolphins to citizen science sightings schemes run by regional charities like Whale Track by Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust.’
During the 1980s, John Coe was spotted within groups that numbered up to twenty individuals. That has since dwindled.
In the 1990s the largest group in which John Coe was seen was fourteen and in the subsequent decades this declined further going from ten down to eight in recent years following the death of two of the individuals.
Since 2016, these two individual males John Coe and Aquarius have not been seen with any other killer whales and no calves have been recorded since monitoring began.
Killer whales continue to be threatened in particular from pollutants.
Tragically, this unique group of killer whales may well die out in our lifetime.
These are not the only killer whales seen in British and Irish waters though and sightings of other groups and individuals have been recorded in English waters.
A number of groups of killer whales are frequently seen in Scottish waters as depicted in the recently published Scottish Killer Whale Photo identification Catalogue 2021.
Dr Peter Evans said: ‘In an average year, around 50% of Irish killer whale sightings are confirmed by IWDG to be of John Coe and others from this remnant group.
‘Seeing this apex predator in local waters is always special, but encounters with the West Coast Community Group stand out because of their long history around these isles.
‘John Coe is a symbol of both the oceans’ power and fragility, and their declining numbers reminds us that we need to do much more to protect our marine ecosystems.’
‘Together we make a plea for members of the public to send us photographs of any killer whales they see around Britain and Ireland so we can continue to track individuals.
With marine mammals at risk from human activities including climate change, entanglement, pollution, underwater noise and habitat degradation, ongoing and long-term research is crucial to improve understanding of the impacts on cetaceans, and how to protect them.
Killer whales can be seen over a wide area of British and Irish waters but mainly in the north and west.