by 2022 Residential volunteer and guide Michael Amos
For many years, orcas had been at the very top of my wildlife bucket list. And yet, it’s fair to say that, for the longest time, I had the absolute worst of luck trying to see these animals. During my time as a Residential Volunteer at Spey Bay in 2022, I ventured to Fraserburgh on multiple occasions to try and see a pod of orcas which spent the whole of May that year hanging around the area. But they always appeared either the day before or the day after my attempts. Fast forward to this year, where I stayed in Caithness for the whole of Orca Watch week in the hope of seeing them. On the night of our arrival, orcas were seen making their way towards Dunnet Head, so we stopped off at this location and hoped they would soon appear. Sea conditions were far from ideal though and the orcas proved to be elusive in the rough seas. We stuck it out in the cold, biting winds for two and a half hours before leaving. Lo and behold, the orcas turned up two minutes – two minutes! – after we left! It was then another story of bad luck later on in the week, with an orca sighting from the Pentland Venture leading us to book the following trip afterwards. The orca, however, had moved on by the time we were on the boat.
Orca Watch felt like my best shot at trying to see orcas in the UK, and even after spending the whole week here, I was not lucky. Two weeks on from Orca Watch, I was on a full day whale watching trip cruising the Inner Hebrides with Basking Shark Scotland. We had moored at the Cairns of Coll following a successful spell of minke whale and harbour porpoise sightings, when the most unexpected news broke through on Facebook – there were orcas south of us near Staffa. And not just any orcas, but the legendary John Coe and Aquarius – the last two members of the West Coast Community. However, by the time we were ready to head back out to sea, John Coe and Aquarius had stopped travelling and were instead milling around in no particular direction. The skipper told us unless the orcas head our way, we were not going to be able to travel down and see them due to the tight schedule we were running to. There I was on the boat, not just feeling frustration at this, but genuine sadness too. Never before had I felt so upset about missing a wildlife sighting and I sat on the boat thinking I am clearly never meant to see orcas. My curse had struck again, or so I thought…
A short while later, in a moment when all my hope was gone, news suddenly broke through that John Coe and Aquarius had changed direction and were heading north towards us. I could not believe it. The skipper immediately changed course and we started making our way south towards them. I held my breath in suspense and all I was thinking was ‘’We have come this far. Orcas, please don’t do this to me again’’.
We got to the area where they had been spotted and everyone’s eyes were fixated to the sea like glue. Suddenly, at a distance ahead of us, a gigantic dorsal fin with a distinctive notch appeared at the surface. It took me a minute to comprehend what was happening – I was watching John Coe! THE John Coe! Then, to the left of us, Aquarius appeared. Unbelievably, not only did we see him tail-slapping, but he gave two full breaches as well! These are behaviours which have only rarely been observed in the West Coast Community, so it was nothing short of astonishing to see. John Coe disappeared while we were watching Aquarius, when, all of a sudden, he popped up right next to the boat! John Coe then proceeded to surface close to our boat on several further occasions. The skipper turned off the engine, allowing us to hear nothing but the raw sound of John Coe’s mighty blow when he surfaced close to us. He then proceeded to head off into the distance towards Aquarius. I was gobsmacked and in a state of almost utter shock. Had this really happened? Had I actually just seen THE John Coe and Aquarius? As unbelievable as it might have seemed, I had. Not only had I seen my first ever orcas, but it was the UK’s two most famous and sought-after orcas I had seen.
Having spent over a decade following the story of the West Coast Community, seeing John Coe and Aquarius genuinely felt like meeting heroes of mine. This was a truly remarkable encounter, yet it was tinged with sadness too. The West Coast Community have never produced a calf in the entire time they have been studied due to high PCB levels within the pod. With John Coe and Aquarius being the only two pod members that have been seen in recent years, this community will very sadly go extinct within our lifetimes. With John Coe estimated to be around 60 years old, the past few years have seen cetacean enthusiasts on edge as to how much longer John Coe and Aquarius will be with us. But for now, they are still going strong, and I feel immensely privileged to have had the opportunity to see these amazing animals when I had the chance.