The Wildlife Education Officers are in the last month this year of the programme of activities on board the ms King of Scandinavia. On the 15th September at 8.45 an ORCA pod, probably a family group of approx 5 individuals were seen feeding. The seabird the Northern gannets were diving into the bait-ball and stealing some of their fish. The passengers on the outside and inside Observation decks watched them for up to 10 minutes as we travelled closer and then past. Some ran with me up to the side of the ship to watch them disappear into the distance. There was 1 male with a dorsal fin of nearly 2 metres; the others were probably females or juveniles with the shorter curved fins.
Orcas are only seen from the coastline about 3 a year off the North East England and we have seen them twice now from the ship. Once in April off South Shields they were 3 km’s off the boat heading east. Then today at 100metres away from the ship and around 10 km’s away from the shore of Sunderland. As top predators there are fewer killer whales than other animals, (more correctly called Orcas as they belong in the dolphin/ toothed family). Orcas range widely and these could be a northern pod that was travelling to their Southern most range after a school of fish. The Hebridian pod of ORCAs is thought to consist of around 20 animals. They are identified by fin shape and markings. We cannot say for sure where these animals have come from. There are both resident pods that eat fish and stay around coastal territories. Then there are wide ranging pods, sometimes all male, that travel further and hunt sea mammals such as seals. Common harbour seals pup in July but the bigger Grey Atlantic seals are having there white coat pups now on our rocky coasts. It is believed orcas may hunt the basking sharks that come into our coastal waters with the blooms in the plankton tonic animals in the warmer months.
Like all Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) orcas are at risk from human activities which include; over fishing, pollution, climate change, disturbance and harassment. ORCA Organisation Cetacea monitors the European population of cetacean and provides scientific data and educational programmes to help in the knowledge and protection of these fantastic animals which we like to see. They have been working in partnership for 3 years with DFDS seaways having a science team and a Wildlife Officer programme on board the passenger ferries. This means the charity can collect long term scientific data following a regular transect route through areas like the North Sea. The Wildlife Officers who stay on the ship from April to October, talk to all the passengers about marine conservation and point out the marine wildlife on the deck watches. Lots of people do not know there are whales and dolphins in the North Sea so it is fantastic to show them these animals and get them excited about the marine wildlife found here.
The North Sea is better known for its once extensive oil, gas and fisheries. But it is also very important to sea birds and the sea mammals that live there. It is autumn now and this time of year many land birds are migrating over the North Sea heading to their wintering grounds in the South or West. This means over the next month ORCA and DFDS are expecting lots of sightings’ of migrant birds landing on the ship to help them on their journeys. There is always something to sea out in the North Sea.
Kathryn Driscoll Senior Wildlife Education Officer for ORCA Organisation Cetacea