The future of UK’s orca population is in jeopardy after one of the country’s only known resident killer whales was found dead off a Scottish island.
The orca, named Lulu, was stranded on Tiree on January 3.
Experts said the female has now been identified as a member of the west coast community of orcas – a small group believed to be Britain and Ireland’s only known resident population and feared to be at risk of extinction.
They are unique in that their diet primarily comprises other marine mammals. A second type of killer whale is occasionally seen in UK waters, but these feed primarily on fish and seals and are far more wide-ranging, living between the Hebrides and Iceland.
The identity of the animal was confirmed by Dr Andy Foote, an orca specialist and Dr Conor Ryan of Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT).
Using photos from the trust’s photo ID catalogue the pair were able to identify Lulu from the distinctive eye and saddle patches which are unique to each individual.
Photos taken of the stranded orca by John Bowler, RSPB Scotland Tiree officer, were crucial to allow HWDT to identify the animal.
Dr Ryan, HWDT’s sighting and stranding officer, said: “It is particularly sad to know that another one of these killer whales, unique to the British and Irish Isles, has died. There may be as few as eight individuals remaining in this population, which has not produced calves since studies began.”
HWDT has been studying orcas in the Hebrides since 1992 and Lulu was last photographed by the charity from its specialised research yacht Silurian off Waternish, Isle of Skye in July 2014.
During this encounter she was seen with a large male, John Coe and another female named Moneypenny.
Dr Foote said: “It is very sad to lose a member of this unique group. There are lots of potential contributing factors, many of them man-made. It may also be part of a very natural process. It highlights the importance of the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme and the members of the public who help by providing sightings, photographs and reporting strandings.”
Christopher B. Taub