Summer is whale watching season for landlubbers around Orkney. You don't even need to have sea legs for great viewing.
Visit Orkney during the summer months, from May through September and your chances of spotting a killer whale, minke whale or long-finned pilot whale in the waters around this island group are excellent.
Experts report that 90 percent of the orca sightings around the United Kingdom are in the waters off Orkney and Shetland. Small pods of the black and white "killer whales" (actually related to dolphins) are regularly spotted. And in 2015 a giant pod of 150 orcas was sighted east of Orkney. That was an unusually large pod, but smaller groups of orcas are regularly spotted from shore. Orca Watch Scotland reported that 2019 was a particularly bumper year for spotting orca and other whales from the John O'Groats ferry that travels through prime orca territory. Passengers on the ferry also spotted minke whales and long-finned pilot whales along the route, south of South Ronaldsay. In May 2018, locals watched from the shore as a group of Orcas cavorted in Scapa Flow. And later the same year, in August, pods of up to five animals at a time were seen around Orkney.
Orcadians have been chasing whales for years
In times past, a whale stranding on Orkney would have been considered a lucky extra source of food.
Pods of small whales were deliberately driven onshore for food and oil. And, in the 19th century, Orcadian sailors, renowned for their skill in small boats, were regularly recruited for whaling ships heading for the South Atlantic.
The port of Stromness on the West Mainland, Orkney's second largest town, was once regularly visited by whaling fleets and visitors should look out for whale bones still decorating many of its houses.
Whale hunting with cameras
Today, whales are only hunted with cameras. Sharp-eyed passengers taking the ferry across Pentland Firth from Scrabster in Scotland to Stromness have reported sightings - especially during from May through July. But sightings from the ferry are not guaranteed and this crossing can occasionally be rough.
Actually, you've got a better chance of spotting whales and other wildlife from a comfortable perch on solid ground. Orkney is one place that you can whale watch from land. The western waters, off the cliffs and shores of Orkney's western islands offer the best odds of good sightings.
Orkney isn't an island but a group of islands (or archipelago) known by the collective name Orkney. The locals will quickly correct you if you refer to their home as "The Orkneys". Each island in the group has its own name.
For the best whale watching, locals recommend Cantick Head on the island of Hoy, Noup Head on the island of Westray and North Hill on the island of Papa Westray. For your best chance of spotting whales and dolphins, book a land-based wildlife and archaeology tour from local guides at Orcadian Wildlife. The company does longer tours with accommodations, but can also arrange shorter, tailor-made tours.
Day tours and shore excursions with a chance to whale watch are also available from WildAbout Orkney
Hoy, Westray and Papa Westray can all be reached from ports on Orkney - the mainland island - via Orkney Ferries. Ferries leave from different island ports. For Hoy, ferries depart from Houton and Stromness. For Westray and Papa Westray, ferries leave from Kirkwall. The schedule is seasonal and complicated so it's best to check the website as well as the map on the Orkney Ferries home page.
What kinds of whales can you see?
While orcas are the most common species, minke whale and long-finned pilot whale are often spotted too. In fact, at least 18 different species have been seen, drawn to the cold, fish-rich waters around the islands. In 2011, a 50-foot sperm whale cruised by to the delight of excited onlookers. In August 2019, a sperm whale was live-stranded on the sands of Shapinsay, one of the Orkney islands. By next morning the tide had floated it and it was spotted swimming north, never to be seen again.
The Sea Watch Foundation, a British environmental charity that supports the conservation of cetaceans - whales, dolphins and porpoises - keeps track of sightings around the island and publishes a surprisingly long online list. Check here for the most recent sightings, including types of whales and where seen.
Orkney whale watchers have seen:
- blue whale
- beluga whale
- sperm whale
- sei whale
- fin whale
- northern bottlenose whale
- Cuvier's beaked whale
- Sowerby's beaked whale
And that's just the beginning. If you are lucky you might also spot Atlantic white-sided dolphin, white-beaked dolphin, common dolphin, bottle-nosed dolphin, harbor porpoise and the whale-sized Risso's dolphin. Any time of year, you can also expect to see grey and common seals hanging around coastal areas, keeping fat and sleek on Orkney's marine feast.