[16.00 7th January update below] A killer whale found dead, stranded on Tiree on 3rd January 2016, has been identified as Lulu, a member of the West Coast Community of orcas.
The West Coast Community are a unique and highly vulnerable group of killer whales; numbering only nine and never producing any calves. The tiny population have never been known to interact with other groups which visit UK shores. The loss of Lulu brings the group down to only 8 individuals.
This small and well-known group is Britain and Ireland’s only known resident population of killer whales and feared to be at risk of extinction. They are unique in this region in that their diet primarily comprises other marine mammals. A second type of killer whales are occasionally seen in these waters but these feed primarily on fishes and seals and are far more wide-ranging – between the Hebrides and Iceland.
The identity of the stranded animal was confirmed this week by Dr Andy Foote, an orca specialist and Dr Conor Ryan of Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust.
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 Conor Ryan, Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust’s Sighting and Stranding Officer, says: ‘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.’
Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust has been studying orca in the Hebrides using photo ID, since 1992. Lulu was last photographed [top photograph] 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. The Trust encourages members of the public to join them aboard Silurian to help monitor cetacean species found in the Hebrides – recognised as one of the most diverse marine environments in Europe.
Dr Andy Foote says: ‘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 that help by providing sightings, photographs and reporting strandings.’
The Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme is hoping to conduct an examination of the animal in the next few days which might shed light on the cause of death. This is the only positive in the loss of Lulu – but it could prove very important., As well as using the port mortem to try to gain more insights into the causes of the strandings that more often than not end badly, HWDT’s scientists will be hoping to find evidence suggesting why this unusual group have not been reproducing.
Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust is working to secure the future of western Scotland’s cetaceans and the Hebrides’ globally important marine environment through education, research and engagement with local communities.
16.00 7th January Update
Lulu died from drowning, having become inextricably entangled in rope, probably from fishing gear.
A post-mortem examination on her, conducted by the Scottish Rural College’s Dr Andrew Brownlowhas found ‘convincing evidence’ that she had become entwined in ’10-15mm rope, likely still attached to gear of some sort’. The rope was apparently wrapped around her tail, and would have dragged behind her, making swimming all but impossible.
Dr Brownlow has said that although the team found no remaining rope attached to her, ‘the lesions are very similar to those we see from creel rope entanglement in baleen whales.’
Sic transit gloria mundi.
Note: The top photograph shows Lulu photographed from Silurian off Waternish, July 2014 ©Kerry Froud, HWDT . Above is Lulu found stranded on Tiree © John Bowler, RSPB Scotland; These photographs have been released for use with this story only, copyright remains with the photographers identified here.