Orcas in Scotland

Written by Chris Thornton | 14th of March 2024
Orcas in Scotland

In the vast, cold waters surrounding Scotland, a magnificent and powerful creature slices through the waves with grace and majesty. The orca, or killer whale (Orcinus orca), is the ocean's apex predator and one of the most awe-inspiring sights for anyone lucky enough to witness them in their natural habitat. These intelligent, social animals roam the world's oceans, from the icy waters of the Arctic and Antarctic to the warmer seas near the equator. However, there's something uniquely enchanting about the orcas that inhabit the Scottish seas.

I live in northeast Scotland on the Moray Coast, and recently, there have been many sightings of these amazing creatures. Scotland's rugged coastline and scattered archipelagos, including Shetland, Orkney, Moray Firth and Hebrides islands, provide a dramatic backdrop to sightings of these majestic marine mammals. Here, orcas patrol the waters, hunting for fish, seals, and sometimes other cetaceans, showcasing their prowess as the ocean's top predators. Beyond their ecological role, orcas are special in Scottish culture, inspiring awe, respect, and fascination.

This article dives into the world of Scotland's orcas, exploring where and when they can be seen, their social behaviours, the challenges they face, and the efforts being made to protect them.

What are Orcas / Killer Whales?

An orca, also known as a killer whale (Orcinus orca), is a large, toothed whale that is the largest member of the oceanic dolphin family. Orcas are highly adaptable and versatile predators known for their striking black-and-white colouring, intelligence, and complex social structures. They are found in oceans worldwide, from the frigid Arctic and Antarctic regions to tropical seas.

Apex Predators

Orcas are apex predators, meaning they are at the top of the food chain and have no natural predators. Their varied diet includes fish, seals, and sometimes even other whales. Their sophisticated hunting techniques often involve cooperative strategies, showcasing their high level of social organization and intelligence.

Family structure

Orcas live in groups called pods, which are family units ranging from a few individuals to over 30 members. These pods are matrilineal, meaning they are centered around and led by females, usually the oldest and most experienced matriarchs. The social bonds within these pods are strong, with some orcas remaining with their mothers for their entire lives.

Communication among orcas is complex, involving many sounds, including clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls. Each pod's unique dialect suggests that vocal communication plays a significant role in their social structure.

Orcas are known for their impressive acrobatic skills, including breaching (jumping out of the water), spy hopping (rising vertically out of the water to view their surroundings), and tail-slapping. These behaviours are thought to be forms of communication, play, or hunting techniques.

Due to their top predator status, orcas play a crucial role in maintaining the health of marine ecosystems by helping regulate their prey populations. However, they face threats from human activities, including pollution, depletion of their prey species due to overfishing, and the impacts of climate change on their ocean habitats. Conservation efforts are ongoing to protect orcas and their environments, ensuring these magnificent creatures continue to thrive in the world's oceans.

Killer Whales in Scotland
A rare sighting of an orcas from the Caithness coast.

What do orcas eat in Scotland?

In Scottish waters, orcas have a varied diet that reflects the region's rich and diverse marine ecosystem. The specific diet of orcas in Scotland can vary based on the individual pod's hunting habits and the availability of prey in different areas and seasons. Generally, their diet includes:

  1. Seals: Orcas are known to prey on various species of seals, which are abundant around the Scottish coastlines. They have developed specialized hunting techniques to capture these agile and often powerful marine mammals.

  2. Fish: Fish make up a significant part of the diet of some orcas. This could include salmon, herring, and mackerel in Scotland, among others. Orcas can hunt individually or work together in pods to herd fish into tight balls before feasting on them.

  3. Cetaceans: Some orcas also hunt other marine mammals, including dolphins, porpoises, and even other whale species, such as minke whale. Orcas have been observed preying on larger cetaceans, showcasing their skill as apex predators.

  4. Birds: Though less common, orcas have been known to feed on seabirds. This behaviour is not as frequently observed but indicates the orca's opportunistic feeding habits.

Seal with orca bites
I'm not sure if you can see on this image, but this seal has had a lucky escape as it has orca teeth marks.

Why are orcas called killer whales?

The name "killer whale" originates from the orca's reputation as a formidable predator. The term can be traced back to early observations by sailors and whalers who witnessed orcas preying on larger whale species. Orcas were often seen attacking and feeding on other marine mammals, including whales much larger than themselves, which led to their being called "whale killers" by these observers. Over time, this descriptor was inverted to "killer whales."

Orcas are apex predators, meaning they are at the top of the food chain and have no natural predators. Their diet is diverse, including fish, seals, and even large whales, depending on the population and their specific hunting strategies. Their ability to hunt in groups and use sophisticated techniques to capture their prey contributes to their "killer" reputation. They can sometimes be cruel and play with their prey by repeatedly throwing them high in the air.

Despite the fierce connotation of their common name, orcas are complex creatures known for their intelligence, social structures, and even playful behaviours. The name "orca," derived from their scientific name Orcinus orca, is now more commonly used by scientists and conservationists in an effort to dissociate the species from the negative implications of the term "killer whale" and to highlight their role as an integral part of marine ecosystems rather than focusing solely on their predatory habits.

Sea Watch Foundation
An orca pod.

Orcas in Scottish Waters

Scotland's seas are home to diverse marine life, including the formidable orca. The presence of these majestic marine mammals in Scottish waters is a testament to the region's rich biodiversity and ecological significance. Orcas are integral players in the marine ecosystems around Scotland. They are often seen patrolling the coastlines and around the islands, looking for a juicy seal to eat!

Prime Locations for Orca Sightings

  • Shetland Islands: The Shetland archipelago, lying northeast of mainland Scotland, is one of the most celebrated spots for orca sightings. These islands serve as a prime location for observing orcas, especially during the summer months when they come closer to shore, chasing schools of fish or seals.

  • Orkney Islands: Just south of Shetland, the Orkney Islands offer another fantastic vantage point for orca enthusiasts. Orcas are often spotted around these islands, following similar seasonal patterns to those observed around Shetland.

  • Hebrides: The Hebrides, both Inner and Outer, are known for their stunning landscapes and rich marine life. Orcas travel through these waters, particularly in the summer, providing thrilling encounters for locals and visitors alike.

  • Moray Firth: Orca sightings in the Moray Firth are becoming much more common and can be particularly exciting due to their rarity in the past. This area is known for its resident population of bottlenose dolphins, but orcas can occasionally be seen here, likely in pursuit of prey or exploring the extensive coastline.

Best Times for Sightings

The likelihood of spotting orcas in Scotland varies throughout the year, with the best chances occurring from late spring to early autumn (May through August). During this period, orcas are more frequently observed near the coastlines, following migratory patterns of fish and seals, their primary food sources. However, sightings are not limited to these months, and orcas can occasionally be observed during other times of the year, albeit less frequently.

Watch for their distinctive dorsal fins protruding above the water from the top of their bodies.

Where have Orcas been seen recently in Scotland?

Here are a few of the most recent sightings in Scotland:

  • Offshore from Macduff just outside Macduff Aquarium on the 14th of March 2024.

  • Orcas were seen on the 2nd of March offshore from Burghead, Strathlene, Findochty and Portknockie on the Moray Coast. A few days before, they were spotted in Wick.

  • Spotted near the Point of Sleet in South Sky on the 25th of February 2024.

  • Bluemull Sound, Shetland, on the 20th of February 2024.

  • Shandwick Beach, Easter Ross, on the 30th of January 2024.

  • The Shetland Isles on the 12th of November, 2023.

Scotland's resident pod of orcas
A large pod of orcas. Image: Craig Davis.

Conservation Status and Challenges

Despite their intelligence and adaptability, orcas face many challenges threatening their survival. In Scotland, as in many parts of the world, the conservation status of orcas prompts a critical examination of the human impacts on these magnificent creatures and the urgent need for concerted conservation efforts.

Current Conservation Status

Globally, orcas are classified as "Data Deficient" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), indicating that there is insufficient information to make a direct or indirect assessment of their risk of extinction. Given their wide distribution and diverse habitats, this status underscores the challenges in studying orcas. However, specific populations, such as the orcas frequenting Scottish waters, face unique challenges, some severe enough to warrant concern for their future.

Threats Facing Orcas in Scottish Waters

  • Pollution: Chemical pollutants, such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), heavy metals, and other toxins, accumulate in orca bodies through the food chain, leading to reproductive issues and weakened immune systems. Scotland's marine environment is not immune to these pollutants, affecting local orca populations.

  • Overfishing: The reduction of fish stocks due to overfishing poses a significant threat to orcas, impacting their primary food sources. This issue is particularly pertinent in areas like the North Sea, affecting the diet and survival of orcas in and around Scottish waters.

  • Boat Traffic and Noise Pollution: Increased boat traffic contributes to noise pollution, disrupting orca communication, navigation, and feeding behaviours. The busy shipping lanes and popular whale-watching areas around Scotland can thus inadvertently harm the very creatures they seek to admire.

  • Climate Change: The broad, overarching threat of climate change affects orcas by altering the distribution and abundance of their prey and impacting their habitat through changes in sea temperature and ice cover.

Conservation Efforts and How to Contribute

Recognizing the challenges orcas face, various conservation initiatives aim to protect and study these marine mammals, ensuring their survival for generations to come. These efforts include:

  • Research and Monitoring: Ongoing studies aim to understand better orca populations, their health, behaviours, and movements. This research is crucial for informed conservation strategies and policies.

  • Pollution Control: Efforts to reduce pollutants entering the oceans are vital. Individuals can contribute to orca conservation by supporting and advocating for policies that limit chemical discharges and promote cleaner oceans.

  • Sustainable Fisheries: Promoting and participating in sustainable fishing practices can help ensure that orcas and other marine predators have adequate food supplies.

  • Responsible Whale Watching: Following guidelines for responsible wildlife watching, including maintaining safe distances and minimizing noise, helps reduce the impact on orcas and other marine life.

Portknockie Orca
A recent orca sighting from Portknockie. Image: Liam Pritchard.

FAQs about Orcas in Scotland

Are there orcas killer whales in Scotland?

Yes, they are commonly seen on the west coast of Scotland and, more recently, on the east coast within the Moray Firth.

How many orca pods are in Scotland?

The exact number of orca pods in Scotland is not definitively known due to the nomadic nature of these marine mammals and the vastness of their habitat. Orcas observed in Scottish waters are part of the larger North Atlantic populations, and their movements can span vast distances, from the coast of Scotland to Iceland and Norway.

In Scottish waters, known groups of orcas are regularly sighted and have been studied to some extent. One of the most well-known groups is the West Coast Community, a small and unique pod of orcas that frequents the waters off the west coast of Scotland and around the Hebrides. This pod is particularly notable because it is a small, distinct group with no known calves being born in recent years, raising concerns about their long-term viability. This group is likely the same one spotted recently in the Moray Firth.

These orcas have been named. The males are Comet, John Coe, Aquarius, and Floppy Fin, and the females are Moneypenny, Nicola, Moon, Lulu, and Occasius.

Can you see killer whales in Scotland?

Only if you are very lucky can you see orcas. They only exist in the wild, and sightings are rare. Follow some wildlife groups on Facebook to get notified of recent sightings. No sea life parks in Scotland have orcas; keeping such large, intelligent animals in captivity would be cruel.

Would an orca eat a human?

It's unlikely that an orca would eat a human as we are not a common part of its diet, and they are not taught to hunt or kill humans. They are likely to be aware of the dangers of humans. Still, I personally wouldn't go swimming with them, just in case! There have been reports of orcas sinking boats near Spain and Gibraltar.

Can I see orcas on the NC500 / North Coast 500 road route?

It's possible that you could see orcas on the NC500 route, particularly on the Caithness Coast, Duncansby Head, Dornoch and Embo Beach. Keep in mind spotting them is a very rare occurrence. You have more chance of seeing them if you take a trip to Shetland, but even then, it is not guaranteed.

Orca dorsal fin
A large pod of orcas. Image: Craig Davis.

Key information on Orcas in Scotland

  • Orcas are seen frequently in Scottish waters.

  • One small pod of orcas exists in Scotland; they are seen on the west coast, Shetlands, Caithness and Moray Firth.

  • The West Coast pod has not produced offspring in over 25 years, so it could die out in the future.

  • Scottish orcas feed mainly on fish, seals and porpoises.

  • Scotland has no orcas in captivity.

  • May to August is the best time period to spot orcas in Scotland.


The presence of orcas in Scotland enriches our marine heritage and underscores the interconnectedness of all life in our oceans. Let's commit to safeguarding these remarkable creatures and their habitat, securing a future where orcas remain an integral part of Scotland's wild and captivating seascape. If you're visiting Scotland, I hope you get a glimpse of these amazing animals.

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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John Luckwell
9th of March 2024 @ 16:56:11

Chris, a very interesting and informative article. I have seen the dolphins in the Moray Firth but not yet any orcas. I did see them in a Norwegian fiord but I'll now keep a closer watch for them nearer to home in the Moray Firth!