Record dolphin, porpoise and whale sightings during national survey

Orcas spotted off the Scottish coast during the Seawatch Foundation annual count

Orcas spotted off the Scottish coast during the Seawatch Foundation annual count

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A record-breaking number of dolphins and whales were spotted around the UK coast during an annual national survey of cetaceans carried out last summer.

The number of individual animals recorded jumped by a fifth compared to the previous highest total, recorded in 2014.

In all there were 12 species seen around the UK during last year’s count, a total only surpassed once before when a rare Arctic beluga whale was spotted off Northern Ireland in 2015.

Scotland led the way for sighting rates, with more than one animal seen every hour of watching in some parts – the UK national rate has increased to 0.98.

Scottish waters also showed the highest diversity, with seven different species out of a UK-wide total of 12 seen in the watch region off the north-west coast.

Watchers in the Outer Hebrides recorded six species.

Species seen around Scotland included minke, humpback and pilot whales, harbour porpoises, risso’s and bottlenose dolphins. Figures from the 2016 National Whale and Dolphin Watch, run by conservation charity Seawatch Foundation, also show Scotland as a hotspot for orcas, or killer whales, with 21 separate reports – including a pod of 25 seen in Yell Sound in the Shetland islands.

Altogether there were a total of 374 sightings recorded around Scotland, which accounted for more than a quarter of the total number from around the UK during the nine-day survey period last July.

There were also some unexpected appearances north of the border such striped dolphins, sighted three times, including a group of 35 seen north-west of Fair Isle.

The species is usually found well south of the British Isles.

Another sighting that attracted huge public interest was a humpback whale, seen near the Ythan estuary, off the coast of Aberdeenshire.

The rare ocean giant was first spied during the survey but remained in the area for several months.

The 2016 survey had higher sightings reports than ever before and more hours of dedicated watches.

It also represents the first time in recent years that the number of sightings in Scotland was lower than in England, thought to be down to a bigger turnout for the count south of the border than in previous years.

The highest sightings ever recorded in Scotland were in the 2014 survey.

Seawatch Foundation sightings officer Kathy James said: “We can see from the figures – 374 sightings in 2016 and 373 sightings in 2015 – that Scottish waters are home to a wealth of easily viewable whales, dolphins and porpoises, and the figure is remaining steady.

“What we can hope is that more folks in Scotland will take part in the 2017 event in order to build on the number of observations, as appeared to have happened around England during the 2016 event.

“We know there’s incredible wildlife out there. We just need you to go and spot it.”

In total 24 of the world’s 83 cetacean species have been witnessed in Scottish waters.

This year’s National Whale and Dolphin Watch takes place from 29 July to 6 August.

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