The animals were photographed by a local boat trip crew near Covesea on Monday, marking the most southerly point off Scotland’s east coast where Icelandic orcas have ever been seen.
At least three of the animals, which are members of the dolphin family rather than whales, were individuals known to conservationists. The unexpected appearance occurred during the annual Orca Watch, organised by the research charity Sea Watch Foundation (SWF).
The operation is carefully planned to coincide with the arrival of killer whales in the Pentland Firth and allows the team to collect data about orcas and other cetaceans that visit these northerly waters.
However, the Icelandic pod surfaced more than 60 miles to the south of the strait that divides Orkney from mainland Scotland, witnessed by SWF’s Alan Airey.
The surprise occurrence sparked a huge response on social media, with representatives of the Icelandic Orca Project confirming that three of the animals had been officially catalogued there.
Killer whales can be seen in several locations around Scotland. Those seen off northern and eastern coasts are migratory, following mackerel and herring shoals.
On the other side of the country is a small group of nine animals that are resident all year round. Known as the West Coast Community, they do not interact with the migratory pods and have never produced any offspring.
“Although this sighting is now the furthest south that individuals from the Icelandic population have been confirmed, other killer whale sightings have occurred in the Moray Firth and further south on many occasions,” said SWF sighting officer Kathy James.
SWF founder and director Dr Peter Evans added: “Members of a pod that has numbered up to 14 can be seen annually around the Hebrides of west Scotland, mainly in summer.
“The most famous of these is a mature male nicknamed John Coe that we have observed since at least 1980. It has a distinct nick towards the base of the dorsal fin, making it instantly recognisable, and a chunk out of its tail – possibly a shark bite. Sightings of John Coe have ranged from the Hebrides over to East Scotland, south to the northwest coast of Ireland and well into the Irish Sea off west Wales.”