RSPB Bempton Cliffs: Amazement as orca is seen off the Yorkshire coast in almost unknown sighting

An orca has been seen off the Yorkshire coast, the RSPB has confirmed

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An orca, an incredibly rare sight in British waters, has been recorded less than three miles off the coast of a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds nature reserve in Yorkshire.

In a post on X - formerly known as Twitter - the RSPB said the rare marine mammal was spotted off the Grandstand viewpoint at the charity's Bempton Cliffs reserve, near Bridlington, just before 3pm on Monday. "Huge tall vertical dorsal. Seen five times by numerous visitors, no sightings reported since," they said.

This marks the first time an orca - also known as a killer whale - has been seen in Yorkshire's waters since 2007.

Birdwatcher Andy Hood told NationalWorld's sister title The Yorkshire Post that the orca appeared to be in a group with minke whales, and that large numbers of visitors were still looking for it.

Two killer whales photographed in the northern North Sea in 2015 (Yorkshire Post)Two killer whales photographed in the northern North Sea in 2015 (Yorkshire Post)
Two killer whales photographed in the northern North Sea in 2015 (Yorkshire Post)

According to the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, orcas very rarely venture into the North Sea, though a fisherman filmed some off Holy Island in Northumberland in 2020. There is a resident UK community of just eight adults, mainly living off the west coast of northern Scotland during the summer, but they have not bred for 20 years.

RSPB Bempton Cliffs site manager Dave O’Hara told the Yorkshire Post: “We were very lucky that there were people in the right place at the right time. Bull orcas have a high dorsal fin that is very distinctive. It was seen about five times before it swam south, and there was then a great rush to Flamborough Bird Observatory, but it wasn’t seen again.

"There may have been females too – we are not certain that there was just one because they are social animals, so there could have been others. Females are less visible," he continued. "It most likely came from Shetland or Orkney, as they are occasionally seen on the east coast and there’s been an increase in sightings. They’re very mobile and have the ability to range long distances.”

Two males nicknamed John Coe and Aquarius were seen several times in the Irish Sea last summer, and identified as the last survivors of a Scottish west coast community that lived around the Hebrides, but struggled to breed. The RSPB was also considering the possibility that the Bempton orca could be one of these bulls.

"It’s very exciting. There has been a lot of worry about orcas becoming less fertile due to ocean pollution, but in Shetland they have been in recovery and there are a number of pods now – they are specialist seal hunters."

O'Hara said the last record in Yorkshire was in 2007, off Flamborough Head. "We’re expecting many people to visit this week, as killer whales do frequent shallow water, unlike larger species. If we’re lucky, there will be further sightings.”

The visit comes at the end of a busy summer for the nature reserve, famous for its puffin colonies and the appearance of Europe’s only albatross in 2021.

"We’ve had our best ever year for minke whales, and we’ve had the brown booby (a rare tropical seabird first seen in the UK in 2019) this month – it’s now in the Tees Estuary.

"Filey Bay has huge fish shoals at the moment, so there is a real spectacle of feeding seabirds. There are a lot of worries about the warming of the North Sea and the effect on the food chain, but there are exciting things happening too, thanks to work to manage the sea to best preserve fish stocks. There is a partial closure of the sand eel fishery in the North Sea this year, which has been a very positive move that benefits birds and mammals.”