Almost One Thousand Orcas Identified in Icelandic Waters Skip to content
Photo: Screenshot from “Killer Whales of Iceland (2011 – 2021) Report by Marie-Thérèse Mrusczok.

Almost One Thousand Orcas Identified in Icelandic Waters

A new photo catalog has identified 987 individual orcas (also known colloquially as killer whales), primarily in the area around the Snæfellsnes peninsula in West Iceland. The catalog is the culmination of a ten-year project undertaken by whale watching tour guide and Orca Guardians founder Marie-Thérèse Mrusczok, in cooperation with the West Iceland Nature Research Center.

“An overall aim of our year-round identification work both from land and sea is to record as many individual killer whales as possible moving through the area, with as few knowledge gaps as possible, extending fieldwork over the longest achievable period of time,” reads the report introduction. “This will help identify potential critical habitat / important feeding grounds of the Icelandic orca population and provide crucial knowledge for conservation measures. Furthermore, collecting data (and an average of 40,000 photographs) in the same area throughout the year gives unique insights into migration patterns, social structure, and feeding habits of repeatedly documented individuals. The catalogue is thus used as a tool to aid in conservation work, for the long-term monitoring of the population, and as a reference document for ongoing and future research.”

The orcas represented in the catalog were photographed during whale watching tours made around Snæfellsnes from 2011 – 2021. Marie-Thérèse then analyzed the 330,000 resulting photos, using the shape, size, and scarring on the animals’ dorsal fins as points of reference, “as well as shape, pigmentation, and scarring patterns of the saddle patch (brighter skin area below and behind the dorsal fin).” Every orca has a unique set of these identifying characteristics.

Whenever possible, the catalog includes both a left- and right-side dorsal photograph of each orca, along with their tag number. Some of the orcas even have names: Butterfly, Blackout, D’Artagnan, Thor, Minotaurus, Kaktus, Mrs. Torrance, Redrum, Raggabagga, Díva, Detour, Dave, Scruffles, Ívar, Lionheart, Grettir, Vagabond, Ebenezer, Mister Wriggle, Hangover, Nixie, Elena, Ashfall.

Most of the photographs were taken around Snæfellsnes and, as such, the vast majority of identifications, or 961 whales, were made in that area. Marie-Thérèse then augmented the Snæfellsnes data with photos taken in Steingrímsfjörður, Ísafjörður and Látrabjarg in the Westfjords; Skjálfandi Bay in the North; Borgarfjörður eystri in the East, and areas further east of Iceland; Hvalfjörður, the waters south of Grindavík, and Faxaflói Bay in the Southwest near Reykjavík; and the waters south of Vík in the South of Iceland. This additional data made it possible to identify an additional 26 whales, bringing the full catalog total to 987.

The current photographic catalog is far more extensive than the one that came before it in 2017, which only identified 322 whales. This is not a result of a jump in orca population, the report clarifies, but rather improved documentation and observation. The identification project is ongoing, and so the catalog will continue to be updated in the future.

The full report is available (in English) via pdf on the Orca Guardians website, here.


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