Dopey Dick gained his unflattering name almost four decades ago when the killer whale swam upriver into a Northern Irish city seemingly in pursuit of salmon.
Now, that famous killer has been identified as a member of the United Kingdom’s only known resident population of killer whales, which is at risk of imminent extinction, according to the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust.
Dopey Dick, known more recently as Comet, has been identified by experts through old – and new – photographs published on social media. Comet has a distinctive dorsal fin, which is about 1.8 metres high, leans to the right and has a notch near the top.
The orca made news in November, 1977 when he swam up the River Foyle before remaining five kilometres upriver of Loch Foyle for two days. The whale has been photographer over the years in both Scotland and Ireland, which allowed researchers to track his movements. Most recently, photos surfaced of a pod of whales near the Isle of Skye in September, 2014.
“When I saw the photos on Facebook, I noticed that the white eye patch of Dopey Dick sloped backwards in a really distinctive fashion,” killer whale expert Dr. Andy Foote said in a statement. “This is a trait we see in all the West Coast Community whales, but it’s not that common in other killer whale populations. The photographs were all quite grainy, but it was still possible to see some of the distinctive features unique to Comet. I couldn’t believe it – he was already a full grown male back in 1977, when I was just five-years old!”
The orca is believed to be at least 58-years-old, which puts him near the the end of a typical 50 to 60-year lifespan. Dopey Dick’s identity is significant, according to experts, because it confirms suspicions that some of the whales in the endangered community are very old and have not produced calves once record-keeping began in 1994.
The latest match was made possible thanks to Scottish Orca, which shares images of whales on its Facebook page.
“Most of what we know about this precariously small and isolated population of killer whales comes from photographs submitted to us by members of the public,” the trust’s science officer, Dr. Conor Ryan, said in a statement. “The population is too small to study in a targeted way, so the public has a big role to play.”
Sightings Officer of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group Pádraig Whooley said time is running out for Dopey Dick, aka, Comet, but also for biologists, “who may not have much time left to gather information on this unique local population of killer whales that have made the waters of the British Isles their home.”