Killer whales spotted in UAE known to Middle East researchers

Orcas were seen off Umm Al Quwain before disappearing

One of the orcas making a splash off Abu Dhabi. Photo: Just Fishing
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The killer whales that were spotted off the UAE coast last week have visited waters in the region before.

The pair of orcas, more commonly associated with colder waters, circled a dugong off the coast of Abu Dhabi on Tuesday before swimming north to Jebel Ali on Wednesday and continuing their journey to Umm Al Quwain, where scientists lost track of them.

Environmental experts told The National there had been an increase in sightings of killer whales off the Emirates' coastline in recent years due to an abundance of marine life in the waters.

People have also been more active in reporting sightings, which has helped researchers track pods of orcas in UAE waters, according to Dr Ada Natoli, assistant professor at Zayed University’s Natural and Health Sciences Department.

Abu Dhabi warns public against sea swimming after two killer whales spotted

Abu Dhabi warns public against sea swimming after two killer whales spotted

Dr Natoli, who is also the founder of the UAE Dolphin Project Initiative — which tracks the dolphin population along the UAE coastline — contacted Georgina Gemmell, the co-founder of the Northern Indian Ocean Killer Whale Alliance, about the recent sightings and discovered that they have previously been tracked in Middle East waters.

The two orcas — a male and a female, or sub-adult male — were identified from footage shared on social media and they have been reported in a previous study.

“The recent killer whales are not the same ones as previous sightings in the UAE. It is proof that multiple pods are visiting the UAE,” Dr Natoli said.

Dr Ada Natoli, assistant professor at Zayed University’s Natural and Health Sciences Department

Ms Gemmell said wildlife organisation Plan 4 the Land recorded them three times in 2017 and 2018 in Iranian waters, which was subsequently published in a scientific paper.

“The female is known as NIO073. The resighting of these individuals is exciting news,” Ms Gemmell told The National.

Killer whales can be identified using the unique markings, tears and notches on their dorsal fin.

The UAE Dolphin Project, Zayed University and the Northern Indian Ocean Killer Whale Alliance are collaborating on a study to document the recent sightings and cross-reference to track travel habits.

“The [UAE Dolphin] project is a non-profit initiative dedicated to investigating the dolphin population along the coastline of the UAE,” Dr Natoli said.

“We aim to promote the conservation of these dolphin species and the local marine environment.”

Long-distance travellers

Killer whales, a highly social species, are found in almost all of the oceans and seas of the world.

They feed on a variety of fish, mammals and sea birds, and their highest densities are in the north-east Atlantic around the Norwegian coast, the North Pacific and the coast of Antarctica.

As to where the orcas came from before entering UAE waters and where they went to after last week's excursion, Dr Natoli said their ability to travel long distances makes them hard to track.

“Very little is still known about the movements of these whales,” she said.

“What we know so far, it would suggest that they can travel long distances within the Gulf and may even head out into the wider Indian Ocean.

“We predicted that the whales would have followed the coastline, likely up towards RAK, and then may have left the Gulf.”

The killer whales moved to Jebel Ali and were last seen by beachgoers at Kite Beach Centre in Umm Al Quwain, who shared a video of the killer whales off the coast of the emirate.

“It is rare to see the killer whales in UAE waters but there’s been an increase in sighting in recent years due to an increase of public awareness to report sightings,” Ms Gemmell said.

“The presence of orcas in UAE may be attributed to various factors, such as natural migration patterns or changes in prey availability.

“Tropical killer whales are thought to be opportunistic predators and so they might have ventured into the waters in search of prey.”

She said the UAE’s efforts to protect the variety of marine wildlife will help to attract rarer species.

“UAE waters are biodiverse, full of life and this is owing to protective measures carried out as well as implementing legislation for fishing and programmes to protect the marine wildlife,” Ms Gemmell said.

She encouraged people to report more sightings of whales and dolphins in the UAE's waters to help the experts in their studies.

“The recent sighting is a key piece of a puzzle giving insight into the movements, behaviour and potential diet of these mysterious killer whales,” Ms Gemmell said.

Sightings of whales and dolphins can be done via the UAE Dolphin Project Initiative website, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp or by email at

“People need to be careful and avoid getting too close to the whales when observing them,” Ms Gemmell said.

“We encourage people to be respectful of these powerful animals, for the well-being of both humans and whales alike.

“It is important we give them the space they need to carry out their natural behaviours undisturbed.”

Updated: May 16, 2023, 8:03 AM