December 30, 2019 / 4:51 PM / a month ago

Killer whales migrate from Iceland to Italy, delighting locals

MESSINA, Italy (Reuters) - Three killer whales have been spotted in the sea that separates the boot of Italy from the Mediterranean island of Sicily, in the first such sighting in the narrow straits.

Killer whales swim in the sea off the coast of Messina, Italy, December 27, 2019, in this screen grab taken from video. Courtesy of Simone Vartuli/Handout via REUTERS

Marine biologists believe they are the same group that originally came from Iceland and was seen off the coast of northwestern Italy earlier this month.

Simone Vartuli, a 25-year-old fisherman, saw the fins of the killer whales emerge from the water on Friday and shot a video of the animals swimming alongside his boat.

“I moved forward until we almost touched them... Having them here in the Messina Strait was the best thing in my life,” he told Reuters TV on Monday.

Gianmarco Arena, who was with Vartuli when they saw the large mammals, said he felt “very scared to begin with. That animal is twice the size of my boat”.

A pod of five killer whales, or orcas, arrived off the port of Genoa, in northern Italy, at the start of December, and marine biologists soon identified them as originating from Iceland — more than 5,200 km (3,230 miles) away.

“This is the first ever record of orcas migrating between Iceland and Italy in killer whale research history, and, we believe, at over 5,200 km, one of the longest migration routes ever recorded in the world to date,” the Orca Guardians association in Iceland said.

The pod originally included a calf believed to be about a year old, which died in the seas off Genoa. A video released by the coastguard showed the mother trying to carry her dead calf before finally abandoning the body after several days.

“The probability that the orcas in Messina are the same as the ones spotted in Genoa is high, but we would need some clear pictures to be sure”, said Clara Monaco, a marine biologist and the scientific director of the Marecamp association.

Genoa is some 800 km (500 miles) from the Straits of Messina. The Tethys Research Institute said it was “more than plausible” that the pod could have covered that distance in a week.

It is still unclear why the whales made such a long migration and it remains to be seen whether they stay in the Mediterranean or whether they move north again.

“It is probable that they swam (into the Mediterranean) and went beyond Gibraltar to hunt, but we do not know why they remained,” said Monaco.

Reporting by Antonio Parrinello and Angelo Amante; writing by Angelo Amante; editing by Crispian Balmer and Gareth Jones

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