THEY have long been on their way to being regarded as the greatest marine animals – and now orcas are firmly on the map of cetacean-loving tourists.

This summer a Hebridean Whale Trail was launched, with 30 spotting hotspots in the waters off the west coast of Scotland.

Tour boat skippers are competing to see who can locate the most sea animals, with one new addition leading the way.

Newly qualified Steve Truluck is topping the Scottish marine sightings chart after clocking up a fortnight of incredible journeys.

The 44-year-old started his new job with Hebridean Whale Cruises in Gairloch, Wester Ross, skippering the Orca 1 boat on July 2.

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His first trip out turned into a once-in-a-lifetime experience for his delighted passengers when two killer whales put on an hour-long show in front of the boat, near the isle of Rona.

However, for Mr Truluck, the sightings, many of which he has caught on camera, have just kept on coming with every trip he has taken out.

He said: “We’ve had an unprecedented two weeks’ whale watching – killer whales three times in six days, breaching minke whales, hundreds of dolphins and then to round it all off, two of the second largest animals ever to live on the planet, fin whales. They were absolutely massive next to our 11-metre long boat.”

When he heard that fin whales had been seen near Tiumpan Head, on the Isle of Lewis, he set off to find them.

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But the journey was stopped in its tracks when orcas – killer whales – appeared en route.

Mr Truluck said: “We see minke whales, dolphins and porpoises all the time, they are our bread and butter, but when we were heading off to Lewis  to try and see the fin whales I said to the passengers if we see any minkes, dolphins, or porpoise we won’t stop, we will just pass them so that we have time to go to Lewis.

“Then, just as we started out, I saw a glint, a single flash of sunlight, on what I thought was a dolphin ahead, then suddenly John Coe, one of the west coast orcas, appeared by Ruadh Reidh Lighthouse, near Melvaig.

“We were heading up to Tiumpan Head, Lewis, but instead we turned the boat around and followed John Coe. I videoed him travelling at nine knots beside the boat. It was amazing.”

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Another day, when they set off for Lewis again, the fin whales appeared on schedule.

Mr Truluck said: “The fin whales dived, so we had these two 27-metre-long whales underneath the boat and then these dolphins came right towards us and passed us.

“Tiumpan Head is the best place to see cetaceans, but the reaction from everyone has been that the number of sightings we have had is unbelievable, everyone is talking about it.

“You can’t have whales if you haven’t got what they are feeding on and there seems to be a lot of food for them in the Minch at the moment, it’s absolutely heaving with life.”

Dr Lauren Hartny-Mills, from the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, which monitors marine sightings, said: “It’s the best time of year to see marine mammals on the west coast when, as well as resident species, you have species that migrate here.

“Hebridean Whale Cruises and Steve are currently number one for sightings as they have had a very good couple of weeks.

“We have had some really great weather and calm conditions, which make it easier to see, but the killer whales they have seen are amazing sightings.”

Anyone who makes a marine sighting is asked to report it to the trust.

This can be done via a new app brought out alongside the recent launch of the Hebridean Whale Trail, the first such trail in the UK, which indicates good landmarks from which to see whales and other marine life.

The trail is organised by the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust.

Nearly one-quarter of the world’s cetacean species have been found in Scotland’s waters.

The Mull-based charity said the trail was the first of its kind in the UK and will stretch from Cape Wrath in Sutherland to the Clyde and even out to St Kilda, 41 miles off the main Outer Hebrides.

Karl Stevens, Hebridean Whale Trail manager, said: “With the Hebrides being one of the best places in Europe to see these spectacular animals, we want to add them to the mix and our research shows that the potential is huge.

“People are often surprised that so many of the world’s cetaceans are found in Scottish waters – and you don’t have to travel thousands of miles to see whales.”