Sea Mammals

Shetland is a brilliant place, all year round, to watch sea mammals. The species you're most likely to see are: Common Seal (Phoca vitulina); Grey Seal (Halichoerus gryphus); Otter (Lutra lutra); and Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena).

Islands of the Singing Seals

In Shetland you really can hear seals 'singing' on the beach below your B&B. You're guaranteed close encounters with Common and Grey Seals in large numbers, all year round. And they really do sing, although the mournful, moaning sounds they make are not music to a human ear. Grey Seals are particularly vocal and on a still evening you can hear them at some distance.

Both species can hunt at night, using their sensitive whiskers to find prey, and may spend much of the daytime sleeping, but in the Common Seal mating season, just after midsummer, the males engage in spectacular aquabatics - smacking their flippers on the water, jumping clear of the water.

A wonderful place: great views of the wildlife, stunning scenery, great walks, friendly locals, easy to use ferries. We have had two enjoyable holidays and look forward to returning some time in the future.

Which is which?

The Common Seal is smaller than the Grey Seal and has a different head shape. This is the easiest way to tell them apart: the Common has a pronounced brow ridge, giving it a profile like a spaniel, whereas the Grey has a distinctive long, straight nose, more like a wolfhound.

In Shetland both species have very variable coat colours and patterns, making that less of a distinguishing feature, but in general the older Grey Seal bulls are the darkest and largest. Some younger Grey Seal cows are very pale and can look almost white when dried out on a sunny day. The pattern of spots on the Grey is more widely spaced than in the Common, and the markings are larger. It can be surprisingly difficult to distinguish a young Grey female from a half-grown Common Seal, however.

Grey Seals tend to spend more time on the exposed, outer coast and Common Seals in more sheltered water but they often haul out alongside each other. Common Seals bring out their pups in June, usually on secluded small islets, and Greys usually pup in November, commonly on north-facing shingle beaches at the base of the cliffs. Common pups have very dark coats and can swim almost immediately, whereas the Greys are born with a creamy-white baby coat and can't swim until they have shed it, when they are about three weeks old.

Drive-in Seals

You can park your car right next to some of the best seal-watching spots. In fact a car makes an excellent hide - like many birds and animals, seals are usually oblivious to vehicles and you can often get closer in a car than on foot. At many places round the coast you can see seals hauled out at low tide on slipways and beaches, sometimes within a few yards of the road.

Some of the Shetland seals are extraordinarily tame, thanks to their habit of following fishing boats in hope of a free meal. Lerwick Harbour is one of the best places in the world to see both species at close range and from the deck of a wildlife tour boat you can get right alongside them.

Occasionally, rarer seals turn up in Shetland waters. There are records of Bearded Seals, Ringed Seals and Harp Seals, all wanderers from the Arctic. Shetland Sea Mammal Group publishes annual reports of all seal sightings and is always pleased to hear from visitors who wish to submit records to the database.


Just come back from Shetland, had a fantastic time for three weeks, great scenery, and while there saw a basking shark, otters and loads of gannets.

Otters were probably introduced to Shetland by humans hundreds or even thousands of years ago. There are no large rivers and so they have had to adapt to living by the sea. But their holts are always next to fresh water so they can wash the salt off their fur when they come ashore. You're most likely to find them on low-lying shores and within easy reach of a stream. They do fish in fresh water lochs and burns but find most of their food in the sea.

About 1000 live in the isles, making this one of the otter's main strongholds in the UK. Because of the long hours of summer daylight, Shetland otters have become used to going around in daytime. In most other parts of Britain they're nocturnal.

In early summer female otters can be seen showing their cubs (usually two) how to hunt in the shallows of the kelp forest that fringes most of Shetland. Summer is also when the older cubs start exploring new territory.

Otters can be shy and elusive, but with patience there's a good chance of seeing one. Some of the best sightings of otters are from cars queuing for inter-island ferries. The rubble breakwaters at the ferry terminals are perfect otter habitats. Each otter may have five or six different holts and the gaps between the boulders in these rubble breakwaters make highly desirable residences.

There are specialised otter watching excursions led by guides. For more information see:

Porpoise Watching

There are frequent, almost daily, sightings of Harbour Porpoises. Their numbers are much reduced from 10 years ago - partly because of food shortages and partly because thousands of porpoises and other small cetaceans have been killed by modern designs of fishing net. Even so, in mid to late summer your chances of seeing a porpoise are still quite good in Mousa Sound, from the ferries to Fair Isle, Whalsay, Yell, Unst and Fetlar, and around Bressay and Noss.

Porpoises are the smallest of all the toothed whales and dolphins, usually less than 1.5m long. The Shetland dialect word for a porpoise is Neesik, very similar to the Norwegian Nise - which sounds very like a porpoise quickly breathing out and in again as it surfaces for a second, or less. Sometimes they will lie almost motionless at the surface - perhaps while a calf is suckling - but usually they swim with a regular, rolling gait in a group of between three and six, as they circle a bay looking for fish. Occasionally much larger groups, dozens or even hundreds, are seen.

One of the best ways to get close to them is to stop the engine on a boat and drift. The Noss and Mousa tour boats usually do this when they meet porpoises at sea.

We absolutely loved it and have recomended it to all our fellow nature lovers. We fulfilled a long held ambition to visit this summer and are so glad we did.

...And Other Creatures of the Deep

Best place for wildlife in the UK!

We make no promises about dolphins and whales but between May and August you may be lucky enough to see Orcas ('Killer Whales') hunting seals close inshore, or a school of White-sided Dolphins chasing a shoal of fish or even a Minke Whale. Other species seen occasionally are Pilot Whales, Sperm Whales and Risso's Dolphins.

Most of the larger whale species were almost exterminated in Shetland waters by the late 1920s but that is only few generations for long-lived creatures like Minkes and there are signs that whale populations are recovering.

By far the best place to see cetaceans around Shetland is 40 to 50 miles west of the islands, on the whale migration route out at the edge of the continental shelf. There are no regular tours to this 'whale motorway' but boats can be chartered.

To keep up with news of the latest sightings of sea mammals around Shetland, check the Nature in Shetland web pages.

For more information:

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