Humpback Whales - Shetland Nature Diary

by Brydon Thomason -

Wow, what a month! For the second consecutive year humpback whales paid the isles a visit, fortunately I was fortunate enough to relish more than just a distant sighting through my telescope. This time, my wife and I along with three friends had privileged views of these oceanic giants at fairly close range from the shore and from a boat.

Amazingly, during the same week of February twelve months previously, there were two sightings of these awesome cetaceans. It seemed like a case of "deja vu" when I received a call about a pod of whales, which were assumed to be Killers, off Burravoe, Yell.

A few anxious phone calls later we were on site and began searching. A vapour trail dispersing into the crisp winter air over the top of a headland, which was partly obscuring our field of view left us a tad confused, killers would not give such a spout. We rushed up onto higher ground for a better vantage point. Within minutes, gazing south we spotted a blow, a large one followed by a long rounded black back with small stumpy hooked back dorsal fin, sitting on an inconspicuous "hump", they were certainly no Killers, the somewhat iconic raising of the tail flukes as they dove confirmed there identity, they were humpbacks- at least three of them!

We excitedly began making phone calls whilst also trying to compose ourselves to enjoy the rare spectacle of such fantastic sea mammals. After an hour or so following them north up the east side of Yell I managed to organise a boat trip off for a better view. Thankfully we were privileged in being able to follow them north as they drifted up towards Bluemull Sound with the north tide. A surreal sight indeed, with the snow covered islands of Yell and Fetlar either side of us, reminding me more of a scene in the South Shetland Islands in the far-flung Southern oceans of Antarctica!

As with the large majority of whale and dolphin encounters in the isles, great thanks is owed to my friend who reported the sighting. Time and time again news from such a fisherman or ferry crew is the key to news getting filtered round the local grapevines.

On the birding front the first subtle but ever so endearing signs of spring were right on queue. Although there are many more colourful and spectacular changes throughout the approaching months of spring, for me the first ones are often the best. The returning of the breeding birds such as oystercatcher and black-headed gulls in summer plumage or perhaps if your lucky, the first singing skylark are all signs that spring has begun, even if only a little.

Having been keeping an eye on a couple of wintering Long-eared owls throughout the winter I finally managed to get some photo's as they roosted in a garden. They normally roost in at the back of the garden but on a few occasions were out in view on the lee side of the trees, where I was able to study and photograph them. One bright moonlit night I watched them drifting around hunting in the bright moonlight one evening, an almost eerie experience as they soared silently above without a sound - truly magical!

Bye for now...
Brydon Thomason

About Brydon Thomason

Brydon runs a specialist wildlife guiding service that focuses on all aspects of Shetlands exhilarating natural history for individuals, couples or small groups (maximum of 6), specialising in: otter watching, bird watching, wild flowers, boat trips and much more. Read more about these trips at

Having lived in the Shetland all his life, Brydon is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable naturalists in the isles. He welcomes any questions or comments on the monthly nature diary and should you require any information on any aspect of Shetland's natural history please contact Brydon

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