Killer Whales - Shetland Nature Diary

by Brydon Thomason -

Killer Whales

Over recent summers the occurrence of Killer whales to our shores has undoubtedly become something of a star attraction, both for locals and indeed visitors. Nowhere else in Britain do you stand as good a chance of such an epic encounter with these awe-inspiring sea mammals.

Despite this, sightings are far from predictable and often only a lucky few get to hear about a sighting in good enough time to actually 'connect' with a pod. So far 2010 has however been undoubtedly one of, if not the best ever for Orca encounters in the Isles.

At least three pods were identified this summer; two of them were regular visiting pods but one, a pod that I photographed back in June was a pod that had never been photographed here - a very interesting and exciting discovery indeed. It was this pod that turned out to be the star attraction for literally hundreds of observers.

Rather unusually this pod of five spent several weeks frequenting Yell Sound. For at least two weeks they passed through the Sound twice a day, if not more. At some point in the morning they would travel North through the Sound and then later that day, often in the evening they would drift South - more often than not on the Mossbank side. Each time I saw them or they were reported to me I'd analyse the sighting, eager to identify some sort of pattern of tide, time or conditions but it was always random.

spy hopping

On many of these occasions, they were seen to hunt and predate seals, both in 'mid Sound' and off the shores of the isles. Some of the encounters and displays enjoyed by many off the Yell Sound ferries were enthrawling to say the least. A young calf and a sub adult bull out of this new pod of five were particularly entertaining - both seen breaching clean out of the water and 'spy hopping' (a behaviour where they bob their upper halfs out of the water for a look around); I am sure it was far from a coincedence this was only done along side the motionless ferry. When the revs were off the engines these individuals would come close alongside the vessels, often right under the bow.

One of the other pods, a group of seven joined this new pod on a couple of occasions. This pod was the group seen earlier in the year on Yell Sound and Scalloway harbour around the same time. Rather incredibly this same pod was photographed in Orkney, Caithness and even St Kilda since they were here in April - it is fascinating just how far these magnificent creatures travel and we are only just beginning to build a picture of their movements. It is of course largely down to the research and on going work of Andy Foote and Volker Deeke (both memebers of the Shetland Nature team), and just as importantly the support of people reporting sightings and especially sending in images - keep it up!!

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 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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