Killer Whales - Shetland Nature Diary - July 2009

by Brydon Thomason -

Since my first ever encounter with Killer whales over 15 years ago, I have felt truly privileged on many an occasion and often thought of each one to be "once in a life time experiences" and indeed they were. This July though, with huge thanks owing to the Scottish Killer whale ID Research team, I had what was undoubtedly my most overwhelming encounter ever, probably one that I will never match.

Throughout the June and early July Killer whales were being seen quite frequently from herring boats such as the Guardian Angel between Muckle Flugga and the Holm of Gloup, often several miles off shore. Although this is no new trend for these Icelandic herring feeders, it was the first time Andy Foote, Volker Deeker and the rest of the ID team had had the opportunity to witness this type of behaviour in the isles. Most, of their encounters, observations and research has been done on seal hunts and attacks close in-shore.

After the team having had one successful outing, resulting in an encounter and another where they could hear the vocalisations under water using a hydrophone, they invited me out to the same area off the North end of Yell to work as a volunteer as part of the team. Setting out onboard their 21ft fully kitted out RIB I felt privileged, even though none of us had any expectations on whether or not we might manage to locate them- I was excited by the anticipation...

About three miles out from Cullivoe we tried the hydrophone into the water and were amazed to hear faint calls from the "orca", which the team estimated to be about five miles away. We steamed on further out to sea, mid way between The Holm of Gloup and Muckle Flugga till we were between five to six miles out, this time the fascinating vocalisations were much, much clearer- there was a unanimous exhilaration of adrenalin amongst us, they were close! Volker then, knowing they were within a mile from us at least, attached a DIY directional detection device (an old wok attached to the hydrophone!), which can be used to detect exactly which direction the calls are coming from. Quite extrordinally, within seconds of re entering the device into the water he pointed excitedly in one direction. Lifting my binoculars I could immediately see hundreds of Gannets and several fins, remarkably we had found the feeding frenzy we had all hoped for!

Although there was a real buzz of excitement amongst us, we approached with caution so as not to disturb the "melee" of birds and beasts. The atmosphere was electric, a thousand or more Gannets piercing into the water like arrows all around us while the blows and fins of some twenty or more Killer whales broke the surface in every direction.

It was a spectacle most people have only dreamt of or perhaps seen on a natural history documentary. A feeding frenzy of this size of gregarious Gannets is impressive enough, but combined with the energy and over all elation of the killers, for me was beyond breath taking! With whales literally all around us it was so over whelming that at times I simply did not know which direction to point my camera, at times they were too close to focus anyway!

Both the whales and birds were so engrossed in the herring that they seemed to be oblivious to our presence. But for the team it was not all play, there was work to be done. They managed to scoop up several swim bladders which had been detached from the stunned herring whilst also obtaining some fascinating sound recordings through the hydrophone and even managing to get some obligatory blurred footage from an underwater camera.

I was fortunate to be given a shot of the headphones whilst the whale's fed frantically, a totally unique experience being able to see and hear the action above and bellow the surface as it happened. And of course we were all trying to photograph as many individuals as possible for the identification guide. All in all I must say I was very impressed in watching the team in action, especially their consideration shown to the animals and the knowledge they shared with me through out.

Both Andy Foote and Volker Deeke of the Scottish Killer Whale Identification Research Team would like to give special thanks to every one who has passed on Killer whale sightings and offered so much help over the passed three years of the project, which they certainly fully intend to keep running in the coming seasons.

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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