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Shetland's Orca Season Begins Again

by Brydon Thomason -

The past two years have seen a fantastic and most welcome upturn in orca sightings in Shetland's inshore waters.

Not only have there been more sightings, but more regularly: particularly during the summer months, orca pods have stayed longer - and have been seen more often and by more people - than ever before.

Previously when these exhilarating sea mammals frequented the isles there was rarely more than a lucky few who managed to see them. Now of course we live in such a connected world, particularly through social media, that news and information is almost as instantly available as you want it - or as your service provider can facilitate!

The 'Shetland Orca Sightings' Facebook page has played a pivotal role in helping more people enjoy killer whales in Shetland. This has made a big difference for visitors to the isles in that during their visit they can have their finger on the pulse, keeping up to date with news and information. Such connectivity has also been appreciated locally throughout the Shetland community.

Locally, over the last two summers 'orca chasing' has become something of an adrenalin fuelled pastime to many people. It has been truly amazing to arrive in Lerwick town centre to see excited crowds gathered along the seafront, in awe of the spectacle of a pod of killer whales passing through the harbour. To think that many people don't even have to leave their place of work to enjoy the spectacle - just stand by the window or open the door - really is something quite remarkable.

This year it was during Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa festival week that we were treated to our first visit - the timing could not have been better for a mid-winter appearance. Winter sightings are not all that uncommon. The same pods usually follow the same, if not similar, seasonal movements.

This same pod is often recorded between mid to late winter. They were seen several times again during February which was when myself and Richard Shucksmith managed to connect with them on Bluemull Sound.

To think that many people don't even have to leave their place of work to enjoy the spectacle - just stand by the window or open the door - really is something quite remarkable.

It was thanks to Peter Hunter, with whom I have enjoyed many an exciting marine spectacle, that we were able to get out on the water. With the advantage of regular updates on the local WhatsApp group we were able to predict their movements and get out on the boat late afternoon to enjoy them heading north.

It should go without saying that observing any marine wildlife from a boat must be done with absolute caution and utmost consideration, and we knew well to keep our distance. If patient and cautious and you cut the engine and wait , orca will often approach your boat and pass closely to check you out, which is exactly what they did.

This was a killer whale encounter unlike any other I've ever had, with the evocative cooing calls of flocks of calloo (long-tailed duck) and dunter (common eider duck) around us and the orange glowing backdrop of the setting winter sun across the western sky.

This was an experience many people travel the world to enjoy and yet here we were, a few messages on our phones, a couple of calls and a run on a boat later. Seeing such spectacles in the isles, and often so close by, are something we never take for granted - we know how lucky we are!

Interestingly from a personal perspective the first time I ever photographed this same pod was back in March 2008, on this very same stretch of water. Back then this same bull was still a sub-adult with his dorsal fin hardly even the size of a cow's. Now, a decade on and one of the most iconic features in the animal kingdom, his dorsal fin stands nearly 6' tall.

Thanks to the great work done by the North Atlantic Killer Whale ID Project and particularly by work done by Dr Andy Foote and colleagues at St Andrews University and elsewhere, we have a much better understanding of pods movements.

Within each pod many individuals have been identified and recorded, given a number and often a name. This bull for example is #72. This pod is one of several returning to Shetland year after year, as do many others.

Through collaboration between various organisations and indeed the awareness and support of local communities, we also know that these pods are often recorded elsewhere in Scotland and even Iceland, where great work is also carried out by the Icelandic Orca Project.

For visitors and Shetlanders alike hopes are certainly high for a repeat performance of recent summers, for the exhilarating privilege of sightings and encounters to be shared by many over the spring and summer months ahead.

About Brydon Thomason

Naturalist, birder, photographer & otter addict. Owner and guide of Shetland Nature. Co-author of 'Otters in Shetland'.
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