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By Toby SkinnerSeptember 30th 2020

Richard Shucksmith is a Shetland-based nature photographer and ecologist who was the first photographer to capture humpback whales and diving gannets underwater in the UK. Here, he shares some of his secrets.

Richard Shucksmith has two goals with his photographs of the Shetland wildlife: to make you look, and to make you think. “I want to take pictures that stop people and make them look, but which also have an ecological story. It works if people think about the animals.”

Richard is serious about both. Having grown up in Lincoln, he studied marine biology at the School of Ocean Sciences in Bangor, North Wales, and then did a PhD in marine ecology with Aberdeen University. It was an extensive project photographing sea birds on remote Scottish islands that first brought him to Shetland around 14 years ago.

He’d been living on the west coast, visiting islands like St Kilda, Mingulay and Shaints, and Shetland was the final part of his project. The first time he stopped for petrol in Lerwick, he saw a car door open, and a girl appeared who he knew from university in Bangor. “We can never decide if it was love or entrapment, but we’re now married with two children,” he says. “And Shetland has always suited me.”

I want to take pictures that stop people and make them look, but which also have an ecological story. It works if people think about the animals.

These days, he’s both a photographer and videographer, taking groups on bespoke wildlife photography trips with his company Shetland Photo Tours, and working with visiting production companies on filming wildlife – most recently a stint filming orcas from a boat, and trying to shoot otters underwater for a German production company. Comfortable shooting stills and film above and below the water, using both cameras and drones, he’s garnered widespread attention for the first underwater shots in the UK of diving gannets and humpback whales. Here, he talks about those shots, and photographing Shetland’s wildlife.

Richard on gannets

“I’ve always loved seabirds, but the gannet colonies in Shetland are special, with so much going on. The two big ones are at Noss, off Bressay, and Hermaness, close to Britain’s northernmost point. Both are special for different reasons. Noss is a denser colony, with around 30,000 gannets crammed onto the spectacular sandstone ledges of a 180-metre cliff. Hermaness has two colonies – one on a large cliff face, the other is among a series of stacks and islands – all part of this incredible landscape. While a lot of seabird populations have suffered from the decline in the sand eel population, the gannet colonies are thriving as they feed on herring and mackerel shoals. Shetland has a well-managed mackerel and herring fishery so there’s plenty of fish for the wildlife to feed on, and the gannet population in Shetland has been growing 2 to 5 per cent each year.”

“I was the first to photograph gannets underwater in the UK, around the end of April eight years ago. It was difficult in the beginning but eventually we found the right time and way of doing it, using mackerel to get the gannets to dive. When I first published the shots, they caused a real stir in the wildlife photography community. Over time, we’ve refined the process, for example using tubes to put the fish deep underwater to have the gannets diving more vertically. Over time, the birds have become used to the process. People have questioned the ethics of interfering with nature like that, but gannets regularly follow trawlers and dive to the fish that they are discarding. Basically, we mimicked a fishing boat, and the ecological impact is zero.”

“Sometimes, I’ll be underwater as up to 30 gannets dive in. It’s high-octane stuff, and there’s a lot going on in the water. I’m so in-the-moment, just trying to get the right shot but also trying to observe the behaviour of the birds. One amazing thing about them is how they use their wings to swim underwater to go deeper. Like the orcas, they are just these amazingly refined hunting machines, and I just feel privileged to see them do their thing from this unique perspective.”

On otters

“Otters are all over Shetland, but they can be the hardest to photograph and film, because they’re so wary of humans and have such an attuned sense of smell. If they smell you, they just disappear. We had production companies recently who wanted to film otters underwater, and we tried to explain to them just how hard that can be – because you need to be close to get good shots, and as soon as you’re in the water they think you’re a seal. However, if you’re careful and use the kelp and rocky skerries right, you can position yourself in a way that allows you to film them. But you need a lot of patience, a bit of luck and a good wetsuit, as you can be in the water a long time.”

“When I take people out to photograph otters, it can be quite intense – a four- or five-hour game of cat and mouse. I generally use a 600mm lens, but you can get quite close if you’re careful, especially now that we use mirrorless cameras that don’t make a shutter sound. We generally don’t name shorelines where we work with otters. My close friend and colleague [Unst-based naturalist] Brydon Thomason and I are the only people in Shetland with licences to work close to otter holts. We have to be really careful that we don’t disturb the otters and the shorelines, so we often work multiple shorelines.”

When I take people out to photograph otters, it can be intense – a four- or five-hour game of cat and mouse.

“There are a few tricks to photographing otters. A big one when you’re looking for them round the shoreline is that the wind needs to be blowing from the sea, so that your scent gets blown away from the otter. But the key is just to know a stretch of shoreline, and to have good fieldcraft. Female otters will have a patch and will rarely move more than 5km, whereas a male might roam 20km, taking in several female territories. It helps, too, to know where otters have their holts, which is often in areas away from the beach. We have to be incredibly careful around them as it’s illegal to disturb otters at resting places and holts. If you’re not careful you can disturb a female with cubs, and she might abandon them.”

On humpback whales

“It was 2016, and the family and I were on a trip down south, in Lincolnshire and Kent, seeing family we hadn’t seen for years. But, just as we were leaving, Brydon had been out on his boat and seen four humpback whales in the waters between Fetlar and Yell. He was constantly sending pictures, and I remember my sister saying: We haven’t seen you for two years, and your head’s still in Shetland. As soon as we got back to Shetland, I remember putting my son Jack in the van and bombing it up to Yell. We soon found the whales and my son even got to see them; they were that close to the cliffs. I rang Brydon and we made a plan for the next day.”

“I still remember this sunny, flat calm day in December, seeing four humpbacks blow in the sound between Yell and Hascosay island . I got in the boat with Brydon, and we were soon within metres of these majestic animals. At first, when I dropped into the water with my snorkel and camera, the water was a bit milky, and I couldn’t quite get the shot. But they moved towards the middle of the sound, into clearer water. I remember lying on the surface of the water not daring to move, and seeing these two huge creatures coming out of the blue haze and straight towards me. I could have put my hand out and touched them. It was the first-time humpback whales have been photographed underwater in the UK, but for me it was more just about this beautiful, heart-thumping moment – the kind of moment I live for.”

On orcas

“It’s only when you see an orca in action that you appreciate why they’re the apex predators in the sea. They are fast, agile, brutal and so good at working as a team. Nothing in the sea will beat them; a Great white shark wouldn’t stand a chance. An orca chase in Shetland is so exciting. I have a special ring tone on my Whatsapp for orca sightings. I might get a message saying they’re heading north from Sumburgh head, and I’ll be in the car like a shot.”

When you see orcas in action you appreciate just why they’re the apex predators in the sea.

“You sometimes see these crazy hunts, which can be quite brutal. They’ll swim almost touching the coastline, and will spook seals so that they become easy targets. I once saw a killer whale ‘play’ with a seal for ten minutes before it let other members of the pod come in, when they ripped the seal in two. I’ve seen them catch eider chicks, swim underwater with them and then let them go ten metres later. There’s almost a playfulness about the way they kill, which can be quite chilling to see. But they’re so exciting to watch.”

“Shetland is just part of the orcas’ hunting area, which covers a huge distance. You might see the same pod hunting round Orkney and the Faroe Islands. There have been a lot of sightings in the last five or six years. They usually appear in the spring, and are most common around the end of June and July, when seals are having pups. But you can see them throughout the year. We don’t really know why there have been more sightings in recent years, but it could be that people are communicating more and better with social media. Nowadays, a fisherman out fishing will put a sighting on Facebook or Whatsapp and it’ll spread fast.”

“In terms of filming orcas, we’ll sometimes do it from a boat, but you have to be licensed and time is often restricted so as not to disturb them. More often, we’ll film from the shoreline. We watch them and then jump in the car and try to second-guess where they’ll appear next, which can be tricky as you can’t always follow the coastline. They might cover around 40km in a day, and I’ve had days where I’ve chased them all the way up the Shetland coast. There was one pod, a while ago, that I followed from Quendale on the west coast round to Bressay, off Lerwick, between 8am and 7pm. I then got up at 3.30am and found them hunting off Nesting, further north. I get this kind of manic energy when the orcas are around.”

Follow Richard on Instagram to see more of his Shetland nature photography.

Book one of his wildlife photography tours at Shetland Photo Tours.