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By Promote ShetlandSeptember 13th 2021

Travelling to Shetland to watch whales was a long-time ambition for bloggers Charlotte Rutherford and Nick Owen. Here they describe their excitement at spotting, filming and photographing orcas and other marine mammals as their dream came true.

In early 2020, Nick Owen and Charlotte Rutherford quit their jobs to travel the UK in a rusty orange van in search of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). They share their story here and explain why Shetland is among their favourite places.

We are passionate about marine conservation and this prompted us to research the best spots in the UK to find cetaceans, particularly orca; ultimately leading us to Shetland for the first time in August 2020.

It was during that visit when we fell in love with Shetland and couldn't resist planning a two-month island adventure for 2021.

From the moment we left the harbour at Aberdeen on the NorthLink ferry, we knew that our high hopes and expectations for visiting Shetland were certainly going to be met. Bottlenose dolphins were waiting to wave us off on our journey and we had hours of opportunity to spot more from the deck. It was the perfect start; there was no doubt that our summer in Shetland was going to be spellbinding.

Orcas in Shetland

Given the location of the Shetland Islands in the middle of the North Sea, there is great opportunity to see cetaceans passing through or hugging the coastline.

However, this does not mean it is easy. It takes a lot of time and patience to successfully see whales and dolphins; for example, it took us three weeks to see our first fin during this trip. But, rest assured, the perseverance will pay off!

We were rewarded with several orca encounters during our time in Shetland, including a pod of five known as the 19s, a pod of eight known as the 27s and a lone bull orca cruising the coastline.

Witnessing orca in the wild is indescribable and to say we were excited would be a major understatement. When their huge black dorsal fin breaks the surface of the water, the air is filled with a sense of power, awe and ferocity that leaves you speechless. We had only dreamed of having a close encounter with orca in the UK, but Shetland made our dreams come true when this year we were able to get up close and personal with the 27s pod.

We were positioned at sea level by Eshaness Lighthouse when we saw eight orca approaching. After hunting a seal in the bay at Stenness only moments earlier, they gracefully glided within touching distance of where we were standing on the rocks.

Mesmerised by the sound of their exhalation filling the air as they made regular surfacing, we were frozen in awe. Though we were so amazed during the experience that we nearly forgot to document it, there is no doubt that this breathtaking and incredible encounter will stay with us forever.

Otters Galore

Aside from cetaceans, we had also really hoped to catch a glimpse of one of Shetland's most popular residents - the otter.

We had never managed to see an otter in the wild but that soon changed when we visited the islands. Without even trying, we came across our first otter hugging a calm bay on Fetlar and from that moment on, it was otters galore. We seemed to come across them all over the place with one encounter being incredibly close at Toft ferry terminal.

As we sat quietly on the beach, one of the more confident sea-fellows kept bringing crabs out of the water and munching on them within metres of us. Then, while exploring Lunna Ness, we got to witness a mother teaching her young how to catch fish, where the only thing we could hear was the sound of the young otters gobbling down their first catch.

Something you don’t often get to experience every day, these were definitely some of the highlights of our trip.

Other encounters

Although orca were what we had specifically set out to find on Shetland, we wanted to see as many different cetacean species as possible.

With the islands providing regular sightings of Risso's dolphins, minke whales and harbour porpoises, you’re spoiled for choice with the amount of opportunities on offer to catch a glimpse of a passing fin. There was even a report of a beluga whale off Unst!

However, we were able to tick off another first off our cetacean list during our visit when we saw a pod of more than one hundred Atlantic white-sided dolphins.

The huge nursery pod came into a sheltered Vassa Voe. The adults, juveniles and calves breached and jumped playfully in front of us as we sat on the shingle beach. It is for sure that this special sighting was definitely a "once in a lifetime" experience and something that we will never forget.

What we love about Shetland

It would be an understatement to say that the impact which Shetland has had on us is nothing short of life-changing.

From the wild landscapes and breath-taking scenery, to the plethora of stunning white sand beaches and skyscraper rocky cliff stacks, Shetland is mesmerising no matter where you turn.

Never being more than three miles from the ocean makes it a cetacean-fanatic's dream and besides marine mammals, there is a huge amount of other wildlife to encounter – the bird life is sensational.

The locals are really friendly, warm and welcoming - and extremely helpful particularly if your van gets stuck down a muddy track late on a Sunday evening!

It is such a treat to feel so connected to nature, especially experiencing Shetland’s long summer days known as the Simmer Dim.

We loved our time on the islands and certainly didn't want to leave, so it isn’t a surprise that we are already planning our next visit to be as soon as we can.

Find out more about Charlotte and Nick's adventures on their blog and you can follow them on Instagram and YouTube.

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