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By Adam CivicoMarch 13th 2023

Karen Hall is one of those lucky people whose job is also the same as their passion. In her case, spotting orcas and other marine wildlife in Shetland. Karen’s research is valuable for anyone hoping to witness killer whales, and confirms the creatures regularly visit the islands all year round.

When is the best time to see orcas in Shetland?

It’s the kind of question that is frequently asked by those planning a trip to the islands, or by residents who hope to witness an amazing natural spectacle.

The honest answer is that sightings are never guaranteed, but Shetland is one of the best locations for whale watching in the UK. And there is increasing evidence that orcas can be seen at any time of the year.

That claim is based on a database of reported sightings, with information collated from a range of sources including social media groups and other websites.

One of those helping keep track of the data is Karen Hall, a NatureScot policy and advice officer specialising in marine mammals based in Shetland’s capital town, Lerwick. It’s a role she’s been doing for many years, having joined NatureScot over 20 years ago as an area officer.

Over that time, she’s compiled a mass of information revealing how often, and at what time of year, orcas are spotted in Shetland.

Karen says there was a longstanding belief that killer whales were more likely to visit Shetland in the summer. Statistics have now shown that to be a misconception.

While July is a prime time for sightings, there are also a high number of whales seen from October through to January.

An ever-growing network of residents, whale watching tourists and local experts have also helped build up a better understanding of how many orcas frequent the waters around Shetland, and when.

You can have some days following killer whales from sunup to sundown following them up the east coast of Shetland. Other days you might only get a fleeting glance.

“At certain times of the year, it felt like you would be seeing killer whales every day. What we have discovered is that it’s limited to certain pods [which visit regularly].

However, despite the frequency of visits there is always uncertainty about when and where wild animals may appear.

“You can have some days following killer whales from sunup to sundown following them up the east coast of Shetland. Other days you might only get a fleeting glance.

“Compiling data means we can compare what we see year-on-year, and we are seeing similar trends. That is helping us build a better picture about what is happening. This wouldn’t be possible without the network of folk reporting sightings in Shetland.

“Any time really is a good time to see orcas, but the data gives us an indication of when you might have the best chance.”

Data gathered over many years demonstrates that killer whales sightings in Shetland occur throughout the year. Karen Hall

While some of the data suggests there are an increasing number of killer whales, Karen is cautious about interpreting the figures that way. That’s largely because the advent of social media channels and the rollout of 4G connectivity across Shetland, meaning there is much greater visibility.

In the early 2000s, there were sporadic reports of sightings but no proper method of recording them. “We would hear about them on the grapevine”, says Karen. Then in 2007 Andy Foote, a PhD student from the University of Aberdeen, began a research project about Shetland’s killer whales, which included recruiting volunteers to help record sightings.

That marked a step-change in the availability of data that has continued to develop, undoubtedly helped by the advent of social media and the creation of Shetland Orca Sightings, a Facebook group with over 36,000 members.

As the numbers suggest, there has been widespread buy-in to the idea of reporting sightings. Something which Karen points out has been boosted even further with the rollout of 4G across Shetland. Often fishing boat crews are even able to post about orcas and other whale sightings while working the waters off the Shetland coast. Not only does that provide important data but it also updates keen wildlife watchers.

Karen says: “Whether it’s people who have lived in Shetland all their lives or visitors, they have the best opportunity to see these animals in their natural environment.

“That’s great, however, social media means people want everything instantly and people sometimes have unrealistic expectations, that you can predict what’s going to happen. You have to be patient and sometimes you will be lucky, other times you will miss out. I spend a lot of time sea watching – some days I am very lucky and can spot something before breakfast from my house, others its frustration spending hours studying whale shaped waves!”

That uncertainty adds to the thrill of seeing any wild animal. And when it happens, the feeling never grows old.

“Every sighting is different,” says Karen, “and every sighting leaves you with something. Whether it’s an ‘almost’ sighting or an exceptional sighting, there’s still that sense of ‘wow, I’m able to see these amazing creatures’.”

As different as they may be, some experiences live longer in the memory than others.

“I have seen them right below me at Sumburgh Head at midnight in the simmer dim, where else could you do that? That’s when you realise how lucky you are to be in Shetland.

“I am incredibly fortunate that watching killer whales is part of my job and my obsession.”