Shetland is a brilliant place all year round to watch sea mammals, particularly common seals, grey seals, otters, harbour porpoises and, occasionally, orcas.

Seals

Walk along the coastline or take a stroll across a quiet beach and you’re bound to see an inquisitive head popping out of the water. Don’t be alarmed, it’s likely to be a seal coming for a nose. Seals in Shetland are a common sight, particularly grey and common seals.

The common seal is smaller than the grey seal and has a different head shape. This is the easiest way to tell them apart: the common seal has a pronounced brow ridge, giving it a profile like a spaniel, whereas the grey has a distinctive long, straight nose, more like a wolfhound.

Grey seals tend to spend more time on the exposed, outer coast and common seals in more sheltered water but they often haul out alongside each other. Common seals bring out their pups in June, usually on secluded small islets, and greys usually pup in November, commonly on north-facing shingle beaches at the base of the cliffs. Common seal pups have very dark coats and can swim almost immediately, whereas the greys are born with a creamy-white baby coat and can't swim until they have shed it, when they are about three weeks old.

Occasionally, rarer seals turn up in Shetland waters. There are records of bearded seals, ringed seals and harp seals, all wanderers from the Arctic.

Where to spot seals

Seals can often be spotted anywhere along the Shetland coastline. At many places round the coast you can see seals hauled out at low tide on slipways and beaches, sometimes within a few yards of the road.

Some of the Shetland seals are extraordinarily tame, thanks to their habit of following fishing boats in hope of a free meal. Lerwick Harbour is one of the best places in the world to see both species at close range and from the deck of a wildlife tour boat you can get right alongside them.

Where to spot otters

Otters are much more elusive to spot than seals, so if you’re determined to see one in the wild it’s a good idea to hire an experienced wildlife guide to show you the best spots.

Bizarrely, some of the best sightings of otters are from cars queuing for inter-island ferries. The rubble breakwaters at the ferry terminals are perfect otter habitats. Each otter may have five or six different holts and the gaps between the boulders in these rubble breakwaters make highly desirable residences.

Otters

Otters were probably introduced to Shetland by humans hundreds or even thousands of years ago. These are the normal European river otters (Lutra lutra), not Pacific Sea Otters, and in Shetland they catch most of their fish in salt water, as there are no large rivers here. This means after each hunt they must rinse their fur in fresh water to keep its insulating properties.

You're most likely to find them on low-lying shores and within easy reach of a stream. They do fish in fresh water lochs and burns but find most of their food in the sea.

About 1,000 live in the isles, making this one of the otter’s main strongholds in the UK. Because of the long hours of summer daylight, Shetland otters have become used to going around in daytime. In most other parts of Britain, they're nocturnal.

In early summer, female otters can be seen showing their cubs (usually two) how to hunt in the shallows of the kelp forest that fringes most of Shetland. Summer is also when the older cubs start exploring new territory.

Porpoises

In mid to late summer your chances of seeing a porpoise are quite good in Mousa Sound, from the ferries to Fair Isle, Whalsay, Yell, Unst and Fetlar, and around Bressay and Noss.

Porpoises are the smallest of all the toothed whales and dolphins, usually less than 1.5m long. The Shetland dialect word for a porpoise is Neesik, very similar to the Norwegian Nise – which sounds very like a porpoise quickly breathing out and in again as it surfaces for a second, or less. Sometimes they will lie almost motionless at the surface - perhaps while a calf is suckling - but usually they swim with a regular, rolling gait in a group of between three and six, as they circle a bay looking for fish. Occasionally much larger groups, dozens or even hundreds, are seen.

Where to spot porpoises

One of the best ways to get close to them is to stop the engine on a boat and drift. The Noss and Mousa tour boats usually do this when they meet porpoises at sea. You can also often spot them swimming alongside the inter-island ferries.

Where to spot orcas

For updates on the latest sightings of orcas and other sea mammals around Shetland, visit:

Orcas and other sea mammals

Between May and August you may be lucky enough to see orcas ('killer whales') hunting seals close inshore, or a school of white-sided dolphins chasing a shoal of fish or even a minke whale. Other species seen occasionally are pilot whales, basking sharks, sperm whales and Risso's dolphins.

Most of the larger whale species were almost exterminated in Shetland waters by the late 1920s but that is only few generations for long-lived creatures like minkes and there are positive signs that whale populations are recovering.