Shetland: orca island

Shetland is the best place in Britain to see orcas, otters and breeding seabirds. James Fair reports on the islands that some say rival the Galápagos as a wildlife experience.

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Shetland is the best place in Britain to see orcas, otters and breeding seabirds. James Fair reports on the islands that some say rival the Galápagos as a wildlife experience.

“I’m watching a pod of six orcas between Garths Ness and Sumburgh on the mainland,” came Hugh Harrop’s voice on my mobile messaging service. “It’s 3.40pm . . .” I looked at my watch – it was 4.15pm, so there was a chance they might still be around.

Earlier in the week, I’d missed my first pod of Shetland orcas by a day when I visited Noss National Nature Reserve – “You should have been here yesterday,” I was told more than once.

This time I was flying over Sumburgh Head on my way back from Fair Isle just as Hugh was leaving his message. If I’d looked down, I might even have seen them. Hugh Harrop, founder of the tour operator Shetland Wildlife, seems to have an uncanny ability to find the islands’ orcas, so I thought it wise to head south for Garths Ness (the site, incidentally, of the 1993 Braer oil tanker disaster).

But by the time I got there, Hugh was uncontactable and the orcas had disappeared. At least it showed they were around, but my luck didn’t change.

An orca conspiracy

The following day, a pod was seen off Levenwick a few hours before I arrived at Mousa just around the corner. I began to feel a little paranoid, and I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that after I left Shetland, a party of 50 orcas gathered in Lerwick Harbour to give a gymnastic breaching display, eat raw herring and quaff champagne in celebration.

Orcas have been seen in Lerwick Harbour – just not when I was around. One year, they homed in on a flock of eider ducks that were undergoing their post-breeding moult and consequently flightless – apparently, the orcas hoovered up 40 birds in one afternoon. Other reports suggest they’ve been beaching themselves in Trials of Life style while trying to seize their favourite food – seals.

According to the Nature in Shetland website, over the past eight years, there have been 240 sightings in the islands’ waters, of which more than 150 have occurred in the past three. Experts say they are transient pods that are foraging for seals between Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway and Scotland.

The Galápagos of Europe

I could go on about orcas, but given that it’s more orthodox in travel articles to write about what you have seen, I won’t. Besides, Shetland has plenty of other wildlife to justify a sobriquet I heard last year (while discussing, ahem, orcas) as “the Galápagos of Europe”.

Well, it sort of works – for hammerhead sharks, you could read orcas; for blue-footed boobies, gannets; for caracaras, great skuas (or bonxies); and for the Galápagos Islands’ nesting albatrosses, fulmars perhaps.

Chasing the otter

Quite where otters fit into this analogy, I’m not sure. On my first day, I met up with John Campbell and Terry Holmes of Shetland Otters on Yell. We parked above a mussel farm in one of the island’s voes (best described as a mini fjord) and started scanning the water.

Within an indecently short amount of time, Terry had found a lesser black-backed gull in his spotting scope and then, to its left, an otter. “Hang on,” I thought, “this was supposed to take much longer. We should be skulking around some remote foreshore with driving rain soaking us to the skin for two hours before we get even a glimpse of a glistening backside disappearing beneath the water. What am I going to do for the rest of the day?”

But John and Terry weren’t finished. While John acted as our ‘spotter’, Terry took me round to the other side of the voe and we crept down to the foreshore. “If I tell you to get down, get down,” he said. “If I motion you to come forward, come forward. He [the otter, remember] mustn’t know we are here.”

How to outmanoeuvre an otter

It sounded like a military manoeuvre rather than wildlife watching, but since Terry wouldn’t look out of place in the trenches, I was happy to follow orders. We could now see the otter, about 30 metres from the shore, slowly working his way into the voe. He was disappearing at intervals and coming back up every 40 seconds to snack on whatever he’d caught. No meal took very long – the prey was eaten in two or three chomps – and within a few seconds, he’d dived and gone.

While the otter was under water, we ran as fast as we could along the grassy bank, and when Terry saw him come up again (it was always Terry who spotted him first) I threw myself to the ground. “This is how we manage it for film crews,” John told me before we started. “If you wanted to go at a more leisurely pace, that’s fine.” “No, no,” I thought. “This is fun.”

At one point, I was running through a field awash with northern marsh and heath-spotted orchids, buttercups and fluffy tufts of cottongrass. On any other day, I would have a) watched where I was putting my feet and b) given these flowers more attention – instead, when I heard Terry hiss, “Down, down!” I imagined there was an incoming howitzer and dived for non-existent cover behind a rickety fencepost.

Breathless, heart thudding, I watched the otter nonchalantly stroll ashore with his latest fishy snack, still utterly oblivious to our presence. Now, if you’ve never been to the Galápagos, you will have to trust me here, but stalking giant tortoises was never quite as exciting as this.

The accidental scientist

I can take the Galápagos connection a stage further. In 1845, Shetlander Thomas Edmonston visited the islands – only 10 years after Charles Darwin – and made a collection of plants and animals (as Darwin had). He was then shot dead off Peru in what sounds like a farcical incident – someone’s musket fired accidentally and hit poor Tom in the temple, killing him instantly. 

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