Shetland: Land of the Sea

There is something special about islands. When you step onto a boat that is destined for a place that cannot be reached by road, its like a weight is lifted from your shoulders. Stepping off the boat feels even better, the buzz of anticipation of what you might encounter is invigorating. On the drive to Aberdeen I couldn’t help but think on what I’d really love to see whilst on Shetland. Even worse, I recklessly speculated what kind of behaviour I’d like to witness and under what lighting conditions too. Number one on the list was to get a close encounter with Orca, number two was to see some of the island’s iconic Otters, and lastly was to watch the Great Skuas in the golden light of a sunset.

Week one of the two-week adventure was spent on the mainland where our base was on Muckle Row. This proved to be a cracking little spot that overlooked Busta Voe and Linga. We had wonderful sightings of Otters, Red-throated Divers, Arctic Skuas, and Arctic Terns. Even the odd Porpoise showed up in the bay.

One the of the biggest draws of staying on the mainland was to visit the RSPB’s nature reserve at Sumburgh Head. It certainly didn’t disappoint. The lower rocks were covered in Guillemots, Razorbills, and Shags. Moving up the cliffs we find the Fulmars and Puffins. Its quite the spectacle to watch thousands of birds coming and going. For those smaller seabirds bringing food back to the nest, the approach is fraught with danger as Skuas, both Great and Arctic, relentlessly pursue them to steal their catch. Sumburgh Head is a fantastic place to see all these seabirds up close and going about their business, and well worth staying late into the evening to see the Puffins gather on top of the cliffs.

Mousa is a small island just off the South East coast of the mainland. It is of vital importance to the Storm Petrel as they use the stone walls as nest sites. We took the Mousa boat, which departs at 10:30pm and returns around 1.30am, to the island, where a guide takes you to the Broch of Mousa. The Broch itself is very impressive, being the most intact Broch on Shetland. Once the light falls into near darkness, the Storm Petrels start to return to their nests. It’s only safe to return to land at night as they are vulnerable to predation due to their small size (House Sparrow size). It's amazing something so small can survive at sea but they are brilliantly resilient. When the Petrels return it is a lot like standing amongst bats with that light fluttering flight. It's important to note that flash must not be used as it will adversely affect their night vision, or worse, cause them to fly off their nests. The most extraordinary thing about them is the sound they make when on the nest, it’s a rapid churring followed by a hiccup. I’ve heard nothing else like it.

The final boat trip was to Noss to see the immense Gannet colony. This was a very early start, departing Lerwick at 5.30am. We also got lucky as the Bearded Seal was resting on the slipway at Victoria Pier.

Noss is awesome, there are so many Gannets. When the Mackerel are put into the water, they swarm around the boat, diving into the water at top speed just feet from the boat. It's one of the best wildlife experiences you can get. There was non-stop action for over an hour. Just remember to bring plenty of memory cards, I took over 2000 pictures in that hour, so best avoid disappointment.

On a more sobering note, this Gannet was left hanging from a piece of discarded fishing rope. It’s a stark reminder of the Human race’s impact on this planet. We have so much to answer for.

Serendipitous. That’s the only way I can describe our trip to Yell. When on the ferry from Toft to Ulsta, the captain announced that Orca were just off the coast of Yell. The crew very kindly let everyone go to the front of the ferry to see them. Wow, what a sight! It was surreal, you almost can’t believe what you are seeing. I could feel my heart pounding. However, the ferry only takes 15 minutes and it's time to depart. Disaster! I see the pod head around the corner, getting further away. We get the car into the car park and whip the map out; where are they heading! We look up and unbelievably, the pod had turned around and were heading right toward us. The Orca came right next to the car park giving exceptional views, even a bit of tail action! As they move on, I sprinted past the ferry terminal to the next bay and I caught a glimpse of one next to the shore. They are huge! I could only fit the dorsal fin in the frame. Sadly, the terrain made it difficult to follow them and I see them vanish into the distance. Now I can start to process the last 20 minutes. Being able to watch these awesome predators in their natural habitat in such close quarters is an intoxicating mixture of joy and adrenaline. It’s very addictive.

We moved on to West Sandwick hoping for another view of the Orca, but alas they are no where to be seen. Fortunately, we had lovely views of diving Gannets and Red-throated Divers.

Fetlar is the place to see Red-necked Phalarope. Sadly, I failed to see any. At least this gives me a reason to come back, as if I needed another one already. However, what was missing in Phalaropes was more than made up for in Red-throated Divers. Following Phalarope defeat, we trudged back to the car past Loch Funzie, where we spot 4 Red-throated Divers. I crouched next to the water and rest the camera on a convenient rock. The Red-throated Divers are most obliging and swim past multiple times. What a stunning bird. I must stress that the neither of the pairs were breeding on this loch and were not disturbed in any way.

It’s important not to forget the small pool of water just West of Loch Funzie as we saw several birds visit to drink and wash, including Golden Plover and Arctic Skua.

The final week of the trip was spent on Unst, at the Shetland Nature Lodge. This is a fantastic place overlooking Burra Firth and situated next to Hermaness Natural Nature Reserve. Hermaness was one of those places that has been on the list of places to visit for several years and it certainly lived up to expectations. Leaving the car at the visitor centre, it’s a steep, but brief, climb onto the moorland, after which it’s a steady ascent to the cliff edge. It’s worth taking the time to stop and scan the moors, there are Great Skuas everywhere. Look a bit harder and you might see the Skua chicks hiding amongst the grass. Watch out for the male birds flying back to the chicks as they regurgitate food for them.

The cliffs themselves are a sight to behold. They are tall, rugged, and wild. Head South to the Neap and you’ll smell the 11,000 pairs of Gannets before you see them. It’s an incredible view looking across to Tonga. Every ledge is packed with Gannets and the skies are filled with an endless stream of birds.

Head North toward Muckle Flugga, the most Northerly lighthouse in the United Kingdom, and you’ll pass several smaller Gannet colonies. Keep going until the lighthouse is in full view then take a seat and enjoy the Puffins flying in and out of their burrows.

Having already see Orca, we wanted to see more. The ‘Shetland Orca Sightings’ Facebook group provides a great way to share sightings and fortunately for us, a pod was spotted between Fetlar and Unst. It took over 4 hours of driving between Belmont and Mu Ness to finally find them. The pod eventually swam through Bluemull Sound giving good views, especially of the bull with his enormous dorsal fin. As they went out of sight, we drove to Westing and soon enough, they showed up again, albeit at a big distance away. But great to see in the context of their surroundings.

We had seen a few Otters whilst on Shetland, but the best encounter was at Uyeasound. We set up overlooking the harbour and quickly spotted this beautiful female Otter patch fishing. After a couple of hours of hunting she headed for the shore for a wash and nap. For the next hour she rolled around in the seaweed, carefully groomed her fur, and slept. If it were not for the rising tide she would have slept longer, but as the water lapped against her tail, she promptly entered the water and carried on fishing. I never grow tired of watching these magnificent animals.

All good things come to an end, including this trip to Shetland. I couldn’t resist one last walk up to Hermaness to say farewell and reflect on how special these islands are. I will return.

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