On the trail of whales

The boat cruised out into the stretch of water between the mainland of Shetland and the island of Bressay. Behind us was the built up, bustling, urban landscape of Lerwick and in front the rocky shoreline, moors, grassland and occasional buildings of Bressay. The boat stopped, gently bobbing up and down with the swell and waves of the Sound. The sun blazed in a sky scattered with white clouds, the sea was a brilliant blue, the tips of the waves sparkling. Then someone in the boat shouted ‘behind us’. Turning round, and out of the deep blue rose a tall black fin. The unmistakable dorsal fin of an orca. My heart skipped a beat, as it always does when in the presence of these incredible mammals. Against the industrial backdrop of Lerwick’s shore, five orca surfaced in quick succession, a big male, three female sized adults and a youngster. They surfaced, four or five times then dived deeper disappearing beneath the waves.

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An orca surfaces off Lerwick

A few minutes passed, with eager faces scanning the area around the boat hoping to spot them again. Sure enough, with a whoosh of expelled air, they surfaced, this time ahead of the boat. Our skipper skilfully manoeuvred so that we are ahead again, but not in their direct path. This time the group surfaced just a short distance from the boat. It was an awesome sight, especially as the big male comes up, the tip of his 2 metre high dorsal appearing before any other part of him. Closer now and I could recognise him. I had never met this individual orca before, but I had certainly read enough and seen enough photos to know I was looking at Busta (032). Member of the 65s pod and part of the Northern Isles Community of orca. Certainly now looking back at the photos I can recognise Razor (065), who travelled with her recent calf alongside.

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Busta (032)

The group steamed by, continuing their travels through Bressay Sound and past Lerwick. The boat turned and headed for harbour. But it was not the end of the day’s encounter. The 65s spent the next few hours making their way south, along the Shetland Mainland coast, at times cruising by just off shore, and at others heading in and hugging the coastline, searching for food. A couple of hours after the sighting on the boat and I was standing in a layby overlooking this rocky coastline as it swept round a headland, curving into a number of bays and inlets, before meeting a beautiful golden stretch of sand at Levenwick. We had seen the 65s steam through Mousa Sound, and then swing round No Ness, disappearing into Sand Wick. After what felt like an age, they reappeared and made their way across the bay to Levenwick. Here they came in close to the shore, swimming just metres from the rocky coastline, through the beds of kelp, before heading towards the golden sands of Levenwick. In the stunning blue green shallows of the bay we watched as they circled a few times, leaving smooth patches of water, called ‘fluke prints’ in their wake. It was not until later that we realised they were actually hunting eider ducks! Snack time over they continued on their way, hugging the shore around Levenwick Ness and disappearing round the corner.

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Orca and eider!

For many of the orca-watchers that day there were further encounters and views as the group continued down the coast and round Sumburgh Head. For this orca-watcher a certain almost 4 year old’s tummy was rumbling…

Still it was a glorious Sunday afternoon with a glorious pod of orca.

Busta, Razor and the rest of the 65s form one pod of the Northern Isles Community, which are generally seen around the North mainland, Western and Northern Isles of Scotland. Interestingly up until last year Busta and Razor were part of a pod known as the 64s. The pod was up to about 8 or 9 individuals, and appear to have now split into two separate groups, the 64s and the 65s. This is an evolving situation though, and as with all the individuals and pods in this area, only with further encounters we will be able to continue to build the picture of what is going on.

Within this community of orca, some groups, like Busta’s can be seen off and on year round while others come and go. In addition, there is a small group of around 20 individuals that are known to travel between Scotland and Iceland, feeding on wintering Atlantic herring in the western fjords of Iceland in winter and then moving south to Shetland to feed on seals in Summer. Both the Northern Isles Community and the Icelanders are Type 1 Atlantic orca, and are mixture of fish specialists and generalist fish and seal feeders. Both these groups are of course in addition to the West Coast Community, found predominantly in the Hebrides but ranging around the northern coast of Ireland too. This was the community of orca I encountered off the Isle of Mull in 2005. As of 2016, and with the sad death of Lulu, there were only 8 individuals left in the West Coast Community. Recently only John Coe and Aquarius have been encountered…

Still it just goes to show the diversity, complexity and mystery of the whales and dolphins around our coast and the importance of citizen science projects that are helping to collate and identify sightings around our coastline.

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