Orca night to remember

Craig Nisbet has just finished another season as Reserve Officer on the island of Noss, a National Nature Reserve (NNR) in Shetland famous for its ‘Noup’ seabird city. As he prepares to head south for an autumn and winter working at Loch Leven NNR, he recalls one of the highlights of his 2016 season on Shetland.

A small pod of killer whales, Shetland Isles. ©Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

A small pod of killer whales, Shetland Isles. ©Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

I was running the Noss ferry like it was any other day when I saw my mates, Melvin and Fiona, blazing into view in their shiny new RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat).

Freshly arrived following their annual migration north from the Netherlands to Shetland, to continue their research into the wildlife of the North Sea, they’d already been out scouting Yell Sound in search of our ‘giant pied dolphins’! But with little success up north, they set out to Noss for a wee visit – and who knew how this particular day would pan out!

Noss visitors were first to spot them. A pod of five orca, including a calf, spotted 100m below from the spectacular viewpoint over the Noup of Noss. Of course, one of the tourist boat trips around the island was bound to get lucky, and a boat below appeared to have the pod right alongside them for some time. What a treat for those fortunate tourists!

However, both Noss wardens were unable to share the experience, as the pod had moved south east by the time word got back to my fellow warden Andy, who made every effort to relocate them and return to Noss Sound in quick time to share the news. The excitement waned with the realisation that the pod had passed us by, and we could only take satisfaction in the joy of the dozen or so visitors that had memorable views from the cliffs.

So it was back to the plan as we prepared to set out to monitor the bonxie (great skua) plot that evening. That was until the rain set in! At this stage Fiona was in for a cup of tea, and Melvin was returning from what he described as a very enjoyable dive at the Giant’s Leg, on the south side of Bressay, the island between Noss and the mainland. With all the other visitors now ferried off the island, Melvin offered to take me out for a wee ride in the new boat.

Seabird colonies nesting on the sandstone secliff at the Noup, Isle of Noss NNR. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Seabird colonies nesting on the sandstone sea cliff at the Noup, Isle of Noss NNR. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Now, this was a step up from last year’s Zodiac, and a beast of a machine when it came to cutting through the otherwise fearsome swell. The conditions would have been unpleasant, to say the least, for the tiny ‘Noss ferry’, but a trip around the Noup of Noss on this particular evening in this vessel was as simple as cruise control.

At the Noup – raucous kittiwakes, bonxies ambushing gannets, searching for the last of the jumplings – I was enjoying seeing Noss from a new angle! With a rice cake each we had a quick check on the Shetland Orca Sightings site (surprisingly, 4G is readily available in the inshore waters on the east side of Shetland!). We were deciding whether to return to Noss and call it an evening, when there was news of killer whales no more than a 30 minute run from our current location, leaving us with little choice.

Beyond Bressay the RIB (call sign Orca) cut her way through ever strengthening swell from the North West until she neared the eastern coast of mainland Shetland, nearby where the pod had been reported not half an hour previously. It was at this point that a couple of saving graces came into play: a comment from a friend on Facebook referred to the pod’s current location as nearby the orange RIB! At this we began to feel extreme frustration. Where were they?! While we scanned the sea in vain, the phone rang: it was recommended that we head toward Mousa Sound.

So with eyes peeled we proceeded south along the coast toward Mousa with hopes now high. We turned the corner around Helliness and into the bay to the north of Mousa Sound. A dark wall of rain loomed over the mainland, and there in front of us appeared a pod of killer whales!

Initially only brief views, they appeared to be swimming south, so we tried to keep our distance and maintain a steady pace, following the Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code guidance, aware that if they chose to, they could be away from us in seconds. My friend rang again – he was now watching them from the roadside near Sandwick, and he told us the whales were behind us.

We soon relocated them and by giving them a wide berth and killing the engine and sonar, we were able to drift toward them at close range as they apparently fed, rolling on the surface into repeated shallow dives. During three drifts into the pod we observed at least five females, one of which has been identified as 019 (‘Mousa’), a large male, and at least one calf, presumably one of last year’s.

As well as diving to catch fish, we saw other forms of behaviour, including logging by both the females and the male: this is when whales rest and appear like logs floating on the surface. We also saw a full breach from one female and partial breaching from the youngster. There was also repeated spyhopping close into the boat, possibly to investigate what the splashing was from the side of the boat. When spyhopping the whale rises and holds a vertical position out of the water.

Melvin Redeker ansd Fiona van Doorn’s video showing the pod of orcas.

As the light faded it became impossible for our already inadequate camera and two GoPros to record any more footage or photographs. We lingered for a further 10 minutes or so drifting in Mousa Sound with a pod of apex predators, in awe of their size, strength and beauty. Positively buzzing from the experience, cold in the choppy, windy and wet conditions but reluctant to head back to Noss, we had to eventually call it a night.

My friends Melvin and Fiona are on a mission to explore and connect people with the wildlife of the North Sea through their adventures. You can follow their Facebook page, In de Noordzee / In the North Sea.

This year’s visiting season for Noss NNR is now over  but you can find out more and plan for next year by going to the NNR website.

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