During the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, we’ve been joining NatureScot staff working along our shorelines and watery places to gain an insight into the important and varied work they do. This month we hear from Shetland-based Marine Ecology Adviser Karen Hall about her very special lockdown wildlife sightings.
Living on an island you’d think we’d be used to isolation and travel restrictions but even for us it’s been tough adapting to lockdowns and missing the community events that Shetland is known for. Fortunately, wildlife doesn’t pay attention to the rules or respect quarantine boundaries!
“In Shetland, you’re never more than three miles from the sea” – I’m lucky to have a view over the ocean and having my own personal patch to watch has been my lockdown saviour. As I left the office for the last time back in March, I was glad I had the foresight to grab my work binoculars. While others do pilates, running or knitting for their mental health, I’m having ‘just another scan’ of the sea and wondering whether those on my virtual meetings will notice if the binoculars get lifted!
So what have we seen? Well during March to May it was the ‘usual’ things – porpoise, killer whales and humpbacks, with more Risso’s dolphins and minke whales as we approached the summer. In June and July, as usual we had a lot of orca sightings tying in with the harbour seal pupping time, with the pod known as the #27s keeping us all entertained on their tour of Shetland. Minke whale sightings also increased to almost daily occurrences.
This year we also saw the return of large numbers of Atlantic white-sided dolphins and white-beaked dolphins from June right through to September. These are normally ‘offshore’ animals so it’s been a real treat to see their acrobatics close inshore. We also had some other deep water animals with a few pilot whales seen closer to shore.
From July onwards sightings of Risso’s dolphins seemed to rocket – I don’t think any of us can remember a year when there have been so many sightings. Interestingly this increase has coincided with a decrease in orca sightings. We have heard reports of Risso’s being aggressive or defensive towards orca pods and this year we did witness large groups of Risso’s – many with very young calves – ‘herding’ the smaller pod of orca away.
Moving into September, we’ve started to get our humpbacks back, minkes and various dolphins are still around, including a large group of common dolphins – which are not common at all this far north – seen bowriding this week. Orca sightings are beginning to increase which coincides with grey seal pupping in October. Also this month we start to see large aggregations of harbour porpoise with sometimes hundreds of animals close inshore. It’s thought that part of the reason for these large groups is for mating and we have seen the aerial and rushing behaviour that is associated with this.
It was also a very unusual year for basking sharks. Normally we may only get a handful of sightings – Shetland isn’t exactly what you think of when you want to ‘bask’ in the sun. In 2019 there were only eight records over the whole year whereas this year it was almost 30. There seemed to be a similar pattern in Orkney as well.
So what were my highlights? Well, my three top sightings moments this year were skipping ‘home school’ with my son to go and watch killer whales (it’s not often you get a teenager voluntarily out of bed before 9 am!), watching humpback and minke whales bubble feeding huge bait balls from the cliffs below my house and watching a basking shark through the mist in our local bay – there is something very hypnotic about their movements.
As well as seeing these animals myself, the real joy is sharing that experience with others. Letting folk know what is around or helping them to see their first ever marine animal is always a special moment. Whether that is a grandfather who has lived all his life on Shetland but never seen an orca, a Logan air crew on a longer lay over desperate to see something, the local postie wanting to see a whale, or visitors who have come to Shetland instead of their foreign travels and are just happy to see a seal. The joy and enthusiasm watching wildlife brings is inspiring……I’m also an alert system for a local friend who swims and wants to avoid becoming orca dinner!
Looking back, the hundreds of hours I, and others, have put in sea watching this year have most definitely been worth it. I’ve had the privilege of some amazing sightings, most from my living room and all within an 8 mile radius of my house – I can’t think of a better place to have been locked down – #OnlyinShetland! (All images © Karen Hall)