Preliminary obs in the bag!

We have returned home in Fife with a bagful of preliminary data records, experiences and pieces of knowledge kindly shared by the many Shetlanders we met over the last ten days.

The whales turned up just in time for our last two days on the isles, and I could have not wished for a better setting to record their coastal foraging behaviour: the whales were following one of the most accessible shorelines of the mainland, in perfect flat calm weather and the animals even agreed to show off with some predation attempts!

The initial lack of killer whales wasn’t for the lack of attempts to find them – any potential orca sightings were quickly followed by watches not only by us, but also the many cetacean enthusiasts on the isles. Steve and I ended up conducting 30 land-based watches around the mainland Shetland. They included both quick 5-10 min scans for seals in sheltered bays and inlets (11 watches) and 30-80 min watches at lookout points to sea that appeared promising to spot both seals and killer whales (12 watches).

We counted nearly 200 seals in total, the clear majority of which we identified as harbour seals. Although we spotted quite a few single animals, the typical haulout included around 8-13 seals, with a maximum count of 47 animals in a single haulout. The sites varied in remoteness, but a lot of them were in areas with fishing and aquaculture – mussel farms, fish farms, creel boats and fishing boats. We also spotted recreational vessels such as kayaks, SUPs and yachts, especially when on the south side of the island.

On Friday, we were in the middle of moving to a new watch site in a quite remote part of the west mainland when we got just enough phone signal for the message to come through: orcas in Levenwick, headed to Channerwick! We couldn’t believe the whales were next to the same village we had stayed for three nights previous before deciding to move camp… We quickly made the decision to drive to Skeld to pick up our awning, bits and pieces and make our way to the south. The drive took only about an hour, but in the end our first sighting of the whales at 14:15 was almost two hours after the first report.

We caught up with the whales while they were going back and forth in the middle of the Mousa Sound. Spotted two bulls, and what appeared to be a very small yellow calf – soon enough photos and video posted on Facebook confirmed that this was the latest addition to the 27s group since they were last sighted in June. The whales moved closer to the island, showing lots of energetic and splashy behaviour. At distance with binoculars we were guessing seal hunting, but even something more remarkable was going on, captured on overhead video by Nick McCaffrey (Southspear Media & Surveys). The whales were chasing a harbour porpoise that for a good while was managing to escape from the whales by fast swimming and manoeuvring, but ultimately to no avail as the hunt ended successful for the predators.

Following the kill, the whales hugged the shore of Mousa, circling the island once, then re-appearing at the north end of the island where they continued towards Cunningsburgh. We hopped on to the car following the wildlife photographer Richard Shucksmith in front of the convoy. Richard and Nick were invaluable company tracking the animals, readily sharing their experience on where the whales might be heading next and interpreting what was going on real-time from all the footage.

At the skerries, Cunningsburgh
Some of the orca convoy

The whales appeared next in very shallow water near several small skerries in Cunningsburgh and continued from there to follow the shore around Helli Ness. The whales often swam on their side, as if to hide their tall dorsal fins, or perhaps to keep an eye on the nearby rocks or prey silhouettes above. At the headland we witnessed a terrified grey seal swim away from the group which in turn seemed decidedly disinterested in it. The seal almost hauled out, but in the end it went back in the water. Once the group passed the headland, the group remained on their northerly course but further offshore, until Gulber Wick where they came in close again. Despite no obvious signs of marine mammal prey there, only sea birds, the whales made a large circle in the bay before moving on to the next.

In Brei Wick (or ‘Tesco bay’), the whales made attempt on a seal, right in front of me – I will let the video do the talking. The animals then moved away to Bressay in the dusk, which ended the follow for us for the day.

Next morning the whales were spotted in South Nesting, a large bay where we had discovered two decent harbour seal haulouts while staying in a nearby campsite at the start of our trip. I decided to try a re-count as a bit of a ‘post-exposure’ data. Despite high tide, the numbers of both haulout sites had increased from our previous counts (from 8 each to 13 and 21 animals). Especially at the North end of the bay the seals seemed to be hanging on the smallest of rocks above water. It’s clearly just one data point and therefore an anecdote, but this was around 3 hours after the previous report of orca in the area.

We managed to squeeze in one more follow that day, before having to head back to Lerwick for the ferry. We watched the whales hug the coast close (10-50 m) to shore again, as well as energetically approach a seal haulout at Linga. They swam at speed compared to yesterday, with many shallow and relatively long dives along the shore, without breaking the surface but visible on the water surface from sequential footprints.

There is lots to digest and I will be going over my notes and footage many times over to process it all. I’ll work to update the focal follow protocol to help the recording of observable vs. not-observable tracks and hope to circulate it to everyone interested soon. In the meantime, here is a Google map showing our effort and sighting locations. I have also included a few reports from social media (in yellow) to highlight once more how everyone’s observations helps complete the picture.

The perfect conditions

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