ECOPredS In Shetland 2021 – Blog 3

Blog post by Julia Sutherland

Just after I hit ‘publish’ on blog post #2, the call came through to say killer whales had been repeatedly sighted off the north-east mainland – time to jump in the car, today could be the big day at last! The first sightings came from Yell Sound around 16:00, with reports of killer whales heading South. More sightings started to trickle through on social media, making it possible to virtually track the pod’s movement down from Toft, through Mossbank, and heading towards Luna Ness. A few weeks ago, these names would have been lost on me (and if they are on you, don’t worry, please see the map at the end of this post!), but after weeks of scouring Shetland monitoring seals, I knew which direction to head, and hit the road before I had time to close the laptop.

Julia with binoculars in hand and telephoto lens at the ready. Thank you to Adam Russell for the photo.

En route I met up with local wildlife photographer and drone pilot, Gary Buchan, before catching up with Shetland Wildlife’s expert Hugh Harrop. Our first attempt to spot the killer whales at Lunna Ness failed – they had passed by just moments before. Next stop was Lunna, where we parked up around 17:15 hoping to catch the killer whales as they continued their way south. After 45 minutes of waiting, scanning the horizon with binoculars and scopes, we finally caught sight of the iconic black fins barrelling through the waters offshore. The first sightings of my PhD – it was a moment I will never forget.

The instantly recognisable killer whale profile. Photo by J. Sutherland
One happy researcher with her first PhD observation in the bag. Thank you to Hugh Harrop for the photo.

The pod bypassed the mouth of Vidlin Voe and headed east toward Lunning Head, before traveling into Lunning Sound. At 18:45 we moved to Lunning, catching up with the whales just as they passed through Lunning Sound in front of West Linga. At this point, we could confirm using photo-ID that this was the 19s ‘Mousa’ pod – a pod of 5 individuals known to move between Iceland in the Winter and Scotland in the Summer. The pod is named after female #19 Mousa, thought to be the matriarch of the pod. For more information on the different pods seen here in Scotland, have a look at the impressive Scottish Killer Whale Photo Identification Catalogue 2021.

Keeping their distance from the shoreline, the pod transited through Lunning Sound towards Dury Voe, alternating between continuous surfacing and intermitted dives. At 19:40 we headed to Whalsay Ferry Terminal, hoping to catch the whales as they came into Dury Voe. The whales, however, had different ideas and changed direction, heading back out of the voe and towards South Nesting Bay. We tried once again to sight them from South Nesting Bay at around 20:30, but at this point they were too far offshore to follow. The encounter was over and after an unexpectedly eventful afternoon and evening, it was time to head home.

4 out of the 5 members of Mousa pod. Photo by J. Sutherland.
#19 matriarch ‘Mousa’ in the center, identified by her unique and distinct dorsal fin. Photo by J. Sutherland

Tracking killer whales from land takes a huge amount of patience, coordination, and a pinch of luck. Through the fantastic sightings network and multitude of dedicated observer here in Shetland, it is possible to keep tabs on the killer whales as they move around the coastline. However, as wild animals, the whales can be unpredictable in their movements – changing direction or ‘taking off’ out of sight all together. It was a pleasure to be out with the community and experience the infectious excitement and happiness that comes with observing these amazing animals. Here’s to many more observations in the future.

Rough map of the killer whale movements and sightings, starting in the top near Toft and ending at the bottom near South Nesting Bay. Map produced by J. Sutherland.

As always, please do check out our citizen science page or contact us at to submit your own data, visit our facebook page to keep up to date with project information, and photos from my fieldwork can be found here on my Instagram.

Until next time…


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