ECOPredS In Shetland – Blog 4

Written by Julia Sutherland

My last few weeks in Shetland were eventful to say the least. Before travelling back to St. Andrews at the end of July, I was lucky enough to have three more killer whale encounters, a pod of risso’s dolphins, and a nursery pod of approximately 100 Atlantic white-sided dolphins. The camera’s memory card is very much full!

#72 of the #27s pod (top L), Atlantic white-sided dolphins (top R), Risso’s dolphin (bottow L), and harbour seal haul out (bottom R). Photos by J. Sutherland.

A few days after my encounter with the 19s pod off the east mainland on the 4th July, notifications came through to say killer whales were once again being sighted in the same area on the 9th July. An unidentified pod was seen headed south off Lunning, and later picked up off Symbister on Whalsay (meaning “Whale Island” in old norse). With the whales travelling close to the coastline of Whalsay, a swift ID of the pod was possible – it was the 27s this time! The 27s are a pod of eight individuals frequently sighted in Shetland, and have also been encountered in Iceland hunting harbour porpoise in 2017 (Scottish Killer Whale Photo-Identification Catalogue 2021). From our land-based viewing points, the pod was sighted at a distance throughout our encounter. Still, we managed to track the pod’s movements as they travelled south from Whalsay, past the Neap and briefly into South Nesting Bay. From here they continued south past Eswick, the Hoo Stack off Gletness, and eventually travelled out of sight towards the isles of Bressay and Noss. The encounter lasted from midday until almost 5pm – not a bad way to spend an afternoon! With the 27s back in town, we had everything crossed for more encounters in the days to come…

Distant observation of the 27s pod off Whalsay, taken from the mainland. Photo by J. Sutherland

… and we were not disappointed! 10am the next morning, killer whale sightings started rolling in from Yell – an island north of mainland Shetland. By 11:30am I was on the ferry to Yell, travelling in convoy once again with Shetland Wildlife’s Hugh Harrop in pursuit of the pod. The pod, identified again as the 27s, was first sighted near Mid Yell, and we managed to catch up with them as they entered Burra Ness around midday. Sighting conditions were perfect, with calm seas, clear skies, and the Yell community all too happy to help us navigate the coastline in pursuit of the killer whales. Our encounter started at North Sandwick, viewing the 27s as they travelled north behind the small isle of Linga towards Gutcher, past Stonganess, Cullivoe, until we finally lost sight of them as they travelled offshore from Breckon. The pod treated us with a wealth of social behaviours, including spyhopping and breaching, and even a seal kill. In total the encounter lasted from midday to almost 4pm, and was absolutely spectacular. Have a look at a few magical minutes of drone footage here, courtesy of Hugh Harrop.

27s pod off Yell. Photo by J. Sutherland
27s pod spyhopping (top L), tail-slapping (top R), and breaching (bottom). Photos by J. Sutherland
Rough map of the killer whale movements and sightings, starting in the bottom near Mid Yell and ending at the top off Breckon. Map produced by J. Sutherland.

The next, and final killer whale encounter of my summer 2021 fieldwork, happened on the 15th July with reports of a lone bull (male killer whale) in Brei Wick, Lerwick – a 5 minute walk from my accommodation! Rushing out I soon spotted the huge distinctive dorsal fin of the bull, and using photo-ID we were able to confirm it was male #018, an individual known to travel between Scotland and Iceland. #018 was travelling alone this time, but previously he has been spotted with other males including ‘Bigga’, ‘Hulk’ and ‘Nótt’, as well as the Scottish 64s pod – the power of citizen science! We followed him from around 2pm as he transited slowly from Lerwick down towards Mousa, eventually losing sight of him behind Mousa Island around 7pm. It was a wonderful final encounter, on another picture-perfect day.

We were able to identify the bull as #018 thanks to the Scottish Killer Whale Photo-ID Catalogue, matching his saddle patch scars. Photo by J. Sutherland
Bull #018 off Kirkabister Light, Bressay as viewed from the Knab, Lerwick. Photo by J. Sutherland

In the midst of these final few encounters I was also lucky enough to see Risso’s dolphins in Brei Wick (where bull #018 was seen a few days later), and a huge nursery pod of Atlantic white sided dolphins in Vassa Voe (footage by Hugh Harrop). I continued with the seal monitoring until the day I left, amazed at how the harbour seal pups had grown substantially in size in just a few weeks.

Risso’s dolphin in Brei Wick, Lerwick. Photo by J. Sutherland
Atlantic white-sided dolphins putting on a show in Vassa Voe. Photo by J. Sutherland.
Harbour seal mum and pup. Photo by J. Sutherland

It was a great first field season in Shetland, and a genuine delight to meet project collaborators and citizen scientists on the ground. I’d like to thank everyone that made these weeks so memorable, particularly Hugh Harrop, Gary Buchan, Richard Shucksmith, and Karen Hall, and to everyone who read the blog and followed me on this journey! Watch this space, there’s still more to come…

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 more photos from my fieldwork can be found here on my Instagram.

Now to start the data crunching…


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