I had the idea for this post recently while watching the orca videos I’d filmed with my iPhone last year. I was going to research and write my own post about Shetland orca sightings, and I asked my friend Nick of Southspear Media & Surveys Ltd, for a quote to include. He came back with this incredibly detailed and well-written article about how to get the most out of your visit to Shetland if you’re looking for orcas. Guest post by Nick McCaffrey. All photographs from Hugh Harrop / Shetland Wildlife.
Orca in Shetland
This year has been an incredible year for general cetacean (whales, dolphins and porpoise) sightings around the shores of Shetland. Many of us have questioned why we there seems to be an increase in sightings around Shetland. Some wonder if this is as a consequence of a change in behaviour (are their migration routes changing) or is it that with the development of social networking, drone use and improved mobile communication networks that we are simply getting better at identifying and communicating the presence of cetaceans around our coastal waters?
I think I am joined by a number of ‘learned people’ in the belief it’s probably a combination of both things.
Beyond the presence of cetaceans, Shetland is also very fortunate to have a strong community of willing citizen scientists as well a number of skilled, well-educated and talented naturalists, marine biologists and photographers (Hugh Harrop, Richard Shucksmith, Karen Munro to name but a few). There is a strong sense of goodwill in the fact that a large community of mutually interested people freely gives up valuable information in order to share in the mutual benefit of improving our collective chances to view such incredible animals in action.
So many things have come together in Shetland to put it on the map as one of the best places in the world to observe cetaceans in their natural environment. – Nick McCaffrey
My personal favourite will always be Orca. All cetaceans are special to me but I find Orca to be especially interesting. To be frank, they are the Apex predator on this planet and leave me speechless every time I see them.
My contribution to this mix of experts and citizen scientists is in flying drones to capture their behaviour & interaction in the water. I fly drones commercially as a part-time venture and I have been using them to give a unique perspective on the behaviours Orca demonstrate.
Drones offer a perspective that allows you to see quite a bit more than what you would normally from the shore. I am certainly not the first person to have done this, but I’ve been doing it for some time now and I have been very lucky. A small collection of my footage can be seen on my Facebook page Southspear Media & Surveys Ltd.
If you are planning to travel to see our fantastic wildlife, I have to caution that you are trying to predict the behaviours of wild animals and there is no real secret to predicting where they may turn up, a lot of it is simply being in the right place at the right time.
SHETLAND ORCA SIGHTINGS: HOW/WHERE?
There are many people more qualified than me to give advice on how best to improve your chances of seeing them but my advice is as follows:
• Orca can be spotted all year round but the best chance of sightings is typically between May and September, I have personally found July to early August to be the periods where I am most successful but this may be more down to my personal circumstances at the time rather than their behaviour. There is no ‘Best place’ in my opinion to see Orca in Shetland, they can and will turn up anywhere around the islands.
• To stand any real chance you will need a car, Shetlands public transport infrastructure is good but these guys move fast (up to and beyond 30mph!). They can be very unpredictable in their tracks, they will sometimes randomly double back on themselves and go over the same ground from a different direction so don’t be surprised if you feel like you’re chasing your tail. Also get an in-car phone charger to keep your phone charged (you will be surprised how quickly you can kill your battery when out in the field).
• A crucial piece of advice is to join the Shetland Orca sightings Facebook page for live updates on sightings and the general direction of the pods travel. You will need a mobile phone to make the best use of that information when you’re out in the field and ideally, you will be doing your own searching to contribute to the page. Hopefully, you will get the honour of being the first person on the day to spot them and share with the thousands of people on the Facebook page (major kudos indeed!). Mobile reception is generally good but there are ‘black spots’ so updates can be intermittent. Please avoid asking “is there any update” as this gets thousands of people picking up their phone to realise it isn’t an update. Be patient the updates will come. The times you will be most successful in spotting them is where you get a good sense of their direction of travel. You can use that information to get ahead of them and set up for the pod passing by.
A routine update can look like this: “Pod of 8 with one bull hunting close inshore, they are moving South slowly along the shore last spotted passing Gulberwick”. Look at the time of the last update, check your map and always err on the side of caution, go further ahead than you think you need to get to because these guys can cover distance far quicker than you will appreciate. Orca can travel in straight lines ‘as the crow flies’ where you are bound to our winding road network so go further ahead than you think every time! A good tip would be to look at for groups of parked cars filled with people. Don’t be afraid to chat with the occupants because they are probably doing exactly the same thing as you (a parked car full of people looking out to sea is a pretty reliable sign). I often rely on people to tell me if they have gone by that point to help me gauge where to set up next.
• You will need a map. I would personally recommend an OS map application on your phone such as Viewranger because they have a search function that allows you to type in the name of a location and it will show you the locations far quicker than you would be able to find them on a map. It is worth adding that where the Orca may be and where the road ends are two different things so a good OS map is pretty crucial (I use the Viewranger app to help figure the best routes etc but there are others out there that are very good too). There may be several locations with the same name in Shetland, use the previous locations in the updates to narrow down which “Isle of Linga” the person sharing is referring to.
• Bring a good jacket, warm clothes and good hiking boots and/or welly boots as you will move through fields trying to ‘stay on them’. Some of those fields may be boggy. Pack plenty of food and water, it can be a long day! Our weather can be extremely changeable. If you are bringing cameras out in the field, pack rain protection for them even if it’s a sunny day because things change fast here and you don’t want your kit getting ruined right at the point you are looking to use it.
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• Avoid bringing your dog on sighting trips. I am a dog owner myself but you will find most of the fields you have to walk through to get to the shore, will have livestock in them. Dogs in fields full of livestock can lead to problems very quickly. To be honest it’s also another thing to keep an eye on when you’re in the field and you’ll want to have as much attention on the water as you can to maximise your chances. Plus many fields are divided by barbed wire fences which can be a disaster if your dog tries to jump them. Trust me if Orca are hunting inshore they will come in closer than you will ever imagine, you will want your full attention on them rather than what your dog is up to (Some dogs have been known to go investigate what the big black and white thing is in the water!).
If you must bring your dog I cannot stress enough how important it is you keep them on a short lead.
• Be prepared to put the miles in and keep your car topped up with fuel. There are several garages dotted around Shetland but you will find yourself literally in the middle of nowhere on occasion. This combined with the fact that many garages operate to opening times that are very different from the mainland could lead to problems for you. Updates can come anytime and can be a distance away from where you are so you don’t want to miss an opportunity because you forgot to fuel up.
• Tell someone where you are going and be careful around cliffs, many of them can have false edges. You will be concentrating on the Orca and perhaps less so on where you are walking when ‘Orca fever’ grips you. If you do get ahead of their direction of travel, use the time you have to take stock of the area around you and make a note of any potential hazards because it’s easy to injure yourself around rocky shorelines especially when you are distracted.
• To maximise your chances of seeing Orca, my best piece of advice is to join up with a number of wildlife specialist tour operators (two prime examples: Shetland Wildlife Tours & Shetland Photo Tours. Hugh and Richard have a network of contacts well beyond the Facebook pages which include local fisherman, other naturalists, marine biologists etc. They also know the islands like the back of their hands. With years of experience, they are excellent at predicting what and where things are likely to happen. Our tour operators will also look after you and keep you safe, sparing you from a lot of legwork. What’s also brilliant about taking advantage of our local wildlife tour guides is that if things are quiet they can fill your time with other fantastic wildlife spotting opportunities such as Otter and bird watching. I personally enjoy just listening to them sharing their experiences with our local wildlife (and trust me these guys have had many!).
I learn something new every time I am in either of their company and I’ve been doing this for a little while now.
Lastly, I will say from experience that if there is a secret it’s this, “The more I get out there and look, the luckier I get”.
HUGH HARROP – SHETLAND WILDLIFE TOURS
Hugh Harrop is one of Shetland’s most dynamic Orca watchers and probably knows more about the identification and movements of these animals than anyone else in Shetland. In the 25 years that he has been photographing them for photo-Identification work he has pretty much documented and all individual animals and made several ‘matches’ of animals recorded off the Scottish mainland, Orkney and even Iceland. And new discoveries keep coming – in June 2018 Hugh discovered two animals (pictured below) that had never been recorded in Shetland waters – but had been seen off Scotland and Iceland.
With huge thanks to Nick McCaffrey for this guest post and to Hugh Harrop / Shetland Wildlife for the kind use of his photographs. Video filmed in Levenwick, Shetland on my iPhone in July 2017. Please excuse the adverts (disable your ad-blocker to view my video footage) – the money made from these ads will be going to Jim’s Garage in Lerwick to pay for our new car. 🙂