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Pilot Whales, Bonxies and Soaring Gannets: Ultimate Shetland Day 3

We left early, heading north to the island of Unst that would be our home for the next few days. On route, the great Shetland cetacean grapevine informed us that some pilot whales had been seen off of the coast at Skaw. We decided to head straight there to see if we could spot them.

Pulling up at the rather beautiful coast at Skaw, we could not see anything, but made our way down the beach. Scanning with our binoculars, Hugh picked up an otter out in the bay.

We were all delighted to be able to watch this otter diving and bringing up fish. Joined by another individual we watched them as they drifted further out to sea, before we saw Hugh gesturing furiously further up the beach! The pilot whales were still there… but just around the bay. Jumping back into the van, we quickly headed around the coastline to the next beach and headed up onto the cliffs.

As we neared the edge of the cliff, we could see a dark area in the sea, a couple of hundred metres out to see. What met ours eyes, as we raised out binoculars, was the most bizarre spectacle! There were nearly 40 Long-finned Pilot Whales, clustered together in a tight group, on the surface of the water. The long-finned pilot whale is a large species of oceanic dolphin. Long-finned pilot whales are known as such because of their unusually long pectoral fins. They have a distinctive bulbous head and white chest markings. (The dark area to the left of my head is the whales)

They were rising and falling within this group, spouting and sometimes vocalising. As individuals rose up above the water, you could see their distinct head shape and the white markings on the chest.

This behaviour continued, with the whales not moving from their chosen position. This is unusual behaviour, but it has been documented before. No one is clear about why they do this. They are usually a deep water species, yet here they were, in very shallow water just a few hundred metres from the shore.

It was amazing to see so many individuals and we watched them for over an hour. In this time, they hardly moved from this spot… indeed, they were there for about 24 hrs before they were seen feeding and then heading out to sea. Let’s hope they don’t head anywhere near the Faroe Islands where they are slaughtered in huge numbers.

Leaving this spectacle, we headed further North, to Hermaness. This National Nature Reserve is famous for its Great Skua (Bonxie) population and its truly impressive cliffs and gannetry. Hermaness is a mecca for seabirds, with over 100 000 breeding pairs of 15 different species, making up this internationally important seabird assemblage. The colonies of breeding great skua, gannet and puffin are also of international importance and numbers of guillemot, fulmar and shag at Hermaness all exceed 1% of the British population. The gannetry with around 6% of the breeding North Atlantic population, is the sixth largest British colony.

This spectacular site is a must if you ever visit Shetland as it is a spectacle that you won’t forget! It is always great taking guests up to this site as the beauty of the cliff views do not reveal themselves until the very last minute as you rise about a grassy knoll and suddenly see the spectacular views.

The bonxies gave an excellent display, especially as a lamb had died near the top of the cliff and there was some competition over the carcass.

The gannetry here at Hermaness is truly amazing. No photos will ever be able to do this amazing spectacle justice. The cliffs, white with guano, are a mass of gannets, rising, falling soaring, calling and tending nests. Everywhere you look, the skies are full… it is incredible.

We headed back to the van, our heads full of images of these breathtaking views… but the day was not over yet. We always scan all the small pools as we drive around Unst….. you just never know what you might see! One pool turned out to be very special giving us very special views of a female red-necked phalarope… a species we were hoping to see in Fetlar…we were thrilled of course! It is not often you get a view like this of a phalarope.

We returned, finally , to the hotel…. our minds full of the wonderful wildlife spectacles from the day…and what a day!


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