Orcas, or killer whales as they are often known, hunt in groups. Those in Scottish waters that live offshore tend to hunt herring and mackerel, whilst inshore populations will take seals and seabirds.
It’s not every day that you get to eyeball an otter close-up, but that’s Shetland for you, a place where there are wildlife surprises around every corner.
I was standing on the quayside at Lerwick, not long after disembarking from the Aberdeen ferry, when suddenly up bobbed this otter in the water right beside me. Wow, that was a bit unexpected!
The otter was holding a small shore crab in its front paws, which it swiftly despatched between its jaws with a loud crunch, leaving behind a scattering of shell fragments that spiralled gently down through the clear sea.
The otter looked up at me once more, completely unconcerned by my presence, before gently slipping under the water to continue with its crab hunt.
I’ve noticed with otters over the years – both in rivers and on the coast – that these animals are generally not too bothered by the proximity of people; just stand at a respectful distance and give some space, and they will happily go about their business.
This Lerwick quayside was a treasure trove for wildlife and there was so much to see, including little groups of black guillemots – or tysties as they are known locally. A member of the auk family, black guillemots are such confiding birds that adore sheltered waters where they can find an abundance of young saithe and other small fish to feed upon.
Later that morning, I headed down to Sumburgh Head at the far southern tip of Shetland in the hope of spotting orcas and other whales. Orcas have become a major tourist attraction in these northern isles in recent years and often hunt close to rocky shores in search of seals. But by the time I had arrived the conditions weren’t ideal for whale watching, with a near gale having blown-up that turned the ocean into a white-topped frenzy of waves.
Despite this, the sea was alive with birds, with many gulls and gannets plying the swirling updrafts. But the wind was uncomfortably strong; it was time to find calmer waters.
So, I travelled back north again, turning off for a small and sheltered sandy bay on the west side of the island. Here, a couple of harbour seals rolled about in the surf, watching my every move as I walked along the white sand – inquisitive eyes set upon softly rounded faces.
By a steep cut, several pairs of fulmars had gathered to check out their nesting ledges. The breeding season might still be many months away, but already these birds were claiming the best spots for nesting and were renewing their pair bonds with each other.
Despite being on winter’s cusp, our wildlife is already preparing for the coming spring, and my spirits were buoyed by such thoughts. These cackling fulmars sitting together like happy love birds were a reflection of the natural world being a revolving circle of life, with each ending turning seamlessly into a new beginning.