THE SHETLAND village of Hillswick came to a standstill on Monday after a fully grown humpback whale entered the local bay and entertained scores of people as it spent several hours swimming and diving.
The creature, measuring 40 to 50 feet in length, was first seen by salmon workers off the Hillswick Ness around 8am and the news spread rapidly on the local and wildlife grapevines.
Within hours the area had filled with enthusiastic onlookers and wildlife experts who spent the next seven hours enjoying unrivalled views of the giant from the deep.
Local naturalist Rob Fray confirmed the baleen whale was the same creature that had been seen swimming off Muckle Roe on Friday, when it was photographed extensively by Brian Gray.
Humpback whales are rarely seen swimming inshore in Britain, but are spotted fairly regularly in Shetland waters, one of the best places in the UK to see them.
Last December one was sighted off Sumburgh Head, while in September 2010 a juvenile became tangled in creel ropes off Lunning before managing to free itself after a full rescue operation had been prepared.
There have been around six other sightings since 2009, when at least three were seen swimming together in Bluemull Sound that February.
One of the first people on the scene was Jan Bevington of Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary who was involved in the Lunning entanglement incident two years ago.
“When I saw the size of this whale compared to the juvenile I felt a bit concerned that something so big should be so far up the bay at Urafirth, so I was glad when it went back into the open sea,” she said.
“I was overwhelmed by the impact seeing a creature that big for so long had on me and everyone else I spoke to. I can never get over how this happens every time people see whales.”
Local fishermen have been reporting large shoals of mackerel close inshore, which may have attracted the whale so close in to feed, but experts say there were no signs of it chasing and scooping up fish on Monday.
Wildlife tour guide and photographer Hugh Harrop spent much of the day photographing the whale as it repeatedly surfaced, made a few blows and then dived every five minutes or so in the mouth of Ura Firth.
He said he was keen to get photographic evidence that this was the same creature was seen off Muckle Roe four days earlier.
His pictures will be passed on to researchers with the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue.
People can see more of Harrop’s photos and keep up to date with wildlife sightings in Shetland by following Shetland Wildlife on Facebook at www.facebook.com/shetlandwildlife.