News / Orca watchers have whale of a time

A pod of killer whales kept the crowds entertained as they came close in at Breiwick on Thursday - Photo: John Coutts

AS SHETLAND recovers from three days of orca fever, the ultimate expert on killer whales living in the North Atlantic said the two pods of ten animals seen in the isles recently were regular summer visitors to our shores.

Dr Andy Foote has been instrumental in setting up the North Atlantic Killer Whale ID (NAKID) project, which gathers knowledge on the movements and behaviour of individual animals.

Dr Foote, who now works on the genomics of killer whales at the University of Bern in Switzerland, said he could easily identify individual whales in photos taken over the last few days.

The predators have been watched by hundreds of delighted islanders and visitors over the last three days as the mammals came close in to hunt at Sumburgh, Gulberwick, Lerwick and South Nesting.

Tour operator Hugh Harrop of Shetland Wildlife said there was an “enigma” about killer whales that made them so attractive to watch, similar to other top of the food chain predators such as polar bears.


“We know very little about them and it is one of the ultimate animals to see in the wild,” he said.

“I think we can probably relate to them. It is easy to draw comparisons with intelligent creatures, but there are clearly a lot of differences in that man has, unfortunately, the overriding say in how orcas will live and, indeed, if the species survives.”

Dr Foote said that most of the groups of killer whales seen around Shetland return to the isles each summer.

“We also know that some groups are spending the winter in Iceland feeding on herring before moving back to the Northern Isles and Caithness in the summer,” he said.

During fieldwork in 2008 and 2009, Dr Foote, then a PhD student at Aberdeen University, spent summer months in Shetland compiling an ID database of the killer whales roaming these northern waters.

Become a supporter of Shetland News


And he confirmed that a photo of two orca calves in one pod, taken by Gina Rathbone on Tuesday at Sumburgh, was a most unusual sight.

“I can identify 32 or ‘Busta’, an adult male. When I was up doing fieldwork, this group consisted of five whales and was the group we encountered most frequently,” he said.

“When the whales were photographed again in 2011 they had a new calf with them. It looks as though the two calves are new and born in the last year or two.

“That is relatively rare, due to the small group sizes that are typical of killer whales in Scottish waters, and the fact that killer whales typically give birth just once every five years.”

Dr Foote said he was in the process of updating his orca catalogue with new photographs, and is asking Shetland News readers to send him high-resolution photos showing the markings of individual whales.


“The scars on the white ‘saddle patch’ change over time and the fins can acquire new nicks. So we need to update the catalogue to be able to continue to recognise these individuals,” he said.

His e-mail address is: FooteAD@gmail.com 

Meanwhile more than 2,500 people have already joined a new Facebook site, Shetland Orca Sightings, or SOS, which has been created by the Shetland Wildlife team to let locals find out where killer whales can be seen.

Users are also encouraged to share their photos and experiences.

Visit the Shetland Wildlife Facebook page at www.facebook.com/shetlandwildlife/?fref=ts 

Become a supporter of Shetland News

Shetland News is asking its many readers to consider start paying for their dose of the latest local news delivered straight to their PC, tablet or mobile phone.

Journalism comes at a price and because that price is not being paid in today’s rapidly changing media world, most publishers - national and local - struggle financially despite very healthy audience figures.

Most online publishers have started charging for access to their websites, others have chosen a different route. Shetland News currently has  over 600 supporters  who are all making small voluntary financial contributions. All funds go towards covering our cost and improving the service further.

Your contribution will ensure Shetland News can: -

  • Bring you the headlines as they happen;
  • Stay editorially independent;
  • Give a voice to the community;
  • Grow site traffic further;
  • Research and publish more in-depth news, including more Shetland Lives features.

If you appreciate what we do and feel strongly about impartial local journalism, then please become a supporter of Shetland News by either making a single payment or monthly subscription.

Support us from as little as £3 per month – it only takes a minute to sign up. Thank you.



Subscribe to a selection of different newsletters from Shetland News, varying from breaking news delivered on the minute, to a weekly round-up of the opinion posts. All delivered straight to your inbox.

Daily Briefing Newsletter Weekly Highlights Newsletter Opinion Newsletter Life in Shetland Newsletter

JavaScript Required

We're sorry, but Shetland News isn't fully functional without JavaScript enabled.
Head over to the help page for instructions on how to enable JavaScript on your browser.

Your Privacy

We use cookies on our site to improve your experience.
By using our service, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Cookie Policy.

Browser is out-of-date

Shetland News isn't fully functional with this version of .
Head over to the help page for instructions on updating your browser for more security, improved speed and the best overall experience on this site.

Interested in Notifications?

Get notifications from Shetland News for important and breaking news.
You can unsubscribe at any time.

Become a supporter of Shetland News

We're committed to ensuring everyone has equitable access to impartial, open and quality local journalism that benefits all residents.

By supporting Shetland News, you play a vital role in ensuring we remain a pivotal resource in supporting the community.

Support us from as little as £3 per month – it only takes a minute to sign up. Thank you.