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Nature / Rare sighting of beluga whale off Hillswick

Drone footage of the beluga whale by Richard Shucksmith

THE HARSH, snowy weather did not deter one Arctic visitor from swimming into Shetland on Wednesday, writes Alex Purbrick.

A beluga whale spotted off the West Ayre beach in Hillswick this morning has caused buzz on social media pages in what is a rare sighting for an animal not usually seen in Shetland waters.

Last spotted in July 2021 in Unst, the beluga whale lives in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters and is currently on the endangered species list with a population of only 150,000 remaining.

Threats such as climate change, oil and gas exploration in Arctic waters as well as ocean noise from industrial and military activities have resulted in the habitat of the beluga being severely threatened.

Local Hillswick resident, Kaillee Tait, 17, spotted the beluga on her way to feed her horses this morning in Eshaness after seeing it reported on social media.

“I was very excited because I have never seen a beluga whale before,” she said.

“I was interested to see what belugas eat and so looked online and saw they ate crabs, clams, fish. I sea swim in the West Ayre and I’m a jet ski instructor who takes people out on jet skis in the summer through these waters.

“So I see how this part of coastline is full of food like this for the beluga. They’re the most vocal whales in the world and they’re the most social whales.

“I’m a keen photographer and tried as best I could to take a photo of the whale but it’s very hard as for most of the time the whale is submerged feeding.”

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Although the waters around Shetland might seem cold, beluga whales depend on sea ice for their existence as a place to feed, and to seek for refuge from predators like orcas.

As the Arctic seascape changes due to varying forces Shetland may be seeing more sightings of belugas in the future seeking sanctuary and food as their habitat continues to diminish.

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