A Shorewatching adventure

By WDC residential Volunteer Jess

In April, I was lucky enough to go to Shetland with Emma for a Shorewatch trip and help gather data about the marine mammals in the area. I have always wanted to go to Shetland, especially having grown up watching the BBC series ‘Shetland’ and the many David Attenborough documentaries depicting the Orcas that are seen frequently there. I spent the three weeks beforehand checking the weather forecast several times a day and reluctantly removing any summer clothing I had from my bag, replacing them with my ski trousers and more thermal layers. It was clear I wasn’t going to be needing my shorts.

Arriving at the ferry terminal in Aberdeen was very exciting as I’ve never really travelled alone before. Upon handing my large luggage bag over, I was told that there might be delays in arriving in Lerwick. Whilst it was a shame, I decided it gave me more time to watch from the top deck for dolphins. I settled into my cabin which has a window and waited for us to leave port. An announcement was made that all decks and the restaurant were going to be closed for safety precautions due to the weather, so I quickly took some sea sickness tablets to be on the safe side.

I needed those tablets. There was no point looking out of my window as it was permanently covered in sea spray. Under the sanctuary of my covers, I remained in a horizonal position for the next sixteen hours. Emma joined me when the boat stopped off at Orkney, 4hrs later than originally intended.

The seas calmed down ever so slightly as we finally pulled into Lerwick harbour. I was extremely relieved to be on dry land for several days and not doing a day trip, like one poor bus group. After we had settled into our beautiful accommodation (sea views and Shetland ponies provided) we went to our first Shorewatch site at Sumburgh head. Walking up the steep hill towards the light house, the heavens opened, and it began to snow. We had a quick look for puffins before deciding to watch from the more sheltered ‘B’ site. The snow was beautiful, but I cannot say anything nice about the assault of hailstones the snow developed into. About halfway into my Shorewatch, the binoculars were giving the appearance of the ship’s window and the sea sickness crept in again. Emma had to continue where I had left off whilst I had a little lie down on the floor. We continued our boat survey from the shelter of the café at the visitor shelter which had delicious hot chocolate and stunning panoramic views.


Once the hail had stopped, we headed to the next Shorewatch site at Mousa Sound where I met four lovely volunteers who had braved the weather to come and have a go. They offered home remedies and advice after seeing my slightly green face. Although we didn’t see anything, it was great to hear about the large number of porpoises that are seen in the area, something that is very uncommon for the usually solitary species. This has been discovered by doing Shorewatches and the data forming patterns which suggest Shetland acts as a breeding ground for the harbour porpoise.

The second day, I felt a lot better after a decent night’s sleep and a shower. We then headed to the new site at South Nesting Bay, which again is popular for porpoises. We sat in the van whilst the snow obscured our view of the sea. Emma showed me some drone footage she had taken of a couple of porpoises logging on the surface, an unusual behaviour for these normally speedy animals. The snow became lighter, so we ventured out and began our Shorewatches. Whilst I didn’t see anything on mine, Emma saw a porpoise which disappeared before I could locate it.

Next, we boarded a small ferry over to Yell where the crew kindly invited us up onto the bridge where we had excellent views of the landscape and water. We kept our eyes peeled for Orcas who have been seen occasionally from the ferry. While we didn’t see any, the clumsiness of the black guillemots provided the entertainment. We then landed in Ulsta and drove to the Burravoe site where we met with several more volunteers.  The Shorewatch site required a bit of a walk to get to but had beautiful views. The wind and snow continued to batter us, but the volunteers were determined to get their watches done. They had stories about where were the best places to go and what they had previously seen. One had seen a Minke whale on his first ever Shorewatch. Walking back, the wind finally blew some sunshine our way and I saw the landscape in all its glorious splendour. It covered everything in a golden light that made it look like something out of a fairytale. On returning to our cars, one volunteer invited us back to her house for coffee and to warm up a bit, which we gratefully accepted.

Warmed by hot drinks and generous hospitality, we made our way back down to our accommodation, stopping off at south nesting bay once more for a final Shorewatch. Nothing was spotted and the snow decided to join us again. The next day we journeyed to Lerwick where we did a training session for new volunteers. It was actually quite useful to experience the training again as there were bits I had forgotten! The second part of the training led us to The Knab, where the new volunteers could put the skills they learnt into practice. We didn’t spot any marine mammals, but the weather did hold off enough that we didn’t get wet or blown away. I don’t think it put the trainees off as they seemed very eager to get out and start watching across Shetland.  We said our goodbyes and then explored Lerwick after lunch. It was smaller and more picturesque than I originally thought, with colourful murals dotted around it.

That afternoon I had to catch the ferry to return to Spey Bay.  Driving to the ferry terminal, the sun was shining, and an otter popped his head up and swam around the harbour as if to bid me farewell. It was a wonderful experience to end my trip with. The boat trip home was a lot smoother sailing, I was able to sit on the top deck for most of the journey and keep an eye out for anything in the water and reflect on my trip.  Yes, the landscape was barren and the weather cruel and unforgiving, but that couldn’t have been further from the people I met whilst visiting. They invited me into their homes and culture, teaching me stories and sharing their local knowledge. I cannot thank them and Emma enough for their hospitality. I plan to return to Shetland in September for longer and explore it even more. Hopefully I will meet some of the volunteers (and their dogs) again whilst I am out Shorewatching. Perhaps next time I won’t need my seasickness tablets or ski trousers….but I think I’ll still pack them, just in case!