Throughout 2020 I spent a lot of time looking out to sea. That’s not hard to do where I live – my home sits on the rocky spine of a narrow, low peninsula, so there are sea views on three sides of the house. I can see five of Shetland’s inhabited islands in that sweeping vista and, were I to head straight out to sea between Fetlar and the Out Skerries, the next land I’d eventually hit would be Norway.
The view changes, constantly, depending on the light and time of day. Rainbows paint the near horizons almost daily; clouds coalesce and dissolve constantly; and some sunsets err on the apocalyptic. There’s always something different to see.
I could watch the weather all day, but the sea draws me like a magnet. Grey Seals haunt the coast around here, hanging in the water with dark, watchful eyes turned to land. The rocky shores echo with the shrill whickering and whistles of Otters and their cubs. Look for long enough at the right time of day and I’m almost certain I’ll eventually see a small head and the flick of a tail above water when one is fishing in the bay below the house. In the height of summer this year, when it never truly gets dark, they were hunting eelpouts and Butterfish shortly before midnight as the sun dipped, briefly, below the horizon.
During the height of lockdown, when I wasn’t going beyond the boundaries of my croft, I could at least walk down to the shore. There’s a small beach there, a pocket of shell-sand at the head of the noust, a passage through the rocks that long-gone men cleared so they could launch their boats from this jagged shore.
The beach throws up surprises from time to time. I idled away hours scouring the sand for cowries and other seashells, and watched the soap opera that was a pair of Starlings nesting in a drystone wall at the head of the beach. Behind me, in the bay, a Black-throated Diver spent the summer lurking offshore. They’re a rare visitor here – the seas in winter are the domain of the Great Northern Divers that leave, in the spring, to breed up in Iceland, leaving the coast clear for Red-throated Divers to breed on our freshwater lochs and feed in shallow bays. This diver ought not to have been here, but was a welcome sight for me.
I was looking for more than birds on the water, though. As the year unfolded I was treated to regular sightings of Minke Whales, rolling languorously at the surface for a breath of air before diving again to feed. Dolphins, White-sided and Risso’s, passed through on several occasions, while Harbour Porpoises gathered in energetic pods on still evenings.
All of those cetaceans were a little way offshore – but on a rare visit to Lerwick, I was treated to the closest views I’ve ever had of a Minke Whale in an urban setting, an animal that spent several hours feeding happily a handful of metres from the cliffs on which I sat, sharing the experience with a steady stream of folk who took a moment in their busy day to stop and admire this large, active wild animal in our midst.
There were also, of course, regular sightings throughout the summer of Killer Whales. A local Whatsapp group has transformed one’s chances of seeing these charismatic and mobile cetaceans – once a pod has been seen, news is usually shared quickly within the group, and regular updates allow folk to follow the pod as it hunts seals along a stretch of coast.
By and large, I’m usually away working when sightings of them peak in the summer – and this year, despite being at home, I preferred to wait for my path to cross theirs by serendipity rather than design. Eventually, that happened, on a morning I had set aside to photograph Purple Sandpipers in Shetland’s south mainland – a message appeared on my phone and, barely 20 minutes later, a pod of Killer Whales appeared in the waters of the shallow sandy bay before me.
There’s an undeniable frisson to an encounter with them and, while I love watching them, I’d be the first to say I find them a little unnerving and frightening – over the years I’ve witnessed enough incidents to reinforce the knowledge that they’re not only apex predators, but also able, determined and highly intelligent ones. It’s the little things – the times they investigate every nook and cranny of a rocky coast, hoping to winkle out a hiding seal at the foot of the cliffs; their omnivorous willingness to eat anything they encounter on the water, from ducklings to Guillemots, Otters to Grey Seals; and those unforgettable moments when one sees them problem-solving – a seal, hauled out in safety on a rock just above the water? Not a problem – the experienced Killer Whales rush towards it, creating a bow-wave that washes over the rock and the cowering seal. The seal hung on, but only twice – on the third attempt, it was swept into the sea, and those big black dorsal fins all surged underwater as one…
Back at home, I didn’t see any this year, but I could hardly complain given the almost daily cetacean sightings of other species besides them. And not just cetaceans – there were other, singular highlights. Mirror calm days in summer when the fin and tail tips of Basking Sharks could be seen from land; and wild, stormy days in the autumn when Sooty Shearwaters were blown close enough to land that I could see them, using a spotting scope, from my bedroom window.
Other storms brought visitors from far afield. In the late winter, rolls of birch bark washed onto my beach – once renowned here as potent firelighters, and known as Loki’s candles, they float across the Atlantic from the great forests of North America. A late summer storm washed an immense spar of wood high above the tideline, covered with a thick, clasping layer of Goose Barnacles – a pelagic species normally found on flotsam in the warm waters of the tropics rather than the chilly surroundings of the east side of Shetland.
With the sea, you just never know what you’re going to see here.