“Not what we were expecting when we woke up yesterday morning……A BELUGA !!! a high Arctic marine mammal in the sub-zero winter wonderland Shetland is currently experiencing, to get to the site was hard enough, but worth every freezing moment for a once in a lifetime wildlife sighting”

A stunning ivory white BELUGA whale was spotted off West Ayre in Hillswick yesterday morning by Margaret and Jeff Tungatt who contacted the admin of the local Cetacean WhatsApp page with the sighting, then made public mid-morning. Phil, Ayda (8) & I tried to head out north but the weather with pure arctic conditions, thick snow & drift made our plans impossible & we turned back. However around 1pm, the weather improved & we again set of north in our 4×4. We made a diversion to pick up good friend & ace cameraman & drone photographer Richard Shucksmith & made it to West Ayre, Hillswick about an hour before dark. The sea was very dark & skies ominous as we scanned the bay, & almost immediately picked up the incredible sight of a ghostly ivory white large BELUGA, regularly surfacing & clearly visible at distance contrasting against the dark water. The large, active animal appeared healthy, feeding & regularly diving for a few minutes at a time, we could even follow it’s white shape below the surface. Beluga apparently feed on various fish species as well as crabs, octopus, squid & snails & this one could be seen up-ending to feed on a couple of occasions.

Richard captured breath-taking drone footage of this rare Arctic & Sub-Arctic marine mammal (seriously doesn’t get better than that please check it out!! LINK here: https://fb.watch/pEVp-PJU8G/ & it was hugely exciting for all four of us to not only watch the animal surfacing & see it’s iconic ‘melon-head’ shape & beautiful tail shape at distance, but also enjoy it ‘live’ via Richard’s drone camera. I got some distant record shots & a nice little video which serves as a perfect memory of Shetland’s 6th BELUGA. It was a very special moment for all of us at Shetland Seabird Tours – The Noss Boat, & one we will remember for years to come. Rebecca has previously seen Beluga in Spitsbergen whilst guiding there is 2012 but it was a world cetacean tick for everyone else. It is still present today 18th January 2024 & we hope if the weather improves many others will get to enjoy seeing they spectacular, iconic Arctic species as the weather improves. It is difficult to know exactly why the Beluga is here in Shetland waters, along with the 5 other Beluga records, we have also had Bearded Seals & Walrus on the Isles of the the last few years. These are all high arctic species & we must consider that these rare but increasing sightings are highly likely the result of climate change & the aptly named climate catastrophe we are faced with today. The strong northerly storms & arctic weather front we have been experiencing of late, may also have caused the Hillswick Beluga to have become disorientated & separated from it’s pod, & of course although it looks healthy, we never really know if there are more serious individual, internal health issues at play. We hope it will feed well whilst here & be able to make it’s way back further north as soon as possible.

ON THE BELOW LINK FOR OUR VIDEO OF THE BELUGA SURFACING OFF HILLSWICK.

https://www.instagram.com/reel/C2N-dtCxOoY/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igsh=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==

 

Loch Ness Monster or …… A BELUGA!
BELUGA BAY – West Ayre Bay, Hillswick.

Shetland’s Late Summer Seabirds & Cetaceans

We have been good friends as well as work colleagues of Brydon Thomason for many years & been collaborating with his highly successful local wildlife tour company SHETLAND NATURE since we started our own business in 2016. We are delighted that The Noss Boat tours features in all his seasonal group itineraries, & for the first time this summer, we are part of his new Summer Seabirds & Cetaceans itinerary. Check out his website & some of the tour details below:

Holiday overview:

Seven nights’ all-inclusive accommodation

  • Small group size of just six to eight guests
  • Led by resident naturalist guides who live/work here all year round
  • Unique insight into behaviour and ecology of Shetlands Otters
  • Exclusive cetacean search boat charter with Shetland Seabird Tours
  • Exclusive boat charter to Gannets of Noss NNR with Shetland Seabird Tours
  • Peak season for inshore cetaceans such as Minke Whale, White-beaked & Risso’s Dolphin

NEW FOR 2023!

Saturday 5th – 12th August, 2023

We are delighted to launch this unique new tour itinerary, which focuses primarily on three of Shetland’s star wildlife attractions – seabirds, Otters and cetaceans. Focusing on these throughout the latter weeks of the summer is something we do every year on our day tours and bespoke holiday bookings, but this season, it feels particularly appropriate to add it to our holiday program.

Celebrating the amazing vibe and momentum throughout the UK nature community building around the incredible ‘Wild Isles’ series, this itinerary features three of the series headline acts – Gannets, Otters and hopefully – Orca!

For many of Shetland’s species the brief northern breeding season is already ending by August, yet for most, especially sea birds, the season is in full swing. Though Common Guillemot chicks have left their ledges and Kittiwakes are fledging, Gannetries are a raucous hustle and bustle of activity with chicks still a few weeks from fledging and on the clifftops and grassy slopes, Atlantic Puffins are still present in decent numbers, as are the mighty Great Skuas, which are still yet to fledge their chicks and Arctic Skua give chase to Arctic Terns in their dramatic aerial pursuits. This is also peak time for cetaceans, being the time of year we tend to see the widest range of species inshore, particularly those that are following the Mackerel, Herring and Saithe that amass in our waters in this season.

Itinerary

Day One – Arrival dinner and meet/greet

Our week adventure begins on Saturday evening when we meet and greet you at the Sumburgh Hotel. Over dinner as guests and guide become acquainted, we enthuse about the exciting adventure ahead and this is the perfect time to learn about the islands, the wildlife and indeed life in general in Shetland. This is something we feel plays a very important role in your Shetland experience and with all our core season team of guides being resident Shetlanders we take pride in this. Overnight at Sumburgh Hotel

Day Two – Sumburgh Head & Mousa

We begin our voyage of discovery in the South Mainland, at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Sumburgh Head reserve, where we hope for our first Puffins of the week. Sumburgh is the ideal setting in which to start to get to know some of Shetland’s breeding birds, with many of our common species close at hand.

This is also the first of several cetacean watch-points that we will visit, where we keep a keen eye off shore for species such as Harbour Porpoise, Minke Whale, Risso’s and White-beaked Dolphin which are all regularly recorded here in late summer, with a decent chance of Orca too. This is also been the peak time to see Basking Shark here too, which will also be on our radar at all watchpoints.

In the afternoon we take the small passenger ferry across to the marvellous uninhabited island of Mousa. The short ten-minute crossing offers one of the best places in Britain to see Harbour Porpoise. Our walk around the RSPB reserve will take us along cliffs that are favoured nesting places for Fulmar and Shag; also Black Guillemot and Gannet may be seen fishing offshore where we have a good chance of cetaceans too. On the walk we will observe lagoons that are a favourite haul out for both Common and Grey Seal. We also pass a small loch, a favourite bathing pool for Arctic Terns and has been known to accommodate a nesting pair of Red-throated Divers. The final highlight of our visit to the island will be to explore Mousa Broch. This almost complete broch (stone tower) stands 13m tall and is the best-preserved example of an Iron Age (c.300BC to 200AD) broch in existence. Overnight at Sumburgh Hotel

Day three – South Mainland & Noss

Today we venture north. Leaving Shetland’s south Mainland we journey north to the north western part of the Shetland Mainland. Before leaving the south, we enjoy a gentle coastal walk while exploring the nearby peninsula of Scatness, Fitful Head and the picturesque tombolo of St Ninian’s Isle beach, each of which offering the opportunity of sea mammals off shore

In the afternoon we join the amazing, multi-award winning Shetland Seabird Tours for the first of the week’s two marine wildlife boat charters onboard the Ayda Ruby II, with naturalist skipper, Phil Haris who takes us out from Lerwick to the spectacular Noss NNR, home to over 18,000 breeding pairs of Northern Gannets. The colonies and towering cliffs are truly awe-inspiring, followed by an exhilarating feeding frenzy offshore. We will also enjoy many other seabirds here, both on the water and in the colonies above.

Once ashore in the late afternoon we make our way north to The St Magnus Bay Hotel in Hillswick, where we will spend the next four nights.

Day four – North Mainland

Today we begin to explore the magnificent and rugged north-western part of Shetland Mainland. From a geological and landscape perspective, this remote corner of the islands is unique and there is much to admire. At Eshaness lighthouse, the breathtaking views of one of Shetland’s most iconic vistas are guaranteed, and an examination of a nearby blowhole is not for the faint-hearted. If the weather is good, we will spend time scanning for whales and dolphins out at sea. Risso’s, White-sided and White-beaked Dolphins, Minke Whales and of course Orca (Killer Whale) can all be seen from here with a bit of luck, a keen eye – and better still – a calm sea! Harbour Porpoises are the most common cetacean and perhaps more predictable, and we should be able to find these at our regular sites.

In the afternoon we venture up onto higher ground, up to the tele communications mast on Collafirth Hill, which shoulders Ronas Hill.  At 450 metres above sea level, Ronas Hill is hardly a mountain yet it is the highest point in Shetland. Overnight at St. Magnus Bay Hotel.

Day Five – All About Otters

Unique to Shetland Nature, we will spend the day devoted to one of Shetland’s star wildlife attractions, the Otter! In the absence of Badger or Fox, the Otter takes centre stage. With a higher density than anywhere else in the world, it is little wonder that Shetland has long been recognised as the best place to see and study this wonderful mammal.

It was in fact around this very species that Shetland Nature was evolved, through co-author of Otters in Shetland- the tale of the draatsi’ , Brydon Thomason’s lifelong passion and experience of them. It is little wonder that Otter watching is therefore our signature specialty, and we pride ourselves on the insight and encounters. We have yet to have a group leave disappointed and we have every confidence in our continued success.

Here is one of the many areas that our guests experience first-hand the benefits of our small group size and the leadership of local naturalists. Our approach is based on our unsurpassed knowledge of Shetland’s Otters; where and when to stand the best chance of encounters and most of all how to search and observe without disturbance. We will visit some of the best sites in the islands to give you a unique insight into the secret lives of one of the nation’s most evocative and captivating animals.

Our sensitivity towards Shetland’s Otters is as renowned as our success with guests’ encounters. We operate under a government legislation Schedule 2 license issued by Scottish Natural Heritage. Overnight at St. Magnus Bay Hotel.

Day Six – Unit

 

 

Today, for the penultimate full day of the itinerary we journey to the very top of Britain, the island of Unst. Island hopping from Mainland to Yell and again across to Unst, the ferries offer the perfect opportunity to scan the sea for cetaceans.

On Unst we begin our North Isles experience by savouring the rich flora and fauna of Unst and head out onto Hermaness National Nature Reserve. Setting out on foot through the heart of the reserve, we can guarantee ‘up close and personal’ encounters with Great Skuas, known locally as Bonxies, which nest in large numbers on the moorland interior. Reaching the spectacular cliffs on the west side of the reserve, we hope to be first greeted by Puffins before breath-taking views of Muckle Flugga and the most northerly lighthouse in Britain. These and the surrounding stacks and cliffs boast well over 22,000 breeding pairs of Gannets, the largest colony in Shetland.

During the afternoon, we will take our time exploring the lesser known corners of the island and some of our favourite cetacean watchpoints and otter sites and leaving the island, again have a chance of a fin from the ferries. Overnight St Magnus Hotel

Day Seven – Cetacean Search boat charter

Today, on our final full day of the trip we join Shetland Seabird Tours once again for an extended and exclusive marine wildlife adventure. Leaving Lerwick in the morning, we set out specifically in search of cetaceans, with species such as Harbour Porpoise, Minke Whale, Risso’s and White-beaked Dolphin all regularly recorded, and our main target species – not to mention Orca, with a bit of luck.

Being actively involved in the local sightings group, and quite likely, Phil’s up-to-date sightings on their previous days trips on board the Ayda Ruby II we will head out in search of whales and dolphins for the morning.

After lunch and back on dry land, we take time to explore and enjoy central Mainland, visit some of the more secluded side-roads of the East and West, enjoying a leisurely safari-style adventure in search of Mountain Hare, Red Grouse, Otters as well as a cetacean watchpoint or two!

Over dinner in the evening we reminisce about the week we have had, the places we have been and the species we have seen before bidding you a fond farewell, as your holiday comes to an end after Breakfast the following morning. Overnight Sumburgh Hotel.

Booking – Holiday Dates

Principal Tour Guides

Fitness Level Required – Moderate
Walks of up to three or four miles (maximum in a day) and at times over uneven terrain
Price: £1,895
2023 Dates
Saturday 5th August to Saturday 12th August, 2023

Contact Us to Book

Private Tour Options: This holiday can also be arranged exclusively for private booing for couples, families or small groups.

Contact us for information and cost proposal for your own exclusive/tailor-made holiday. Email: info@shetlandnature.net

Additional holiday information:

  • Read about the hotels we use – view our hotel providers.
  • All meals, accommodation, guiding fee’s and excursions as well as ferry fares and transport are included in package cost.
  • All boat trips are subject to weather availability.
  • Not included in cost are items of a personal nature or hotel bar tabs nor is travel to and from Shetland included.
  • No single supplement charged.
  • On booking please advise of any special requirements medical or dietary.
  • Throughout the holiday some of the activities will potentially involve walks of up to three or four miles (maximum in a day) and at times over uneven terrain. A reasonable level of fitness is advised however this is run at a leisurely pace. We can also provide holidays at an even more leisurely pace; please contact us for details.
  • Please note that all itineraries are subject to change but guests will be advised in advance should it be necessary to make any major changes.

Passengers and staff were treated to the most spectacular marine mammal encounter imaginable on Saturday mornings Noss Boat tour when en-route to Noss, Shetland Seabird Tours bespoke wildlife boat found themselves surrounded on all sides by a fabulous group of over 70 White-beaked Dolphins, playing in the surf, riding the bow of the boat, and on occasion, leaping and breaching right out of the water in Noss Sound.

“It was an unforgettable experience, having never seen such a large, playful, showy group of Dolphin, you just didn’t know where to look or where to point the camera next!” SST Passenger

Free Willy moment aboard The Noss Boat on Saturday. @ Rebecca Nason/SST

After making sure delighted passengers, including the owners 7 year old daughter Ayda were getting super views & photo opportunities, Rebecca, who is a professional bird photographer & new OM SYSTEM Ambassador, took a series of shots of one mid-distance, boisterous animal which was surfacing regularly as if on a pogo stick!

Full belly view of a fabulous White-beaked Dolphin. In the 1970s White-beaked Dolphin was considered to be the most commonly encountered dolphin in Shetland waters. It was much scarcer in the mid 2000s, with just 13 reports between 2015 and 2018 and has now been replaced by Risso’s Dolphin as the most commonly encountered dolphin in Shetland waters. However 2022 has seen a surge in observations in Shetland waters again. @ Rebecca Nason/SST

She says ” I had taken numerous shots of dolphins as they surfaced in small groups all over the place, but find it a lot harder photographing cetaceans than birds and was struggling to connect with such brief surface encounters, which are all to often gone just after they are seen with no time to raise the camera, fully engage & press the shutter! I noticed a few animals leaping right out of the water a little further away and decided to concentrate on these as they were visible for a few seconds longer out of the water whilst fully breaching. I could hardly believe my eyes when I looked at the back of the camera & realised that I had caught this stunningly beautiful marine mammal in full breach & that it was sharp! These images were only possible due to the awesome mirrorless OM SYSTEM gear I converted to during lockdown, the autofocus is just super fast, so I didn’t miss the moment!

Full breach! Doing the twist with a quick side view profile showing the fabulous blunt white nose. @ Rebecca Nason/SST

Cetaceans are being observed from Shetland Seabird Tours – The Noss Boat with increasing regularity, and this year has been exceptional with numerous sightings including the biggest ever counts we’ve had of Minke Whale, Basking Shark & Rissos Dolphin, also magical Orca encounters & daily Harbour Porpoise observations. All this on top of the dramatic wildlife spectacles surrounding the seabird city of Noss, with it’s awe-inspiring cliffs heaving with birdlife, and over 25,000 northern gannets in full breeding mode, surely one of Europe’s finest wildlife encounters by boat.

Owners, Rebecca & Phil are still buzzing from their weekend boat experience, with tours soon winding down for another season. “It has been our best year to date in both numbers of passengers & wildlife encounters, & we are fired up to see what the 2023 season brings. We have several varied contracts now into late autumn including working with the National Oceanography Centre survey team’s  Boaty McBoatface project off Bressay. And  as finalists in this year’s coveted Highlands & Islands Tourism Awards, in the Best Visitor Attraction Experience” category, we are looking forward to joining the other Shetland category finalists for the awards ceremony in November in Inverness before we get back to finishing some new business developments in 2023″. Rebecca & Phil

All images taken using OM SYSTEM:



 

 

Reaching for the stars. White-beaked Dolphin at Noss Sound on Saturday. @ Rebecca Nason/SST
Surfacing White-beaked Dolphin: Other names include White-nosed Dolphin & Squidhound!
Water streaming off the backs of two White-beaked Dolphins. @ Rebecca Nason/SST
White-beaked Dolphin, water cascading from its dorsal fin – Noss Sound. @ Rebecca Nason/SST