Barren paradise

The nutrient rich waters around the Shetland Islands are home to a wealth of marine wildlife. Here, underwater photographer Henley Spiers meets charismatic orcas, clumsy puffins and courageous gannets.

Words & Photographs by Henley Spiers

Weaving along the coastal road, we scan the sea for signs of the orca. Today we are in luck, spotting their distinctive, dark fins and tracking their path until they disappear behind a headland. Our car screeches to a halt, we scramble down to the Shetland shore, anticipation building as we collectively wish for the pod to turn into this bay.

Picking my way across the slippery rocks, I try to predict the best vantage point should the orca grant us a visit. Cool water laps at my feet, gently swaying the fronds of golden kelp. The atmosphere is highly charged as we watch the mouth of the bay for activity. The tip of a black fin breaks the surface, rising high. A harbour seal emerges close to where I am sitting, its eyes wide with worry as the looming shape of the orca heads straight for us. I do not envy the seal’s predicament. Butterflies dance around my stomach as the dark fin draws ever closer.

A moment later, the orca is within a few metres, turning on its side, scanning my presence, its eye hidden amongst jet black markings. The meeting is far more intimate than I dared to hope, and zoom lens now futile, I drop the camera and soak up the moment. The magnificence of nature pours over me – elation, awe, wonder – a powerful dose of emotions courses through me. Turning back towards my open-mouthed friends, stood further back on the ridge – we all raise our arms in celebration.

A second orca surfaces alongside the first, they cruise past with a grace that belies their violent intentions. Moving into the shallowest part of the bay, these expert oceanic hunters corner a seal underwater. The kill is made with ruthless efficiency, without any great commotion visible from the surface. Seabirds dive down to secure scraps from the defeated seal, pulling away long strands of flesh. Although it counts as one of my most memorable wildlife encounters, for the orca it is as commonplace as eating lunch. Each of these impressive mammals consumes the equivalent of one seal per day, or 200kg of meat. Their attack on this bay now complete, the pod regroups and continues along the coast in search of further sustenance.

The Isles of Shetland are part of a popular orca highway, regularly visited by various pods throughout the year. For residents, there’s always a chance a tall black fin will meet your eye when looking out to sea. Technology has tied the community of orca fans together, and a dedicated Facebook group delivers real time updates of sightings around the isles. Shetland offers the unique opportunity to go on an orca safari from land, following the roads and social media updates on a thrilling ride to see the ocean’s greatest predators.

Lying at the northern tip of the United Kingdom, on the same latitude as Norway, Shetland feels like a world apart from the mainland. Razed by powerful winds, the landscape on the Shetland Islands is bleak, with barely a tree in sight. The human population is far outnumbered by seabirds and other wildlife, and with the coast never more than a few miles away, the sea is essential to the fabric of life for the friendly Shetlanders. Shetland’s bounty lies not on land but in the sea, where a thriving ecosystem is driven by the meeting of great ocean currents. Cool, arctic water, pushed down from the north is met by the warmer water of the Gulf Stream and the slope current coming from the bay of Biscayne. Heavy winds churn these diverse waters together, like an ocean smoothie, and once sunlight is added to the mix, an explosion of life occurs, starting with the humble yet essential plankton.

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Issue 22
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This feature appears in ISSUE 22: The wild isles of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 22
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain

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