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Pilot Whales in Lerwick Harbour

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Monday 7th March 2011 | Sea Mammals in Shetland

How many times do you find yourself being told “Oh, you should have seen it…” or “Where were you? It was incredible!” Well this time I heard them all and more! Pilot Whales or Caain Whales (as they are known in Shetland) have become very rare in Shetland over the past couple of decades or more, so a pod of over twenty in Lerwick harbour caused quite a lot of excitement to say the least. Not only were they right in the harbour, just off Lerwick’s main pier, but it was also a Saturday so they could be enjoyed by even more lucky observers.

Amongst the assembled crowds were many friends, including a couple of our tour leaders, Rory Tallack and Helen Moncrieff and our web developer David Gifford (few of whom were subtle about how much I had missed out!). So where was I? About as far away as I could have been, on Unst with my mobile phone out of signal (one of the few downsides to living in the north isles)! The first I was aware of their presence was well after 09:00hrs when my phone buzzed to life with texts and voicemails, all of which were about the whales. The first of them, at 07:25, was from the crew of the Bressay, informing me of a pod of at least 20 whales or dolphins in the harbour (it’s calls like these that are crucial not only so sea mammals are hopefully identified and recorded but also so that as many people as possible get to enjoy such fabulous world-class encounters). Later another to say they were possibly Caain whales or maybe Risso’s dolphins. Amongst the other messages was one from Jonathan Wills (in the Czech Republic!) of Seabirds-and-Seals with news of the sighting. It is reassuring how quickly news gets around on sightings like these.

But Pilots were not the only whales to put in an appearance that day. Amongst the messages was a voicemail from a ferry crew on Yell Sound with news of a pod of Killer Whales! Perhaps slightly more expected, this sighting was of a pod of five and came only days after I had prompted crew members to keep their eyes peeled as we were just about bang on time for the first sighting of the season. It is very likely (although with no photos we can’t be sure) that this pod will be the same pod of five that has arrived during this early period in the spring for the last three years. Prior to last year, it comprised only four animals but arrived back with a fairly newly born calf last year. Slowly a pattern of sightings is starting to appear and especially with thanks to the work of Andy Foote and Volker Deeke of the North Atlantic Killer Whale ID project.

Late winter and early spring sea mammal sightings are in actual fact not as uncommon as you might think. Remarkably, we identified Humpback Whales on almost the same date in February exactly the same location (Bluemull Sound) two winters running, and then on the third (2010) they appeared in December. Perhaps these sightings are of the same individuals following the same route as they migrated north. All of these sightings were thanks to our local contacts being quick off the mark and calling us with their sightings, keep the calls coming!