Underwater Humpback Whales in Shetland: a UK photography first

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 6th January 2017 | Sea Mammals in Shetland

In early December 2016 I had enjoyed a truly unforgettable encounter with the Humpback Whales off Yell, as had many others fortunate enough to see them over their four week stay. Stunned to have enjoyed such unprecedented photographic opportunities in Shetland waters, I couldn’t help myself from sharing the experience via some ‘light hearted banter’ with good friend and colleague Richard Shucksmith who was away working on Scottish Mainland and being honest, I knew would be gutted to be missing out!

Knowing the wider potential and photographic opportunity to be made the most of, (especially with Richard’s expertise), capturing imagery of their underwater world was our number one priority on his return home. With a perfect forecast on 16/12/16 of clear skies and mirror calm seas all other projects were set aside and thankfully Peter Hunter was also available to take us out on his boat.

Setting out that beautiful frosty morning with the sun rising to light up a cloudless blue sky we were buzzing with hope, excitement and even a little angst as the reality was that although the whales had been reported daily, they could leave any day. We were also well aware that even if they were still there but did not perform our plans may amount to little more than memories of what we could have done.

Our good fortune had extended beyond the weather window- the whales were still there. We were intrigued to notice straight away however that only two of the five we had spent time with earlier in the month remained. These were two smaller individuals, which we thought to be sub adults, clearly smaller than the full grown adults that had performed so well previously.

As it had been on our earlier encounter, a responsible approach was imperative. Cutting the engine, we waited several hundred metres from the  whales carefully watching to see if they were perhaps working a circuit, into which we could slowly move towards allowing them the opportunity to approach us, as opposed to us them.  However inquisitive whales sometimes may seem with boats, the dangers or damage that can be caused must never be underestimated, if they don’t come to you, you shouldn’t go to or go after them.

In a true team  effort approach we positioned ourselves in such a way that Richard could slip into the water well in advance of the approaching whales, hoping they would show similar interest as before. With Peter driving the boat, myself and him helping Richard in and out the water to work on the underwater images whilst I filmed the encounter from the boat.

Interestingly however although they clearly came towards us and checked us out, it was obvious that their behaviour was very different from the others. Instead, once their slight curiosity appeared to be satisfied by a single pass by it appeared as if they had no further interest. It was only later, when out in deeper water of Colgrave Sound working a larger circuit that they decided to check Richard out a second time.

These two encounters however brief were truly epic to us and for none more so than Richard in the water with them, sharing such privileged moments in their world and on their terms. In a international context there is some remarkable imagery of Humpback Whales from both underwater and on the surface perspectives. To our knowledge however these are the first ever images to be taken of Humpback Whales in British waters which made the whole experience and assignment all the more special.  We were all the more delighted to see how popular a response the images and footage gained throughout the media making not only several News papers and magazines but also on both BBC Scotland and STV News channels on TV. See the footage here and for more from Richard visit and follow his Facbook page.

View Follow-up Post: A Humpback ID match UK first: Caribbean/Shetland Islands