August 2019 Sighting of the Month

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August 2019 Sighting of the Month goes to WCA Individual Partner Rachael Barber and her encounter with ‘Busta’ and the 65s from the Northern Isles orca community in the UK.

In her most recent blog Rachael describes the incredible encounter off Shetland.

“The boat cruised out into the stretch of water between the mainland of Shetland and the island of Bressay. Behind us was the built up, bustling, urban landscape of Lerwick and in front the rocky shoreline, moors, grassland and occasional buildings of Bressay. The boat stopped, gently bobbing up and down with the swell and waves of the Sound. The sun blazed in a sky scattered with white clouds, the sea was a brilliant blue, the tips of the waves sparkling. Then someone in the boat shouted ‘behind us’. Turning round, and out of the deep blue rose a tall black fin. The unmistakable dorsal fin of an orca. My heart skipped a beat, as it always does when in the presence of these incredible mammals. Against the industrial backdrop of Lerwick’s shore, five orca surfaced in quick succession, a big male, three female sized adults and a youngster. They surfaced, four or five times then dived deeper disappearing beneath the waves.

A few minutes passed, with eager faces scanning the area around the boat hoping to spot them again. Sure enough, with a whoosh of expelled air, they surfaced, this time ahead of the boat. Our skipper skilfully manoeuvred so that we are ahead again, but not in their direct path. This time the group surfaced just a short distance from the boat. It was an awesome sight, especially as the big male comes up, the tip of his 2 metre high dorsal appearing before any other part of him. Closer now and I could recognise him. I had never met this individual orca before, but I had certainly read enough and seen enough photos to know I was looking at Busta (032). Member of the 65s pod and part of the Northern Isles Community of orca. Certainly now looking back at the photos I can recognise Razor (065), who travelled with her recent calf alongside.

‘Busta’ (032)

The group steamed by, continuing their travels through Bressay Sound and past Lerwick. The boat turned and headed for harbour. But it was not the end of the day’s encounter. The 65s spent the next few hours making their way south, along the Shetland Mainland coast, at times cruising by just off shore, and at others heading in and hugging the coastline, searching for food. A couple of hours after the sighting on the boat and I was standing in a layby overlooking this rocky coastline as it swept round a headland, curving into a number of bays and inlets, before meeting a beautiful golden stretch of sand at Levenwick. We had seen the 65s steam through Mousa Sound, and then swing round No Ness, disappearing into Sand Wick. After what felt like an age, they reappeared and made their way across the bay to Levenwick. Here they came in close to the shore, swimming just metres from the rocky coastline, through the beds of kelp, before heading towards the golden sands of Levenwick. In the stunning blue green shallows of the bay we watched as they circled a few times, leaving smooth patches of water, called ‘fluke prints’ in their wake. It was not until later that we realised they were actually hunting eider ducks! Snack time over they continued on their way, hugging the shore around Levenwick Ness and disappearing round the corner.

Members of the 65s surface off Bressay

For many of the orca-watchers that day there were further encounters and views as the group continued down the coast and round Sumburgh Head.

Still it was a glorious Sunday afternoon with a glorious pod of orca.”

Read more about the Northern Isles orca community and this encounter at Rachael’s blog, Wild Barley.

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