Barren paradise

Words & Photographs by Henley Spiers

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.

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.

One night, I come face to face with plankton on a scale unlike anything I have experienced before, snorkelling amidst a plankton bloom so thick that at times I am unable to see through it. To the naked eye, it looks like a million peach-coloured spheres, as if the contents of a bean bag had spilt over the sea, but my macro lens reveals a mass of tiny organisms. Plankton takes two forms: the first is phytoplankton, which is made up of plants and forms the base of the food chain, zooplankton, which is made up of animals, sits on the next rung up.

I am in the midst of the zoo here – a rich tapestry of tiny animals pulsating all around. Some are too microscopic to recognise, but others I can discern: larval stage crustaceans abound, some of them swimming through the darkness, others clinging to the life rafts offered by broken-off seaweed. This plankton soup has attracted an army of jellyfish, who feast upon the buffet of miniature life. In some cases, the jellyfish turn protector, with juvenile fish taking shelter between their tentacles. The fish must swim with precision to avoid being stung themselves, but the shielding on offer is deemed worth the effort at this vulnerable stage of life. Although we have moved from the apex predator to the bottom of the food chain, this spectacle offers the same exhilaration as my encounter with the orca. Three hours later, I crawl out of the water, hands so numb I can barely remove my fins before trudging to bed.

The plankton blooms sustain large shoals of smaller fish, such as sandeels and herring, and these are vital to the charismatic seabird colonies who populate Shetland’s shores. Many are transient, visiting the isles through spring and summer to mate and care for their hatchlings, with the rich supplies of food an essential attraction. Hiking out to the cliffs of Hermaness, we hear the bird shrieks long before we can look down at the gannetry below, where 30,000 nesting pairs have turned the black cliffs white. The nests are tightly packed, leaving just enough room to prevent hostile ingressions from an angry neighbour. 

In the skies, a hierarchy operates too, and although the gannets may be here in greater numbers, it is the great skua (locally known as a bonxie) who rules over this avian community. In breeding season, Shetland hosts 40 per cent of the world’s great skua population, and their nesting grounds are carefully protected. However, the behaviour of these aerial pirates evokes mixed feelings, as they specialise in stealing prey from smaller birds, and killing other birds for food. The latter is likely a dietary adaptation to the dwindling fish supplies, but it has played a hand in diminishing the local arctic skua and kittiwake populations. Puffins are another frequent target for their attacks, and bonxies have even been observed hunting birds as large as adult gannets.

The handsome northern gannets lead a dualistic existence. In the nest, their newborn is carefully nurtured, and a couple’s bond is reinforced by pointing sharp beaks to the sky as they tenderly stroke their white necks together. In flight, hunting mode takes over, and piercing yellow eyes, fringed with blue circles, scour the sea for prey. Their long wingspan and streamlined bodies make flying look effortless, gliding along with just the occasional pulse of their wings. When fish are spotted, the gannets fly into the wind and stretch out their wings as brakes, precisely adjusting their position in relation to their quarry. Moments later, with wings tucked in tightly, the gannet shape-shifts into a pointed torpedo, diving into the water at speeds of up to 86 km/ph. Even Olympic divers will not exceed 60 km/ph, and these seabirds are specially adapted for the impact: muscles along the neck lock their vertebrae into place and air sacs in the face and chest act as airbags. Even their nostrils are evolved for this aquatic existence, located internally to prevent water ingress during fishing dives. 

Underwater, the scene is electric, pointed beaks pierce through the surface, and a stream of bubbles trails behind the arrowed white bodies…

Read the full story, Barren paradise – life, death and wild wonder in Shetland, in Issue 22 of Oceanographic Magazine.

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