In late July last year I headed north to photograph the wildlife and landscapes of the Shetland Islands. One of the highlights of the trip came early on. It is not all that uncommon to see orcas (killer whales) around the coast of Shetland, but 2016 was exceptional, with regular sightings.
Still, I had no real expectations of seeing them during my time on the islands. However, on my first day I had a very distant view of a pod of around eight orcas breaching a mile or so off the east coast of Unst. This was pretty spectacular, even though they were too far out for decent photographs. They still looked fantastic through my 600mm lens with 2x extender, zoomed in 10x through live view, though. I would still have been happy if this was the last time I saw them – but it wasn’t.
The next morning I was busy looking for otters. The light was good, the tides were good and the wind was in the right direction, so my chances of capturing some good images were high. However, I heard on the grapevine that orcas had been spotted again, but this time a whopping 70 miles south, close to Sumburgh on the Shetland mainland. I had to make the decision whether to head down there in the vague hope of spotting them and of them being close enough to photograph, or whether to carry on looking for otters in the perfect conditions that morning. My head said otters, but my heart said orcas – after all, it’s not every day you get even the slightest chance to photograph wild orcas in British waters. I took the risk and headed south.
Two hours and two ferry crossings later, I arrived in the area they had been seen. I didn’t stop as I knew the pod had been heading south along the eastern shore of the mainland, but I had no idea how quickly they were moving. Another message put them close to Levenwick, so I headed farther south to Sumburgh in the hope that I might catch them coming around the bay. I walked to the end of one
of the headlands and found I could get close to the water, so I wouldn’t be looking down on the orcas if they happened to come close.
As I was walking briskly along the shore, I spotted the pod through binoculars on the other side of the bay, maybe half a mile away. They were moving quickly – very quickly, in fact. Once I realised this, I had to run to the edge of the cliff and then climb over slippery boulders and jagged rocks down to the water’s edge. The orcas were now on my side of the bay and approaching fast. There was almost no time to think. Tripod up, camera bag open, camera out, quickly check settings – shoot!
The orcas were now very close and fast approaching a small group of eider ducks on the water. I realised there could be the potential for an action shot, so I tried to concentrate my attention on the eiders, which is easier said than done with five or six black dorsal fins cutting through the water and getting closer. I moved my focus point low in the frame and focused on the closest duck (in AI servo/continuous focus mode).
Suddenly, the eiders looked panicked and scattered in all directions. Eiders are moulting at this time of the year, so many were unable to fly. Some dived under the water, while others flapped across the water, including the bird I was focused on.
Luckily (for me) this was the bird the orca targeted first and you can probably imagine my surprise and exhilaration when I saw the surface of the water bulge right behind my eider duck. To say the adrenaline was pumping would be an understatement. The head of the orca broke the surface as it pursued the fleeing duck. With mouth open (mine and the orca’s!) and teeth visible, the orca came in for the kill. There wasn’t really much the eider could do with such a powerful and agile predator bearing down on it.
It wasn’t the only one to succumb. Just a couple of eider ducks escaped and those were the ones that managed to make it onto the rocks beside me. The rest were gobbled up in a quite spectacular display of natural predation that lasted all of 60 seconds. It was only then that I realised just how close to the water’s edge I was. Memories of BBC footage of orcas taking seals off the beach in South America sprang to my mind. In fact, the orcas had been only 15-20 feet in front of me as they passed, loudly expelling air from their blowholes, as they rounded the next rocky headland and disappeared from sight. I very quickly checked the images on the back of my camera and to my delight the best of the bunch were tack sharp. It had been without doubt one of my most memorable UK wildlife encounters to date.
If you’re heading to Shetland, the Shetland Orca Sightings page on Facebook (www.facebook.com/groups/shetlandorcasightings) is invaluable in helping locate these mammals.
Guy’s favourite kit
Guy shot this image using a Canon EOS-1D X with EF 600mm f/4L IS II lens mounted on a Really Right Stuff TVC-34L tripod with Sachtler FSB 6 fluid head (1/2500sec at f/4, ISO 800). He has used Canon equipment throughout his career and found the fast, accurate AF helped him to nail the focus.
Guy Edwardes has been a professional nature and landscape photographer for almost 20 years, supplying some of the world’s leading picture libraries. His work has been published in a variety of magazines and he also runs photographic workshops around the world. To see more of his images visit www.guyedwardes.com.