THE SHETLANDS: Simmer Dim, Otters, Gannets, Whisky, Photography and more!!

30th July 2015
The last week of June saw me heading for the most northernmost point of the UK. Along with Iceland, the Shetlands were always on my "to do" list. Since my days watching Blue Peter in the 70's and seeing Bobby Tulloch, the warden on tiny Fetlar island, show off Britain's only breeding Snowy Owls, it had held an attraction for me.

Gatwick to Glasgow was spectacularly uneventful save the interesting sport of people watching from a Starbucks which largely just reaffirmed for me the government statistics on obesity ! But finally the bell tolled and on to the much smaller plane for the 80 minute flight to Sumburgh on the southern tip of the Shetlands. It's worth spending a few minutes on YouTube watching pilot's GoPro films of landing at Sumburgh before you book :-).

Personally I love small aircraft so swinging in over the cliffs of southern Shetland and banking hard to land made the arrival that much more fun . The joys of a small airport meant a landing to hotel bedroom transfer time of about twenty minutes !!
If, like I did, you have an hour or two to kill then two minutes walk from the Sumburgh Hotel is the Ancient Norse and Viking archaeological site of Jarlshof. A couple of images below and 4000 years of history in a place once described as "one of the most remarkable archaeological sites ever excavated in the British Isles".

My journey starts. Shetland. 22/- people on an archipelago of about 100 islands of which 16 are inhabited. 7k live in the capital Lerwick and the history is more Viking than Scottish as illustrated in place and family names. Closer to Oslo and Copenhagen than London.
What strikes you first as your journey takes you north deeper into Mainland ( the local name for the largest island) is the lack of trees. Bleak? Yes...Beautiful? Certainly but it a tough no nonsense way. So far north that almost no darkness in June (the Simmer Dim) yet just a few hours daylight in the storm lashed winters where the dancing displays of the Northern Lights is a not infrequent visitor.

And so on to the wildlife. I am going to just show the images by species rather than detail a chronological record of my trip but hopefully that will illustrate better the wonderful wildlife you can expect to experience on the islands. But I will intersperse it with some of the other things I experienced in my week there.

Fulmars. Beautiful, great fliers, loyal to their partners and a bird often overlooked.

Patiently sitting on eggs.

That fine line between rowing and bonding of a "married" couple !!

Leaning over a six hundred foot cliff using the strong wind to hold you up does focus one's attention but results in a nice habitat shot as the Fulmar rides the updraft and launches itself downwards off the precipice. Thanks to great wildlife photographer Andrew Parkinson for the inspiration behind this one.

A bird I'd never photographed is the Great Skua known locally as the Bonxie. Much maligned as a bit of a stealing thug and trouble maker, I rather like them! A natural survivor in a hostile environment but undoubtedly the bully getting involved in every scrap going !!

But beautiful in the right light. Here a young male defends his territory in the last rays of sunset.

I was also lucky enough to watch them bathing as they washed off the salt water in a freshwater lagoon but even there the squabbling was never far away !

And several times during the trip I observed a Skua attack and harass the much bigger Gannet to try and force it to regurgitate its latest catch and even though seen from a distance the severity of the attack was amazing. Here I have cropped in hugely but it gives an idea of what the Gannets, Puffins etc have to put up with. This was taken on a D810 with my 500mm lens and they must have been 150 yards away so it says something for the resolution of the Nikon to get this level of detail

…Taken from this original image !!

Sumburgh Head on the southern end of the islands offered up the chance of Puffin shots but incessant rolling mist and driving rain made life tough initially with keeping lens fronts dry the main problem but if, like me, the trip is as much about being there as getting award winning photos (though that'd be nice!) then it is not a major hardship. The banks of sea thrift and other plants at this time of year can certainly add something.

Later on in the trip I made three trips up to Hermaness the most northerly point of Unst and a truly majestic location and I can honestly say on one of those occasions I had the most frustrating session as a wildlife photographer I have ever had ! The first two occasions gave ok conditions but the third evening was almost too good…..golden sunset, minimal wind (by Hermaness standards!) and I simply could not get the Puffin images I wanted! In fact I was so busy concentrating on the Puffins I missed the chance to get some lovely sunset shots as a sudden low bank of cloud moved on to the horizon and prematurely killed the last twenty minutes or so of golden light! Frustrated was not the word as I spent the whole long walk back down from the cliff tops muttering to myself about missed opportunities!! A large Scotch with a dash of water back at the hotel did wonders later to get things in perspective. For those interested we stayed in pretty much the only place you can stay in North Unst ! Not the Ritz but everything you need and the porridge and choice of whisky (and beer!) was excellent ! (The Baltasound Hotel)

Anyway, back to the cliff tops!...A small selection of images with the last illustrating to a degree the light I enjoyed for a while.
I am a great believer that often less is more and strangely this is one of my favourite Puffin images from the trip.

We didn't get many "fly past"opportunities but I did at least get a flight shot with sand eels in the bird's mouth which is a shot I've wanted for a while. 1/2000th at iso1250 on my 70-200 VRII was what I needed to capture this and I nailed the first 2-3 fly pasts and then got progressively worse much to my frustration and amusement! Getting old perhaps!!

A pair enjoy a romantic evening in the golden glow of a Shetland sunset at c 1045pm!

While discussing Hermaness here are a few images of this stunning place. The Gannet colony on the way down towards the lighthouse view point

This taken by fellow photographer Florian (from Bavaria) of myself after the two of us took the long and steep walk down to get the views of Muckle Flugga lighthouse for the sunset (which alas was pretty poor that night). Check out his great website at

On another evening I was on the headland on the other side (east) of the Burra Firth looking west towards Muckle Flugga from about 900 feet above sea level on the top of the cliffs at a place called Saxa Ford and for just a few moments the setting sun filtered through the lens of the lighthouse sending these wonderful rays of light. A beautiful place on a June evening. In January during a storm I suspect one of the worst places in the UK to be!

The only option between islands are the regular ferries of varying sizes and whilst they add a degree of fun to the proceedings, visiting photos should realise that a relatively short distance may take 2-3 hours to travel once timetables and roads are taking into consideration. Shetlands is not a place to rush anywhere anyway…chillax is the mantra :-)

One bird I have never been able to photograph seriously before is the Arctic Tern. Arguably the most incredible bird in the world with recent improved technology research discovering their annual migration mileage being as high as 44/- miles a year, twice the previous estimates. Zigzagging to follow food sources and take advantage of better winds they fly up from Antarctica to Greenland/Iceland/Shetlands etc each year to breed and then back. But they are also perhaps one of the most beautiful birds as well.
Here I deliberately went for a high key image which gives an almost artistic or drawing feel to the image.

A pair bonded and highlighted by the wonderful yellow lichens that abound in the islands.

Finally the light and the flight of the birds started to come together to let me achieve the shots I had visualised.

This last image is a very important one for me. I had been periodically detailing my trip on the phone with my best friend who had just suffered a heart attack (at way too young an age) and was slowly recovering. A very successful businessman but also a keen wildlife lover since a kid I was discussing my attempts at getting one image I really wanted. A very slow shutter speed image with lots of ethereal wing blur and mood. Not easy as conditions and the bird's direction needed to be just right. He said "Nail it and I'll have a copy for my office'll remind me of watching them on the local reserve when I was a teenager". Several hundreds of images later (the joys of ten frames a second) I felt I had got pretty much what I wanted. Sadly and unexpectedly my friend suffered another heart attack a few weeks after my return and didn't make it. So this one is for Richard (and his wonderful family)and I know he'll be keeping an excellent seat for me for some time in the future. Never a truer adage than the good guys do seem to go first.

…there were numerous other birds to watch on the islands but this was amongst my favourites which I came across whilst heading back from the Terns. A Ringed Plover protects it's sole chick from any marauding gulls. A quick photo and then I left well alone what must be one of our prettiest foreshore birds.


And so on to the Gannets. A majestic bird with a 6ft wingspan. I have photographed them before in places like Greater Saltee in Southern Ireland and will never tire of observing them. Argumentative, loyal, vicious, incredibly fast and capable hunters…they have a lot going for them. One of the joys of this trip with the chaps from Shetland Nature is the chance to get a fishing boat out the Noss headland a few miles out of Lerwick to see these birds both above you on the cliffs but also at water level. We were incredibly lucky as weather conditions meant it was put off on each of the first 3-4 days and then one small window appeared on the Thursday which we jumped at. Indeed the following day the sea surged and it would have been impossible again. Here are a small selection. All fairly self explanatory and mainly taken on a Nikon D4 (for the fps and good high ISO capabilities) which has never let out as much as a squeak in the 3-4 years I have owned it despite the abuse it sometimes gets!! Using a 70-200mm and a 16-35mm for the wide angle "chaos" shots.
The cliffs of Noss.

I was trying more here for a nice graphical pattern and coloration provided by the worn cliffs and different tones of the Gannets, Razorbills and guano !!

Nest building continues and shows the advantage of being on the water as it provides some unusual angles for images.

Feeding frenzy !!….I also experimented with some slower shutter speeds to install some motion in some photos. I was on the roof of the boat trying to look directly down at the birds in the water by leaning as far out as I could, something I'd only recommend on a day as calm as the one we had.

Capturing a single bird as it hit the water at 40-50mph was never going to be easy but I like here how a crown of water circles his neck at impact.

Here I wanted to convey the chaos and movement below the waves as they hunt for their prey. Slow shutter speeds of c 1/25th , f/8 and at 17mm on my 16-35mm wide angle as I leant as far out as I dare !

The fighting continued underwater

Finally one of my favourite images of the trip as a Gannet takes off form the sea at the cliff base in the dark shadows where I deliberately underexposed to make the cliff face even darker and to highlight the beauty and colour of the bird as it struggles to take off.

OTTERS !!: One of my major ambitions on the trip was to interact with perhaps Shetlands most iconic animal, the European Otter. Shetland has always been the UK stronghold for them even through the dark days of the 60's and 70's when UK numbers dropped so low. A combination of great habitat, healthy food sources and lack of persecution and disturbance saw them maintain their numbers better than elsewhere. Indeed Shetland is meant to account for c.12% of the total UK population and 2% is just in or around the Yell Sound location. Scientists believe the population is in fact a different genetically different from the mainland UK Otter. Numbers are probably around 1200 but very tough to accurately assess.
June is not the best time of year to see Otters as some will be with very young cubs underground and males may be less active than in breeding season or when young males leave and discover new territories. But with expert guidance from Brydon Thomason we had three encounters on our day out. Clambering quickly between rocks to get in to position with wind and tide in the right direction was exciting and as we sat rock steady and watched a male Otter (twice) and a female (once) hunt in the shallows and then emerge on to the foreshore, it brought home exactly why I do this. As I looked through my 500mm lens right in to his eyes that interconnection makes me feel sorry for those who either never get the chance to do this or indeed never get why others do ! If every person could experience this I suspect we would take much better care of our planet generally.
Below I have put a small selection of images of Otters but also some habitat shots that indicate Otters presence.

The spraint mound of an Otter a few yards inland and about twenty feet above the high tide mark.

Shetland is a prefect habitat as the numerous streams coming off the hills into the sea provide the fresh water essential for Otters to clean and protect their fur without which they could not survive the harsh climate. Here is a perfect pool which the Otters use after their feeding trips and before they return to their holts (dens).

…and here a "bed" created in the soft sphagnum moss where you can see the Otters roll around to dry their coat.

My first encounter was this male who we watched for several minutes as hunted in the shallows. There was a perfect small sandy inlet that he seemed to be heading directly for which would have given perfect views but he turned at the last minute and I could only see the top of his head occasionally as he tucked into his prey hidden behind some rocks..Frustrating but I didn't move and, keeping my increasingly heavy D4 and 500mm lens held up so as not to create any movement he may spot, a few minutes later I was rewarded as he looked over the top of the rocks directly at me. Their vision is poor but any movement would spook him.. A magical moment before he slipped back behind the rocks about twenty yards away.

I had one more chance as he re-emerged a little further over a couple of minutes later. I had a couple of seconds where he was side on between the rocks and it gave me a wonderful detailed view of his fur and the water on his whiskers. I have only cropped this slightly so it gives an idea of how close he appeared in my viewfinder.

The next sighting followed after an hour or so more stalking along the coast at quite a speed, often dropping to my stomach and using the binoculars to survey the bays and mini-beaches on the foreshore. This Otter cavorted in the shallows before emerging.

As he played in the surf there definitely seemed to be a degree of enjoyment!!. An Otter jacuzzi as the waves splashed around and over him.

" I go back in for a dip or not?.."

A classic Otter pose amongst the colours of the rocks, seaweed and lichens. One of my favourites.

Some truly magical moments with an animal I have wanted to see in it's natural coastal environment since I was a child. I came away thinking I could easily have spent 4-5 days just looking for and observing them and suspect it will not be long before I do just that.

TECHY STUFF AND SOME THOUGHTS : All the images were taken on my D4 with the 500mm or the 16-35mm f/4 VR for the habitat shots. I had taken my Gitzo tripod with me as I assumed that it would add support for the 500mm as it got heavier and I needed to avoid dropping and raising it but frankly it just got in the way and I quickly detached it. I could when seated down rest my lens on top of my knees and there was no way you had time to adjust tripod legs to suit each location tucked between the rocks. Possibly a monopod would be easier than a tripod but again as the length you'd need would differ from spot to spot I would strongly advise not to bother. An ideal lens? Well I can imagine situations when a 500mm may be too much and if you are lucky enough to have the choice I'd say a 150-500mm zoom (like the Sigma) or maybe 200-400mm gives you that flexibility. I don't have either and have a 300mm and a 70-200mm as well as the 500mm but now I have a D810 with a fantastic crop mode (still providing 18mp images, I'm thinking a 300mm cropped or again 100-400mm may be perfect. The 100-400 Nikon also being s fair bit lighter than the 500mm. For those without expensive DSLR kit I was actually thinking that a higher end compact camera with a good zoom on it like a Sony HV90 or the Panasonic TZ70 may get you great results assuming the light is reasonable and with the huge benefit thatthey fit in your pocket !!. Equally a bridge camera could be a perfect mix of portability with sufficient reach to work well. Muted colour or camouflage clothing definitely helps so I would leave the orange North Face walking coat at home!! The key is fieldcraft with recognition of the correct tides and wind direction absolutely vital. If not sure seek out an expert locally (like Brydon at Shetland Nature) who can also advice you to ensure that you do not disturb the Otters or damage their environment.

So my Shetland adventure came to an end but the island wouldn't let me go easily and thick fog and numerous flight cancellations at Sumburgh airport meant I had to get the 12 hour overnight ferry to Aberdeen so my relaxed flight to Glasgow, then Gatwick and 45 minute taxi home became a 30 hour marathon but it actually added something rather special as I had the privilege of watching the sunset over the North Sea from the ferry as I headed south from Lerwick and the sunrise just about 4 hours later.

Goodbye Shetland but I'll be back.

and sunrise a couple of hours before arriving in Aberdeen….

Finally thanks to Brydon and Josh from Shetland Nature for all their efforts and for anyone thinking of visiting Shetland, whether for photography or just with a pair of binoculars and walking boots, I would whole heartedly recommend them as your first point of contact. No one knows the island's wildlife better I suspect.


Photo comment By Mike Snelle: Very interesting blog I'm off to Shetland in a few weeks to try to photograph otters with Brydon. I was just wondering whether or not to pack my tripod or take a monopod and your info was most helpful. Love the otter portrait by the way.
Photo comment By Nigel: Thanks Mike for reading and commenting on the blog. To be honest if just doing the Otters leave the tripod behind. They get in the way and you never have time to adjust the legs etc as you scramble then hide amongst the rocks . Just raise your knees as you sit down and rest the lens on them. Works quite well and supports the weight of your camera and quickly adjustable. Obviously if you are considering doing some landscape work or similar you may want to pack it but just not for the Otters. Monopod while a bit easier you'll find the spots you get down to on the foreshore all vary so you'll still be adjusting it each time which means you may miss shots or worse spook the Otter as you move. Hope that helps and have a great trip and say Hi to Brydon for me who will give you as good a chance as possible of getting your shots.

Leave a comment

Your Name
Your Email
Your Comment
No info required here, please press the button below.