Pod of Whales




Welcome to Shetland, an archipelago in the North Sea, where you’ll find freedom, wildlife and wild beauty, but also a rich culture and has a fascinating and unique natural environment. The location of the islands has contributed to the evolution of a truly 'Shetlandic' collection of scenery and geology, bird life, sea mammals, wild flowers and wonderful beaches.

Shetland measures about 70 miles from Sumburgh Head in the south to Muckle Flugga off the coast of Unst in the north. With a land area of 567 square miles enclosed by a coastline of 900 miles, nowhere is more than three miles from the sea, and very few places are out of sight of it.  Because most maps of Scotland include Shetland in a box near the top right hand corner, not many people have a strong sense of where this archipelago of 100 islands and islets lies. It comes as a surprise to many to discover that Shetland is nearer Bergen than Aberdeenthat it is further north than Moscow or southern Greenland, that Lerwick is as far as Milan from London and has a population of around 23K.

Shetland is a brilliant place all year round to watch sea mammals, particularly common seals, grey seals, otters, harbour porpoises and, occasionally, our favourites... ORCAS.  One of the great experiences during the Shetland winter is the ‘Northern Lights’, or Aurora Borealis, known locally as ‘Mirrie Dancers’.

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For the visitor, Shetland offers the opportunity for adventure and a return to nature – with epic coastal hikes, deserted white-sand beaches and a rich array of wildlife, from otters and orcas to Shetland ponies and bustling gannet and puffin colonies. You might come for some of the islands’ famous events, from the Up Helly Aa fire festivals to the Shetland Folk Festival and Shetland Wool Week, or to escape to a seafront bothy or a grand Georgian pile. You’ll eat amazing local produce, from Britain’s best mussels and she to tender lamb from free-roaming sheep. All the while, you’ll experience the famous Shetland welcome and the islands’ unique culture, with clearer Viking and Scandinavian influences than anywhere else in the UK.

But Shetland is much more than just a place to visit. Shetland’s dynamic economy has jobs across multiple sectors, and the islands are set to lead the UK in everything from renewable energy to sending small satellites into space. Whether you’re looking for a new opportunity or just to relax in a beautiful part of the UK, you’ll be welcomed into a vibrant society, where community and sustainability are more than buzzwords, low crime rates (it’s not really like the Shetland TV series), Shetland is a place where children can roam freely, and where many people live with a view of the sea.

People travel from across the world to delight in Shetland’s sensational seabird colonies and migrating rarities. It really is a bird lover’s paradise.  Shetland is a world-class attraction for birdwatchers, whether professionals or absolute beginners. Ornithology is extremely popular across the islands and visitors with a pair of binoculars and a bird book are sure of a warm welcome.  The Shetland breeding list includes red-throated divers, and waders and moorland birds such as snipe, dunlin, golden plover, redshank, ringed plover, lapwing, curlew, the much rarer whimbrel and even a few whooper swans.

Sumburgh Head

This RSPB nature reserve is the most accessible seabird colony in Shetland and is particularly good for people with reduced mobility. The Sumburgh cliffs in Shetland’s South Mainland are home to thousands of seabirds in the breeding season, with puffins, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes and shags easily viewed. It is also one of the best places in Shetland to watch for sea mammals. 

The Sumburgh Lighthouse Visitor Centre contains a superb natural history exhibition and many aids to interpreting what you can see on the cliff edges.

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The island of Foula is named after the Old Norse for ‘bird island’, and rightly so. We reckon it’s the bonxie (great skua) capital of the world and is awash with these majestic, dive-bombing birds. Foula is also home to the second largest sea cliff in Britain, ‘The Kame’, which stands at 1200ft (366m), which is home, along with the neighbouring cliffs to puffins, razorbills, shags, fulmars and guillemots. As with Fair Isle, Foula – the most westerly of the Shetland Islands – is a great place to spot migrating rarities.


Another Shetland speciality is the storm petrel. A night visit with the Mousa Ferry to the enchanting and astonishingly noisy breeding colony in the 2,500-year-old broch on the uninhabited island of Mousa is a must – one of the highlights of a Shetland holiday. In addition to the storm petrels at night time, there are Arctic and great skuas, Arctic terns, and many other birds easily viewed.

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Hermaness National Nature Reserve includes the dramatic precipices of the Muckle Flugga stacks off the northern tip of Unst. It has even more gannets than Noss and is one of the best places to see the piratical, but smaller, Bonxies attacking them and stealing their food. The puffins on Hermaness and the neighbouring headland of Saxa Vord probably number over 23,000 and are astonishingly tame.

As at Noss, the reserve is privately owned but managed by Nature Scot, and guided walks may be arranged on request.

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Situated on the east coast of the Shetland Mainland, just beyond Whalsay, are the lesser-known Out Skerries – another hotspot for migratory birds in the spring and autumn months. Rare migrants have included isabelline shrike, pine bunting and thick-billed warbler.


Another prime bird watching location is the RSPB reserve on the island of Fetlar. The island boasts fine views of birds such as skuas and terns but is famous as the summer home of one of Britain's rarest breeding birds – the red-necked phalarope. Fetlar accounts for 90% of the UK population of these remarkably tame birds. In June and July, they can be seen at close quarters from an RSPB hide in the Mires of Funzie, or on the nearby Loch of Funzie.

Another rare bird, the Whimbrel, also nests in Fetlar. Around 80 pairs breed on the island, which is 15% of the UK breeding population. In the past, Fetlar has even had the UK's only pair of breeding snowy owls.

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Fair Isles

Since the founding of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory in 1948, the amount of scientific ornithology carried out in Shetland has vastly increased. As well as Fair Isle's pioneering studies on bird migration, the island has become an open-air laboratory for a great deal of research into the breeding ecology of seabirds.

The island is home to the rare Fair Isle Wren, a subspecies of the Shetland wren and the least numerous endemic bird subspecies in Britain and perhaps also in Europe.

visit the Fair Isle Bird Observatory website to see a comprehensive Shetland birding calendar.

It’s worth noting that these are just some of the more popular bird watching sites across Shetland and eagle-eyed visitors will find that birds can be spotted at almost any time and any place.  The real thrill is the potential to find something really rare, a bird from Siberia or North America, blown half a world away from where it ought to be.

For 'twitchers', Shetland is irresistible during the spring and autumn bird migrations, especially when foggy south-easterly winds push thousands of Scandinavian migrants out over the North Sea and force them to land on Shetland for rest and food. Among routine transients such as redwings and fieldfares are sometimes sensational rarities which (like Fair Isle's famous thick-billed warbler from Siberia, or Bressay's surf scoter from North America) bring crowds of enthusiastic birders north with 'scopes and checklists, whatever the weather!

The biggest rarities often turn up in well-watched places like Fair Isle and Foula but wandering oddities can appear anywhere, any time – just one more reason why Shetland spells bliss for birders.

The summer months of June and July are the best time to see breeding seabird colonies along the cliffs and stacks. The moorland and wetland areas support Red-throated Divers and breeding waders such as Golden Plover and Whimbrel, as well as several rare breeding species like Greenshank and Red-necked Phalarope (found in Fetlar).

In winter, there are gannets and fulmars around the coast, along with residents like Shags, Cormorants, Tysties (Black Guillemots, Eiders and Ravens, while Great Northern Divers, Slavonian Grebes, Herons, Whooper Swans, Iceland Gulls, Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers and Snow Buntings are among the regular winter visitors.

Shetland is a brilliant place all year round to watch sea mammals, particularly Common Seals, Grey Seals, Otters, Harbour Porpoises and, occasionally, ORCAS.

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Winter, the perfect time for a holiday. Imagine it: pods of Orca hunting off shore, the iconic tail flukes of Humpback whale slipping into the sea whilst a White-tailed Eagle soars overhead and by night the Aurora Borealis illuminates a starry sky...

One would think I'm talking about a trip to the Norwegian fjords but no - these are all spectacles that have been enjoyed right here in Shetland, this, and indeed previous winters, of late. Add to these magnificent sights our unparalleled Otter watching experiences and you have a truly world-class winter wildlife experience.

Shetland has and always will be a wonderful, exciting and truly wild place to visit in winter especially for the wildlife enthusiasts, annual and often regular sightings of Humpback whale and (especially this last few years) two of our regular Orca pods have been seen on an almost daily basis during some periods.  Over the past couple of years 'Orca watching' for many Shetlander's has actually become something of a hobby or pastime. It is now so popular that it draws in more followers and indeed bigger crowds than even 'twitchers' ever have through the local birding community.  The recent increase in 'Humpbacks' is particularly interesting. Like the Orca, this too reflects their continuing success over the past decade in the North Atlantic. It has become quite clear that our waters are very much on their migration route from Norwegian waters all the way to the Caribbean. For almost a decade now we have recorded these charismatic ocean giants annually, in all months, but especially between November and March, suggesting it was quite likely the same individuals following the same route. This has recently been confirmed through photo IDs.