Based in Aberdeen, Sadie Gorvett is a Community Engagement Officer for RSPB Scotland. Given the chance to work in Shetland for a week, there was only one answer that made sense.
Having only visited briefly in 2019, when the opportunity to spend a week working in Shetland was presented, I jumped at the chance. With the aim of engaging locals and visitors with the amazing marine wildlife Shetland has to offer, while deepening my own knowledge and understanding of the biodiversity on the islands, I was excited to get stuck in. My first day in Shetland, was anything but quiet, with a quick tour of Sumburgh Head to familiarise myself with the site and the species, with the ever-popular puffins making an appearance as soon as I arrived. Followed by catching the ferry to Mousa RSPB nature reserve where I saw Arctic tern chicks and had my first experience of being dive bombed by a territorial bonxie! Shetland and Orkney hold 60% of the worlds breeding population of great skuas, so seeing a chick was particularly special.
Mousa is an amazing island, with the Mousa Broch and miles of stone walls and beaches being home to nesting storm petrels throughout the summer and autumn months. Although I missed the season for the storm petrel tours, I was incredibly lucky to get a chance to support colleagues with storm petrel ringing in the South Mainland, where I saw and held my first ever storm petrel as it was released. They really are incredibly small and stunningly beautiful seabirds, which undertake an impressive migration, travelling from the seas surrounding South Africa to Shetland, returning to breed every year.
My storm petrel experience did not end there though, being afforded the chance to join our conservation scientist on one of his night-time surveys on Fetlar, as part of the Seabird Census, where we heard storm petrels calling and observed them, using the thermal imaging camera. Navigating an unfamiliar rocky beach in the middle of the night was an interesting experience.
On a rather windy Sunday, we teamed up with Shetland Amenity Trust and NatureScot to support the National Whale and Dolphin Watch at Sumburgh Head and share fun facts about cetaceans. A local man, Neil Anderson, brought some of his educational collection of cetacean bones. There may be some budding young marine biologists inspired by the day's conversations.
The main focus of my time in Shetland was leading rockpool activities for locals and visitors, helping them explore the hidden world just beneath the surface, home to a vast array of incredible sea life, including brittlestars, beadlet and dahlia anemones, starfish, hermit crabs, scorpion fish, whelks and winkles.
Seeing the excitement on both the children and adults' faces when they find a new creature nestled in beneath a rock or a crab scuttling along the seaweed, is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. That connection with the natural world is essential to us all, with evidence of the positive impact it has on our mental health and wellbeing, as well as increasing our desire to want to protect it. Realising that even some of the smallest and most overlooked creatures, such as barnacles, actually have a really cool story to tell, such as living upside down and eating with their feet or having the most endowed ‘appendage’ relative to size in the animal kingdom. Looking closer and taking a moment to really appreciate what we are experiencing, can benefit us and nature in so many ways.
Although all the above doesn’t sound much like ‘work’, during my non-working hours, I got to explore the beautiful coastline Shetland has to offer, spending most of my time either on, in or by the sea, watching out for cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoise) and otters.
With the guidance of a local stand-up paddleboarder who knew the coastline well, we explored around Levenwick, a good cetacean spotting location, where we were treated to a sighting of porpoise as we left the bay, seals, lots of seabirds and a chance otter sighting on our way back in (all while following responsible wildlife watching guidance). Once back on land, I reported the sighting of the porpoise to the Shetland Community Wildlife Group to help inform their porpoise survey project.
The biggest highlight of my trip was seeing the Atlantic white-sided dolphins from Bixter in the Central Mainland. Being on the top of my list of species to see during my time in Shetland, they kept me waiting all week, with no sightings reported. Losing hope, the call finally came in the day before I was due to leave that they were sighted, an hour away from my location.
With the knowledge they may well have left the area before I could reach them, I jumped in the car and headed north. With the incredible resource of, and people on, the Shetland Orca Sightings Facebook group, after looking for almost an hour, I finally spotted them and managed to get some, shaky, but viewable footage of the young calf’s spy hopping and half breaching, while the rest of the pod displayed hunting behaviour. To say I squealed with delight at this footage is an understatement.
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To end my time in Shetland, I visited the Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary, an amazing centre which rescues, rehabilitates and releases seals and otters across Shetland. With Shetland being home to an internationally important population of otters, approximately 14% of the UKs population and a declining population of harbour seals, the work of the sanctuary is vital.
Spending a week engaging with both the locals and visitors, sharing my passion for the incredible marine environment Shetland has to offer, as well as getting the chance to explore in my free time, it was a week I will always remember.
I will certainly be returning soon.
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