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Shetland's Wild Waters | Henley Spiers

In the northernmost reaches of the UK sit the Shetland Isles. Steeped in history, this remote sub-arctic archipelago plays host to some of the most diverse and spectacular natural ecosystems left on British shores.

Having fed his passion for underwater landscapes since early childhood, Henley Spiers has become a renowned ocean photographer and expedition leader. After his recent trip to Shetland he penned the below account of the wildlife he encountered, along with some truly stunning imagery to of these precious creatures in their natural habitat.

 

Henley Spiers diving in Shetland

We sail into Shetland on a crisp, sunny morning, Bressay Lighthouse adorns the nearby ridge, handsomely built by the Stevenson family, known for feats of engineering before Robert Louis penned the enduring classic: ‘Treasure Island’. On the opposite bank, Lerwick’s cemetery looks out over the sea, a fitting reminder that in life and death, a Shetlander’s existence is never far removed from the coast. At 60° North in this sub-arctic archipelago, it’s hard to believe we are still in the British isles, but my passport remains firmly holstered.

An early morning rendezvous sees us don dive gear and scramble down the slippery rocks of the cemetery shore. Dog walkers and joggers pass by above us, blissfully unaware of the world that lies beneath these frigid waters. We glide over the rusting canons of an 18th century shipwreck, the Queen of Sweden, flagship of the Swedish East India Company, traders of tea and silk. Descending further, the seabed appears to be moving but a closer inspection reveals it to be crawling with a colony of brittle stars, densely packed together, they carpet the bottom. One of nature’s most enduring creations, brittle stars appeared long before dinosaurs, and their species survives to this day. A battle in slow motion is waged as the outsized, orange body of a sun star marches amongst them, brittle stars rising upon spiny arms to scatter away from the predator in their midst.

 

Starfish surrounded by seaweed in the ocean in Shetland

Shetland’s famous hospitality extends to all manner of visitors, and in mating season, seabird colonies outnumber the human population many times over. Northern gannets arrive in their thousands, with nesting pairs turning black cliffs white. Hiking out to Hermaness, their cacophony reaches us long before we peer over the precipice at a thriving avian community. With 30,000 pairs at Hermaness alone, real estate on the cliffs is scarce, but it is crucial to leave a gap between nests to avoid the aggression of neighbours. At times the enterprising birds will recycle discarded fishing gear to build nests, but this sometimes ends in tragedy with the gannets becoming fatally ensnared. I look around, and aside from our small group, there is not another person in sight. Isolation may have gotten a bad reputation in the covid era, but to have this spot to ourselves feels like a very rare privilege.

One cannot help but come away impressed by Shetland’s largest seabird. Undeniably attractive, nesting pairs reaffirm bonds by elegantly caressing their long white necks and vanilla-tinted heads. All such tenderness dissipates when out hunting, as their piercing glare scans for prey, wings ready to coil up at a moment's notice, before torpedoing beneath the surface. Hitting the water at an impressive 60mph, withstanding such heavy impact is only made possible by specially evolved air sacs located in the gannets’ head and chest.

 

Gannet in shetland diving into the ocean to hunt for food

Diving in amidst the barrage of birds, the organised chaos underwater is revealed. The agility of the gannets has transferred from air to sea, swimming with speed and accuracy as they pursue mackerel. The violence is precisely controlled, and the birds achieve an incredible synchronicity in their fishing dives.

Whilst the gannets prefer to live precariously on the open cliff face, puffins use small burrows in the upper reaches to lay a single egg. Concealed at first, distinctive guttural calls give away their presence, and a bit of patience will soon reveal one of nature’s true oddities. Waddling out of the burrow, a vividly orange bill is revealed at the head of a tuxedo plumage. Despite their compact nature, the cartoon-like puffins have carved out their place in this seabird stronghold. Buzzing out in pursuit of sand eels, each flight is precarious, as skuas (locally known as bonxies) patrol the skies. These large birds practice aerial piracy, opportunistically ganging up to steal prey from others, and capable of assaulting and killing puffins. As ever, parental motivation outstrips all other factors, and the faithful puffins will dutifully embark on these fishing trips until the chick is ready to leave the burrow. Rearing duties performed, mother and father separate for the long winter, but their bond survives this long-distance relationship, and they will reunite for the next mating season.

 

Jellyfish and zooplankton at night in Shetland

Wind and cold are constant, bruising companions on these northern islands, and the thrill of adventure gives way to exhaustion as the sun finally sets. My body aches for bed but the siren call of the sea is stronger. I venture out for a midnight snorkel and out of the darkness, my dive light reveals this bay is buzzing with very small life. I am swimming in midst of a zooplanktonic bloom, one so thick that at times, I am unable to see through it. The camera lens is transformed into a microscope, leaving me in wonder at this extraterrestrial scene. It feels a bit strange to be out here in the depth of night, and yet, leaving the water many hours later, hands frozen stiff, there is not an ounce of regret.

Far from the comfort of my living room, I have born witness to wildlife spectacles worthy of a nature documentary. Exploring the Shetland coast from both land and sea, I watched as the life, love, and death of these wild coastal communities played out before me. The memory and emotion of these moments is etched into my soul.

 

Shetland Wildlife Gallery 

 

Puffin sat on cliffs on Shetland

Gannet flying over rough sea

Underwater image of seaweed on the Shetland Isles

Starfish underwater in the Shetland Isles

Gannets diving into the sea as the hunt on the Shetland Isles

Clusters of starfish on seafloor in the Shetland Isles

 Jellyfish and phosphorescence at night in the Shetland Isles

Close up of a Puffin on the Shetland Isles

Words and Images by Henley Spiers


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