Filming killer whales – behind the scenes

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After almost one year of filming, we had one week left and still no sign of orcas. Doubts were starting to creep in would we get chance to film one of the pods that visit Shetland in the summer?

Living on Shetland, I had been working with Maramedia, along with my good friend and colleague Brydon Thomason over the last year. They were making a programme for BBC Scotland ‘Wild Shetland – Scotland’s Viking Frontier’.  Initially, I worked as a consultant/guide on Shetland’s wildlife concentrating on otters and seabirds, species that are very close to my heart.  We helped with finding locations, otter families and building stories.   However, as time went on and the stories evolved, I found myself filming sequences of specific behaviour such as gannets diving underwater.  

Killer whales (orca) surfacing with blow with black cliffs in the background, Shetland.

Fergus Gill was Maramedia cameraman who they had left up here over the summer, and he was set to go home in a week.  Late evening a report had come out that a pod of orcas was seen just off the island of Whalsay, not too far from where I live.  The next morning when my one-year-old boy woke up at 5 am, Jack, and I went for a little drive to check a couple of headlands and bays. 

I was driving slowly along the road in Nesting Bay, and as I pulled into a passing place, my heart missed a beat. A six-foot dorsal fin appeared with several smaller fins cruising close inshore, a pod of orcas on the hunt for seals.  I quickly phoned Fergus and told him to get up to Nesting Bay,  turned the van around drove the five minutes home ran upstairs with Jack and dropped him on my wife’s bed, told her to wake up, I’m away on the killer whale chase. I grabbed my camera gear, and drones headed back out and picked them up again coming along the south shore of Nesting Bay heading towards Eswick.

Busta surfacing, Shetland.

This was the beginning of what turned out to be a dawn till dusk killer whale chase.  Soon Fergus and his dad, Lorne who was up on holiday for the last week caught up with me. We ran across the field to a bay that is a known common seal haul out to see if the orcas come round the headland.  We had just got the cameras set up, myself on the drone and Fergus on the long lens when a big black dorsal fin appeared at the corner of the headland; it was heading straight towards us.  Within minutes the orcas were onto a seal that I assumed had tried to hide in the kelp on the seabed.  Initially, all we could see was tails and big patches of bubbles, and then a seal appeared on the surface followed by Busta the big bull, stunning the seal with his tail.  Another orca came along and took the seal in its mouth, and then another came alongside the orca with the seal. It took hold of the seal as well, and they both pulled it apart that caused a pool of bright red blood to appear in the water. Brutal but the reality of a seal kill as the rest of the pod came in and ate some of the seal.  It did not end there, over the next 15 minutes they made four more seal kills around the nearby skerries.

Fergus had shot some fantastic footage on the long lens of the first seal kill, but as the pod moved down the coast, the drone came into its own, being able to follow the orcas and capture more of this fantastic behaviour.  Soon they were out of sight but feeling well pleased with the footage we had captured especially having the drone footage to go with Fergus long lens footage, the run back to the car with all kit did not seem quite so bad.

We were off again to the next place we could get to, anticipating their arrival. This lasted all day as we followed them from Nesting south through Lerwick and eventually left them just past Levenwick when it was too dark to film. The distance in a straight line is approximately 38km, however as orcas do not swim in a straight line and go in and out of all the bays, it is probably double that.  We think that day they made up to 30 seal kills; we saw them make well over double figures.  However much of Shetland coastline you cannot access by car so there were large areas where we could not observe them, and we just had to wait for them to turn up.

Pod of orcas surfacing, Shetland.

Over the week, we had sightings every day, but none of them was quite as intense as the first day, although we did manage to capture lots more footage. That first day was the day of seal kills, and subsequently, we did not see any more kills close up.  However, it is exhilarating when out on killer whale chase, when the call first comes out, you never know whether you will make it or not but you have to go and keep going, and some days you get fortunate, and other days you may have a near miss.  There is an excellent whale sightings network in Shetland, using social media in particular Whatsapp and Facebook and everyone can and does contribute. Letting people know when a pod has been sighted and keeping it up to date as the whales move around the coast. By the end of the week, we had shot enough footage to create what we hope is a thrilling sequence for the viewers of Busta the 64’s pod hunting seals around Shetland.

Waiting for killer whales to turn up, Fergus Gill and his Dad Lorne Gill.

When working on a blue chip programme such as this many people are involved and we built excellent working relationships with everyone from camera operators to producers to directors.  There was a great belief that we could produce something extraordinary, but it was touch and go whether we would get the killer whales but that final week ‘Busta’ also was known as the 64’s pod saved the day.

Richard Shucksmith

Richard's favourite place is Shetland's coast, for it has a wide variety of habitats, species and dramatic seascapes. He studied marine biology and marine ecology which has allowed Richard to develop an understanding of this dynamic environment. His photography has enabled him to visually communicate this passion and understanding of Shetland's wonderful coastal life in particular Shetland otters. Richard’s work has been widely published in magazines, journals, books, newspapers, advertising agencies around the world and has won many awards for his work. In 2011 Richard was overall winner in British Wildlife Photography Awards (BWPA), as well as winning the animal behaviour category in 2014.

Instagram @RichardShuckSmith

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