A wildlife photographer has described the moment he swam just feet away from humpback whales, with one of the spectacular creatures “eyeballing” him from underneath.
Richard Shucksmith was swimming in Colgrave Sound between Fetlar and Yell when he had a close encounter with two of the mammals – an experience he described as one of the most amazing experiences he has had.
It has also been a worthwhile exercise, providing Mr Shucksmith with what he believes are the first underwater pictures of humpback whales ever to be taken in UK waters.
The venture happened before Christmas when Mr Shucksmith went out with fellow photographer Brydon Thomason onboard a boat operated by Peter Hunter of Unst. Mr Shucksmith insists he could not have taken the photographs without their support.
He described heading out to where whales had previously been spotted and waiting to see if they would reappear.
“Peter was very good in the boat. He got us near them and turned off the boat engine and just waited. And then they came towards the boat and came quite close.
“I slipped over the side and into the water. I couldn’t believe it. Within a minute of being in the water they came and checked me out. They swam literally two metres below me.
One of them swam on its side and just eyeballed me from underneath. – RICHARD SHUCKSMITH
“I never in my life dreamt that I would be snorkeling and able to get in the water with humpback whales in Shetland.
“They came and had a look at me and checked me out for a few minutes and then they moved off a little bit.”
Mr Shucksmith said the whales stayed relatively close for the next couple of hours. He described one incident later when the incredible creatures swam straight towards him, only turning away at the very last moment.
“I felt like I could have put my hand out and touched it.
“You have lots of different experiences in wildlife photography. It’s up there, amongst some of the best experiences I’ve had.
“It’s amazing. As far as we know they are the first underwater images of humpback whales made in the UK.”
It came after “an amazing autumn” for humpback sightings off the isles, which included a three-week spell in which four of the whales were regularly seen in and around Bluemull Sound and various locations east of Yell.
The photographer was away from the isles when he began hearing the latest reports, but was quick to arrange a trip on his return home.
The day before the boat trip, Mr Shucksmith took his family for a walk to see if they could see any of the whales swimming off the coast.
It was not long before four humpbacks came into view.
“They swam right towards us. Two of them swam right up to the headland where we were stood on.”
Exactly why the humpbacks have been so keen to visit Shetland’s coastline is a question on many folk’s minds, although it is probably fair to suggest food may be at the bottom of it.
Mr Shucksmith said the dense mackerel shoals nearby may have attracted the attention of the whales.
“We’re not sure if elsewhere in the North Atlantic food has been a little bit short, and they haven’t had much food. Or, for whatever reason, they’ve come by Shetland and there are loads and loads of fish and it has just made them stop and feed for a while. I would imagine it’s food related.”
• See our Facebook page for some amazing video footage taken by Mr Shucksmith and Mr Thomason of the humpback whales.