The most charming thing about living in Orkney is the amphibious quality to daily life. One might mark the passage of the day by the movements of the ferry and the creel boats – one a sci-fi mammoth powering off over the horizon, versus the coming and going of merry little boats of blue and green, stacked with lobster pots and strung with bright buoy baubles.
Beneath the waves, the waters are busy too, with a changing cast of marine mammals. It can be difficult to keep track of our seagoing neighbours: a dorsal fin here, a tail slap there, and that’s all that might alert you to a passing pod. A landlubber like me could go entirely unaware.
Last year, I joined a WhatsApp group run by the Orkney Marine Mammal Research Initiative, a charity that records sightings of whales, dolphins and porpoises in local waters. The group has more than 200 members, who report their sightings in real time. The most prolific contributors tend to be the fishermen and ferrymen, who send terse dispatches from offshore locations: “Common dolphins SE of Graemsay”; “Possible fin whale off Orphir, heading towards Scapa buoys”. The buzzing of the messages coming in forms a backdrop to my days, like radio chatter.
Mostly I lurk. I just like to know they are out there in the deep: intelligent, smooth-skinned creatures, working to their own agenda. But, every so often, there’s a sighting so tantalisingly close that I have to jump in the car. We’ll dash to the coast, with cyclists and camper vans carrying photographers with super-zoom lenses, in a game of Wacky Races. Often then the whales are nowhere to be seen. No matter. It’s just a thrill to know that their world and ours might meet, even if only for a moment, even if it’s just out of sight.
Then, on Sunday, another buzz. Orcas moving fast through the Scapa Flow! We trailed them for an hour, always one step behind, until finally we caught them in the Clestrain Sound, 500 yards offshore. Four of them, at least. Just staggering to see those lacquered black backs, those white-flashing eye patches, those dagger-like dorsals stabbing through the water. Unmistakable. Powerful. Totally alien. So close that we could hear the air through their blowholes.
They dived; 20 strangers held their breath on shore. And then they rose again. It was worth the wait.
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