The possibility of seeing Orcas is all it took for us to book the 13 hour ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick on the Shetland Islands. It was a very expensive ferry so in an attempt to keep the costs down we opted for the free recliner seats instead of a bed. There were about 15 seats where we were located and just two other people sat there so it was lovely and quiet. The sea was wonderfully calm which meant we had a very smooth sailing and easy conditions to sleep in…if we had a bed. The bloody chairs were so uncomfortable! As soon as I reclined I could tell I wouldn’t be able to sleep a wink. By 5am I gave up trying and just scrolled on my phone, the sun was already up and my eyes were heavily weighed down with tiredness. As you can imagine we were extremely sleepy when we arrived at 7:30am in Lerwick but very excited to be on the Shetland Islands.
We pulled up in a carpark by a harbour so we could have some breakfast and a coffee while we waited for the visitor centre to open up. The town looked very cute with matching stone buildings and bunting across the lanes. We made the decision to head all the way south to Sumburgh Head first, and the drive gave us a good look at the landscape. It was a treeless place with green hills covered in grass or moorland. Sheep were roaming the land and the sea was never far from our view. We also spotted the adorable Shetland ponies who have been on these islands for over 4000 years. They’re a resilient and strong breed, perfectly adapted for the harsh conditions on Shetland and used over the years to plow crops and pull carts. They were so cute, the perfect miniature ponies. The houses were a little bleak but some were painted bright colours and I got Greenland vibes. We drove past so many stunning white sand beaches with turquoise water and I was shocked that they were all empty of people. It was pretty overcast though and only about 13° so maybe that’s why. But we were really enjoying the cooler temperate as much of the UK is experiencing a sweltering heat wave right now.
The road to the very southern tip of mainland Shetland led us across an airstrip, past beautiful curved bays and eventually onto a single track lane. We then had to drive at snail pace behind a large group of sheep who were casually walking ahead of us. The carpark for the Sumburgh Head Lighthouse was pretty small with space for about 15-20 cars so it didn’t even have the potential to get busy which we were surprised about for one of Shetlands main sights.
The area is a designated nature reserve and home to bird colonies who come here to nest during the summer months and we were particularly interested in seeing puffins. We wrapped up in our layers and headed out on a stroll towards the lighthouse. Within a few minutes we spotted our first puffin, and another and suddenly the grassy cliff edge was covered in them. I was so happy, snapping hundreds of photos of these adorable little birds. Puffins are basically the drag queens of the sea birds with a face covered in make-up. They have a bright red beak but rather sad eyes like a mime artists. Apparently the beak is only bright like this when they come to land during the summer to breed, possibly to attract a mate. The rest of the year they spend their time out in the open sea with dull, grey beaks.
The puffins nest in the cliffs and fly off in search of sand eels which are tiny silver fish. They can collect a dozen or so in their bills and then they fly back to their nest to share the food with their puffling’s (baby puffins) who are hidden in burrows. Puffins are a particularly clumsy bunch, when they take-off it looks like a base jumper sinking to the ground but eventually their wings kick into action and they’re flapping through the sky. The grassy edges were dotted with daisies which made the scene look even more perfect.
We continued towards the lighthouse where the cliffs were even more populated with puffins. I was trying my best to capture them in-flight which was very tricky as they fly so fast. We quickly learnt that when they take off they do a few laps before landing back at the same nest. So Craig would watch a particular puffin and be able to track it flying through the sky and give me a landing countdown. Even with that help I struggled but I had a lot of fun photographing these cuties. We ended up spending a couple of hours photographing and observing them before we headed back to Helga for lunch.
We had lunch in the carpark with a vast view across the open ocean with no land between us and Norway. Then we headed off to explore more of the island, this time we veered off the main road and onto the narrow lanes. Normally these single track roads would panic us but they’re an absolute delight to drive in Shetland because there’s no trees or bushes blocking the view so we could clearly see any cars coming. There’s also plenty of passing places and hardly any other vehicles so we were loving our little spin through the countryside. We stopped at a random coastal hike where we passed a very cool building which had a up-turned boat as a roof. Along the coast we spotted a few seals and some puffins. There was a really cute group of four puffins standing on an interesting rock formation like they had met up for a casual chat. Suddenly three of them jumped off the edge, they looked suicidal as they plummeted to the sea but eventually they began gliding after flapping frantically.
We then made our way to Spiggy Beach where there was just one other car in the carpark. A short walk across the dunes led to a vast white sand beach with turquoise water. It would of looked fabulous in sunny weather but we can’t have everything ay. We decided to make some tea and go for a hike around to the next two beaches. We ended up high above the beach, up on some cliffs so we sat with a view of the lovely sheltered bay which had a tinge of red to the sandy shore. We weren’t on our own though, we were being swooped by some birds. We didn’t know what they were at the time but it’s turns out they were Fulmars which look like seagulls on testosterone…Like the seagulls pikey cousins. They’re actually related to albatross and we watched them using the updrafts to swoop straight up from the cliff edge in front of our faces. It was pretty fascinating to watch. But I later found out that these birds protect their nests by spitting out a foul fishy paste. Rumour has it that once your clothes are stained with this you will never be able to wash the smell out. We considered ourselves very lucky to not be vomited on by one of these once I read those facts!!
We headed back to Helga and continued our drive. I was videoing the white sand beaches below us when I suddenly realised one of them had a group of seals basking on the sand!! We excitedly pulled up and took some photos from the road side. What a fun first day it was turning out to be.
Our final destination for the day was St Ninian’s Tombolo but it turned out to have half a dozen caravans parked up for the night so it wasn’t the sort of place we wanted to stay. I searched on my map and managed to find a gravel parking area across the bay which we headed to instead. I figured the first night in Shetland needed to be in a nice location to set the tone right for the rest of our trip, and we lucked out with this spot. We had a view of the hilly islands and the tombolo in the distance, it was perfect and we had it all to ourselves. After a little post dinner stroll along the coast we happily headed back to Helga and her comfy bed for a well needed sleep – we were shattered after a sleepless night on the ferry and a full day of exploring.
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Great pics of the puffins! We saw them this summer in Newfoundland, Canada, but weren’t able to get close enough for good pictures. Maggie
Thank you! They were an absolute delight to photograph 😃
Great blog. We are hoping to visit Shetland in May next having made our first visit to Orkney this September where we had a great time. Looking forward to reading the rest of your journey.
You’ll have a fab time there, such a beautiful area and one we hope to return to!