Out of habitat beluga spotted in Shetland

January 18, 2024

It sounds so unusual: a pure white beluga whale swimming off the coast near Hillswick in the Scottish Shetland Islands! Indeed, this species is more commonly found much further north, but it is not the first time that an “out of habitat” Arctic marine mammal has been sighted in Scotland or even further south in European waters.

Beluga whales typically live in Arctic and subarctic waters off Russia, Alaska, Canada, West Greenland and Svalbard. Yet, there are occasional cases of “out of habitat” belugas appearing in unusual places. In late 2018 and early 2019 a beluga spent a few months in the Thames estuary in the United Kingdom. He seemed in good health and eventually left the area, hopefully heading back north to the Arctic. Another beluga, which entered the River Seine in France in 2022, was euthanised when he started to exhibit some health problems during an attempt to move him out of the river. There are also rare records of individual belugas being sighted off Scotland, northern England and Ireland, as well as in Norwegian waters.

Belugas are not the only Arctic species to appear in Europe. Since 2019, four Atlantic walruses have been recorded in European waters and hauling out to rest on shore or, on some occasions, on boats! Two of these animals were males and they both visited a number of countries, including the UK and France, before heading north to Iceland and home to the Arctic. The two female walruses which visited Europe came to stickier ends. One of them entered the Baltic Sea and, due to her poor condition, was captured to be taken to a zoo. Unfortunately, she died during transportation. The other female walrus, known as Freya, spent a few years in European waters, mainly in Norway but with visits to the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands. She was killed by the Norwegian government who deemed her a threat to the public without looking into other ways to manage the situation. At no point during her time in Europe did Freya, or any of the other walruses, injure or directly threaten any people.

OceanCare is working to monitor “out of habitat” marine mammals, to understand the reasons for their appearances in waters far from their usual habitat and to provide guidance on how best to manage these situations.

For more information about “out of habitat” marine mammals please see the report of a workshop which was held by OceanCare in 2022:

Beluga in Shetland: Rare sighting of beluga whale off Hillswick | Shetland News (