Sule Skerry is a remote island 40 miles west of Orkney. Uninhabited by humans but home to a multitude of seabirds.
The island is known in the folklore of both Orkney and Shetland, captured in the tale of the Great Selkie of Sule Skerry, which tells the story of a woman whose child was taken away by its father the Great Selkie of Sule Skerry, who could transform from seal to human.
There are no trees on the island, as few could withstand the winter onslaught of wind and sea spray. There is a solitary lighthouse, standing proud above the rocks, sending its warning light out to ships navigating the Pentland Firth on route from Icelandic waters. Built between 1892 and 1895 the lighthouse was the remotest manned lighthouse until its automation in 1982. Today its light continues to shine out of the darkness, although the building is boarded up and the tram rails are disintegrating, broken up by the elements. Surrounding the lighthouse, a few stone outbuildings and a weather station, is a carpet of mayweed, under which thousands of puffins make their burrows. The shoreline is a mass of rocky crags and geos, long narrow, steep sided clefts that are created by the erosion of cliffs. These rocky crags and ledges are home to hundreds of guillemots, razorbills and shags. A noisy mass of continuous calling and flapping. Puffins too sit on the rocks, gathering together before excursions out to sea. Along the flanks and the top of one big geo on the south west side of the islan,d a huge gannet colony makes a bustling carpet of white.
A few kittiwakes are to be found amongst the guillemots, although their numbers on the island are falling. Herring and great black-backed gulls can be found nesting among the rocks, the adults prowling the skies and colonies searching for an easy meal of a lone chick or even an adult puffin. The great black-backed gulls in particular have the rather gruesome technique of turning puffins inside out before eating them…
On top of the island, amongst the mayweed and puffin burrows, numerous fulmar nests are to be found nestled up against low rocks. Here as you pass, tiny little fluffy grey chicks snort and vomit greasy stomach oil at you. From the littlest ones it is a rather pitiful coughing sound, but still you want to avoid getting hit with such stinky stuff. Great skua’s patrol the air, swooping low if anyone walks near one of their chicks hidden among the rocks or mayweed.
In the lea of the lighthouse, on the one patch of grass with no burrows, for up to 3 weeks every 3 years there is a new group of inhabitants to the island. Two permanent, battered sheds, one containing a compact kitchen of gas stoves, work top and shelves, and the other containing a metal bucket and toilet seat…., are joined by a number of tents. Bird ringers from Sule Skerry Ringing Group returning to the island to monitor the seabirds. The group has been coming since 1975, at first every 2 and now every 3 years.
It takes over 6 hours to land all the gear and then haul it up the abandoned, buckled tram way that once moved heavy provisions for the keepers. These days it is much more manual, moving barrels, bags, boxes and plastic containers filled with water, by hand. 6 hours of sheer brute force, will power and team work to move all the supplies, provisions, food, water and kit for a team of 12. Once the supplies are stored and the tents set up the team quickly sets to work setting mist nets along the abandoned stone rails and over a ridge of rock just north of the lighthouse. The days and nights that follow take on a similar routine.
Up at 5am to open nets and catch the puffins swirling around overhead. Breakfast at 9ish and then the teams are off around the island’s rocky shore, geos and cliffs looking to catch guillemots, razorbills, shags or gannets. Along the way we pick up great skua chicks, gull chicks or catch the occasional adult fulmar bundling off its nest. Evening comes and the puffin nets are once more opened before bed. Once the sun finally sets, all be it that it doesn’t really get completely dark, finer meshed nets set on the landing right by the shore are opened and a loud speaker switched on which plays calls of storm and leach’s petrels with the aim of luring them into the nets. In just a couple of hours the sun is rising again and the nets for petrels are closed. In just a short while the puffins start moving again and it all starts again…. But, it’s not totally advisable to burn one’s self out! So mostly if you have done a petrel session you would go to bed and miss the morning puffin session.
The island is never really quiet. There is a constant background noise of bawling guillemots, with their long drawn out ‘aaarrr’. The harsh, grating sound of gannets. The nasal ‘gok gok gok’ of great skua’s. The hoarse gruff ‘laughing’ of great black backed and herring gulls. The constant fluttering of puffin wings overhead, along with their continual grunting and growling. Even once night descends and the puffins finally quieten, the night air is broken by the ‘purring’ of storm petrels and chattering of leach’s petrel.
Then there is the sea beyond. Stretching out to the horizon with just the hint of the Scottish mainland and Orkney only on a really clear day, the sea this week is mostly silvery grey under the cloud cover. As the week progresses the wind drops, leaving the sea silky smooth that turns glittery cobalt as the sun breaks through the clouds revealing a brilliant blue sky. In the lull between birds, the wait for tea, during breakfast, while eating a sandwich or while washing up, my eyes are continually drawn to this mesmeric ocean knowing what magnificent marine life it holds. When I can, I continually scan, hoping I might see something big and blubbery (beyond the seals that are a continual companions near the landing, watching us with eyes just peeking above the surface of the water seeming to burn with curiosity at the activity on shore). Then two days in it happens. Standing at the north end of the island, waiting to start a session of guillemots gathered on the rocks beyond, in a calm and silvery sea I see a fin. Then another.
‘Holy crap, I’ve just seen a fin’ are the words that escape my mouth, although I am quick to say it is not the orca that I have been going on about since before we even arrived on the island. But it is still exciting enough. I manoeuver a little closer to the edge of the rocks, training eyes and camera on the spot until I see them again. Between 6 and 10 tall curved dorsal fins break the surface, some darker, some lighter. Sometimes they surface quickly and close together, then they separate a little and surface slower. One begins to tail slap, followed by another which breaches clear of the water four times in a row. Here I can then confirm their identity. Risso’s dolphin. I can’t stop smiling, and I tremble with excitement as the group passes us by heading around and away from the island.
And so a week passes in what feels like a blink of an eye. All too soon I am ringing my last puffin, getting my last view of the gannets, guillemots, razorbills, gulls and skuas, saying goodbye to firm friends and waving farewell to the island. It was nearly 10 years between my first and second visit to Sule Skerry, who knows how long it will be next time but there is a part of me that feels sure I will return to this remote, dramatic and amazing little island.