The cliffs towered above the small boat as it rolled gently in the waves at their feet, its sandstone face honeycombed into multiple shelves and crags smoothed by the elements and painted in the white wash ubiquitous with seabird colonies. All available space on the ledges was taken up by nesting seabirds. The bulk of them are gannets, with an estimated 22,000 nesting here, but there are also thousands of guillemots, razorbills and puffins, as well as black guillemots and shags. Great black-backed gulls and great skuas patrol the skies and sea close by.
I have been to seabird colonies before, and I am privileged to have handled many of the species around me now. However, this is a different perspective. The noise and the smell is familiar, but sitting at the bottom of a cliff that looms up to 180m above, is a completely new experience.
Slowly the boat manoeuvres around the base of the cliff, the water swirling in white patches where the waves churn against the immovable rock, the merging back into the greenish blue. It keeps a respectable distance not wanting to spook the birds from their nests. This seabird city is immense, but amongst the sheer numbers there are individual stories going on. From guillemot and razorbill jumplings whose leap of faith to follow their father seems all the more dramatic when faced with this towering cliff; kittiwake’s whose numbers have fallen dramatically over the years; to the large proportion of gannet nests where discarded fishing line can clearly be seen. Only recently, the team from Shetland Seabird Tours rescued two gannets caught in fishing gear.
Eventually the boat moves a little further from the cliff only to be followed in anticipation by a huge company of gannets. They clearly knew what was about to happen even if the passengers on board the boat were none the wiser. For years now the operators of trips out to this seabird colony have thrown mackerel overboard for the birds, and gannets who are used to scavenging off fishing boats, have taken full advantage. Suddenly the sky above the boat is crowded with these huge birds flying wing tip-to-wing tip, mere meters from the boat. When the fish is thrown in synchronous groups, they dive into the water in search of the morsel. It is not the great plunging dives from heights of 40m, but it is impressive none the less watching them fold the wings in and slice into the water all at the same time. The noise is deafening, from the grating ‘rah rah’ to the beating of 2m long wings, but the experience of essentially being in the middle of a gannet ‘hurry’ is incredible.
As we move away and head back to harbour it is not just the gannets that get their fill of this free meal. Great skua’s cruise in close on gliding wings and take fish from the skippers hand!
This incredible seabird colony was on the island of Noss, Shetland. While it is not the biggest seabird colony on the island, with that honour going to Hermaness off the north tip of Unst, it is certainly perhaps one of the more accessible. And while yes you can take a trip over to the island of Bressay and then onto Noss and walk to the top of the cliffs, for me the experience of sailing under the cliffs and looking up at the immense cliffs and colony above was an awesome experience. My thanks goes to Shetland Seabird Tours who took us out to this breath taking place and gave us that incredible encounter with diving gannets.