Shetland's Wild Waters | Henley Spiers
Shetland’s famous hospitality extends to all manner of visitors, and in mating season, seabird colonies outnumber the human population many times over. Northern gannets arrive in their thousands, with nesting pairs turning black cliffs white. Hiking out to Hermaness, their cacophony reaches us long before we peer over the precipice at a thriving avian community. With 30,000 pairs at Hermaness alone, real estate on the cliffs is scarce, but it is crucial to leave a gap between nests to avoid the aggression of neighbours. At times the enterprising birds will recycle discarded fishing gear to build nests, but this sometimes ends in tragedy with the gannets becoming fatally ensnared. I look around, and aside from our small group, there is not another person in sight. Isolation may have gotten a bad reputation in the covid era, but to have this spot to ourselves feels like a very rare privilege.
One cannot help but come away impressed by Shetland’s largest seabird. Undeniably attractive, nesting pairs reaffirm bonds by elegantly caressing their long white necks and vanilla-tinted heads. All such tenderness dissipates when out hunting, as their piercing glare scans for prey, wings ready to coil up at a moment's notice, before torpedoing beneath the surface. Hitting the water at an impressive 60mph, withstanding such heavy impact is only made possible by specially evolved air sacs located in the gannets’ head and chest.
Diving in amidst the barrage of birds, the organised chaos underwater is revealed. The agility of the gannets has transferred from air to sea, swimming with speed and accuracy as they pursue mackerel. The violence is precisely controlled, and the birds achieve an incredible synchronicity in their fishing dives.
Whilst the gannets prefer to live precariously on the open cliff face, puffins use small burrows in the upper reaches to lay a single egg. Concealed at first, distinctive guttural calls give away their presence, and a bit of patience will soon reveal one of nature’s true oddities. Waddling out of the burrow, a vividly orange bill is revealed at the head of a tuxedo plumage. Despite their compact nature, the cartoon-like puffins have carved out their place in this seabird stronghold. Buzzing out in pursuit of sand eels, each flight is precarious, as skuas (locally known as bonxies) patrol the skies. These large birds practice aerial piracy, opportunistically ganging up to steal prey from others, and capable of assaulting and killing puffins. As ever, parental motivation outstrips all other factors, and the faithful puffins will dutifully embark on these fishing trips until the chick is ready to leave the burrow. Rearing duties performed, mother and father separate for the long winter, but their bond survives this long-distance relationship, and they will reunite for the next mating season.
Wind and cold are constant, bruising companions on these northern islands, and the thrill of adventure gives way to exhaustion as the sun finally sets. My body aches for bed but the siren call of the sea is stronger. I venture out for a midnight snorkel and out of the darkness, my dive light reveals this bay is buzzing with very small life. I am swimming in midst of a zooplanktonic bloom, one so thick that at times, I am unable to see through it. The camera lens is transformed into a microscope, leaving me in wonder at this extraterrestrial scene. It feels a bit strange to be out here in the depth of night, and yet, leaving the water many hours later, hands frozen stiff, there is not an ounce of regret.
Far from the comfort of my living room, I have born witness to wildlife spectacles worthy of a nature documentary. Exploring the Shetland coast from both land and sea, I watched as the life, love, and death of these wild coastal communities played out before me. The memory and emotion of these moments is etched into my soul.