Saturday, 4 September 2010

Great gannet grandstanding...

More dodging of my "timetabled" Ladybird book "seasons"  blog posts to tell you about a spectacular nature experience I had today, one described by no lesser personage than one of my own nature heroes, Sir David Attenborough, as “one of the Twelve Wildlife Wonders of the World”.

The Bass Rock is the largest single island gannet colony in the world, with over 150,000 gannets. The island effectively turns white between February and October once the gannets return from offshore where they over-winter. The latin name of the gannet, Britain's largest resident seabird, was formerly Sula bassana, now changed by bird taxonomists to Morrone bassana, and comes from the Bass Rock - the species was named after its most impressive population centre!

The Bass Rock from the west - the white colour is a mixture of thousands upon thousands of gannets and their droppings - guano!
I grew up in East Lothian and went to secondary school in North Berwick, the nearby harbour town and so probably saw the Bass rock nearly every week day of the year, barring holidays. But you know how it is, when you never actually manage to get around to visiting the local sights that all the tourists and all your visitors want to go to. So it was with me and the Bass rock. I lived in East Lothian until I went away to University and I have never moved back. Every summer for the last few (20?) years, I've said I must get out to the Bass. But I never managed to take the boat trip round the island to see the gannets, the seals and the coastal scenery. Until today, that is.

Now you have to understand that most of that time, there was only one boat trip around the Bass, on the Sula II, originally run by Fred Marr, and now by his son Chris and daughter Pat. You can find out more about this here, along with information on their excellent and valuable gannet rescue work here. There are more boat trips around now, and also the Scottish Seabird Centre near the harbour which allows a different perspective on the Bass Rock, with remote cameras, etc., but it seemed to me that the best way to visit the Bass Rock would be with the Marrs on Sula II, with their fantastic local knowledge - eleven generations of the Marr family have worked out of North Berwick harbour. I don't think you can substitute for that kind of experience and inheritance. So when I heard earlier this year that this might be the last season that the Sula II would be running (Chris is retiring), I was determined to make a trip after all these years.

And so I took the day off work, in anticipation of the current high pressure lasting another day or two, and went, via breakfast at my parents along the coast, to North Berwick. As a hopeless nostalgic sentimentalist, I always find it quite emotional when I manage to spend a day around North Berwick, which due to schooling, is probably in third place in the list of places in which I have spent the most days of my life. It is such a beautiful little coastal town and, to my eyes, seems even more bustling and well-to-do than it ever did. No gap sites on the high street here, despite the credit crunch and global financial meltdown, though no doubt a few former Edinburgh bankers live there - NB is a very "des-res" place for people looking to move out of Edinburgh (it probably always was). Many of the shops I knew as a school child have gone, replaced by cafes and pretty little boutiques selling nice things and coastal lifestyle stuff!

 Anyway, I joined the mid-day sailing of the Sula II today (times vary daily due to tides and weather conditions), skippered by Chris Marr, with other family members helping with the crewing.

Sailing conditions and weather were perfect. I couldn't have asked for (or expected) better.

We motored out to the Bass Rock where it looked a bit like this on the way out...

The sky around the Bass rock is a seething mass of tens of thousands of gannets, gulls and occasional shags or cormorants. And it is noisy!

And every available square inch of space on land seems to be occupied or fought over:

At one point, we went in close enough to take these:

Here's the old foghorn I remember hearing as a child when the typical Scottish East Coast summer "haar" (sea fog) rolled in (to spoil our precious school summer holidays) - now decommissioned as a foghorn (it is all electronics and satnav systems now) but still obviously popular with the birds!

A final image from the Bass, to show the steeps cliffs that are the result of the weathering and glacial scraping away of the softer rocks around this plug of basalt, the origin of the Bass Rock being a former volcanic eruption:

We sailed back via another smaller island, Craigleith, which has its own seabird and conservation story to tell, but that's for another day. I'm immensely happy after all this time to have made that trip, in that boat, with those people, on this fabulous day, to have seen these sights, those birds and views. If you want to do it, then go and do it before the end of September. The contact details are on the Sula II website.  I took my darling O home a wee box of "Berwick Cockles" ("A crumbly soft red striped traditional boiled sweet") as a "Gift from North Berwick", but I can't help but feel that I was given the greater gift today!

Some of Pat Macaulay's rescued gannet chicks, being fed and strengthened before being returned to sea. 


  1. Aye, perfect day for it right enough. Was just thinking of you as I watched Tim Minchin on telly tonight.

    Great Pics......

  2. Thanks Al - it was a stunner yesterday. My wife watched the Tim Minchin prog last night while I was dashing back and forward between photo uploads, trying to catch my favourite songs!

  3. Best post yet big bro!
    cause its back home here!
    and its somewhere we all cant help but look out at every day here...
    great you took the Sula II out aswell,
    sad it retires this year...
    great pics too!

  4. I am very envious! Gannets are such amazing birds. I saw some up close in a wildlife sanctuary where they treated injured birds and seals before returning them to the wild and was stunned at how big they are. If reincarnation exists, I want to come back as a Gannet, flying over the seas with wings like that has to be the ultimate, even topping Jonathan Livingstone Seagull!

    We would love to go there this year as we are off to Scotland this weekend however our camping trips are always with our two dogs and as such all activities have to be in consideration of them. I am not sure if you can take dogs out but either way they would not enjoy it and are too loud, big and boistrous! We would be booted off!

    We used to have two very sociable dogs that we could take on boats and mixed much better with other dogs and people without barking constantly however German Shepherds are a breed all of their own for sure! We still get to do lots of brilliant things with them but boat trips, and probably canoeing are off!

    Great post!

  5. Thanks very much Dancin' - we used to look after exhausted adult gannets washed up on the East Lothian coast after winter storms when I was little - they are amazing seen close up but the beak is a deadly weapon! I hope you have a magnificent holiday in god's own country - the weather seems to be a-changing at present up here but maybe you'll hit another spell of Indian Summer weather like we've just experienced. They do take dogs on the Sula II - it is a fairly spacious open boat. You could always take turns - one going out on the first sailing, and one on the second, the other looking after the dogs - it would be worth it!

  6. Hi Scotty, now there is an idea, I will talk it over with Mr Dancin.

    We are coming prepared for all weathers!


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