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Isle of May & Bass Rock

Well worth the hassle to finally get here!


View Scotland & Lake District 2021 on Grete Howard's travel map.

These is a long story behind my gannet workshop to Bass Rock off the Scottish east coast, starting with one of our very first  first motorhome trips; during which we got as far as Sheffield before the van broke down. Instead of going to Scotland, we travelled back home on a recovery trailer. 

On the second attempt we managed to get the motorhome as far as Seahouses, only to be told the workshop was cancelled because of bad weather. 

The following year (2020), a photographer friend from the USA, Freddy, was planning to come over to visit us with his wife, so I booked TWO places for the gannet diving workshop. Of course Freddy never did come over, and the workshop was called off because of the Covid 19 pandemic.

After rebooking the workshop (again) this year (2021) for myself and Freddy, it becomes clear that visitors from the US are still not allowed to enter the UK, so our friend Paul from Scotland agrees to take over Freddy's place on the boat trip. A couple of weeks before the trip, Paul had a stroke so sadly will not be coming with me out on the boat (post note: Paul is recovering well). I suggest David takes his place instead, even if he is not really interested in photography.

Unfortunately the fishing boat we are supposed to be going out on, does not manage to get its certificate allowing it to carry passengers in time, so the workshop is yet again cancelled. I am now beginning to think we are jinxed.

Spending some time on the internet looking for a replacement boat trip, I come across BlueWild and arrange for them to take me - and David - out on a privately chartered trip to Isle of May and Bass Rock. 

The day before we are due to go out, their boat breaks down, so our trip is yet again cancelled (are the gods trying to tell us something?). Thankfully, they are able to get the repairs done in a day, and re-schedule us for a couple of days later.

On the sixth attempt, we finally manage to get out on a boat! All I will say at this point, is that it is so worth the wait!

This is the boat that will take us out, with skipper Alan, and crew Philip. It really does make a huge difference to have the boat to ourselves - we have given up group tours some time ago, as we prefer the flexibility of being just the two of us, so this is perfect from that point of view. Alan does everything he can to make sure we see what we want to see, and that I get the shots I want.

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After a quick, but thorough safety briefing, we leave Dunbar Harbour and head straight across the Firth of Forth shipping channel to Isle of May.

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Dunbar Harbour

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BlueWild is one of the few companies that have a licence to land on Isle of May, and we are offered the opportunity to so so should we wish. As my main purpose of this trip is to see the gannets at Bass Rock, we decide to forego the landing on this occasion.

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Isle of May

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There seem to be plenty of people on the island on well defined paths

Until I spoke to Alan on the phone about this trip a few days ago, I had no idea that puffins make their home on the island. Alan explains that sometimes you see whole rafts of them on the surface of the water, but so far this year there have only be a few around.

The first birds we see, however, are kittiwakes - there is a colony of them roosting at the entrance to Dunbar harbour.

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I get very excited when I see a small flock of gannets flying low over the water. Alan assures me that I will see plenty more later on. That has to be the understatement of the year!

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I still get a bit carried away taking photos of them.

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Alan does warn us that we are likely to get 'blessed' at some stage during this trip - he is right!

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Being a great fan of puffins, I am delighted to just spot one single one.

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They are so comical the way they run across the water when they take off!

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We soon start seeing more and more of them floating in rafts too. Alan shuts the engine to an idle as we drift through them. Some take fright and fly off as soon as they spot us, others totally ignore us, and let us float right on by.

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The experience of just sliding past a whole raft of puffins, is truly magical!

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I get some really good close-up photos too!

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Photography is challenging to say the very least. The birds are bobbing up and down on the swell, and so is the boat, but seemingly to a different rhythm. I manage focus on the puffin, but the next minute all I can see in the viewfinder is sky, followed by the bird being being 'swallowed up' by the waves.

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My hit rate is appalling!

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The area also has a great number of guillemots, and they remind me so much of penguins when they take off, the way they skim across the surface on their bellies, much like the stones we threw as kids!

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Except, of course, penguins never do take off, unlike guillemots!

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Guillemots create rafts too!

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We continue to the craggy shores of Isle of May.

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Steep cliffs and basalt pillars greet us, with thousands of guillemots crowding into every available space.

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In many places, the rocks are white with guano.

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This would make an amazing jigsaw. For someone you don't like.

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As we make make our way around the island, the odd puffin appears on shore too.

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A couple of seals bask on the rocks, and a few heads pop out of the water to see what is going on.

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The Isle of May is home to an incredible array of wildlife, with up to 200,000 seabirds nesting here.

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Kittiwakes

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Razorbill

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Shag

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Cormorants and Herring Gulls

The steep cliffs hide beguiling grottos, with tales of smugglers and pirates.

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In a secluded bay stands the solitary rock pillar, known as 'The Bishop'.

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From Isle of May we make our way to Bass Rock, the home of 150,000 gannets. From a distance the flying gannets look like a swarm of mosquitoes around a light – they seem to be completely surrounding the rock.

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We can hear them long before we can make out each bird clearly: the racket is quite simply unbelievable! As we get nearer we can clearly see that the white dots on the top of the rock are in fact birds on nests. Wow!

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These large, striking-looking birds are everywhere: on the rocks, on the water and in the air.

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Launching themselves off the rock, they hang on the thermals before diving into the depths of the sea to gather seaweed for their nest building.

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The dots you see are not water droplets on my camera lens, they are in fact other flying birds!

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I spend the rest of my time at sea shooting anything that moves. Only with my camera, of course. Here are a few of my favourite shots:

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Can you believe that each one of those dots is in fact a gannet!

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One of my favourite moments of the trip is just sitting in the boat, gazing up at thousands of gannets effortlessly hovering overhead.

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One of my main photography aims of this excursion, is to capture a flying gannet with nesting materials in its beak. I take literally thousands of photographs to try and get a good one. As I said earlier, the extremely difficult conditions means my hit rate is dreadful! I do have some success, however.

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Another Surprise appearance – an Eider Duck

We finally have to say goodbye to Bass Rock and return to shore. I glance back and sigh with contentment, delighted that I finally managed to see and experience this wildlife extravaganza.

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The circling gannets appear to be following us for a while, although I am pretty sure they are more interested in what is under the water than they are in us.

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On our way back to Dunbar Harbour, Alan points out the ruins of the 14th century Tantallon Castle.

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By the time we get back to solid land, I am soaked to the skin, slightly sunburnt, very cold, and covered in white spots from bird dropping; but I feel like I am floating on air with blissful excitement at what I have just witnessed. In all our travels I have never seen or experienced anything like it!

Posted by Grete Howard 11:18 Archived in Scotland Tagged birds cliffs scotland boat wildlife wild pirates seal seaweed gannets puffins cormorant smugglers boat_trip birds_nest bird_watching guano shag wildlife_photography flying_birds isle_of_may firth_of_forth dunbar dunbar_harbour guillemots bass_rock bluewild blue_wild eider kittiwake razorbill herring_gull smuggler_cove tantallon tantallon_castle Comments (2)

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