Day 36, part 1 – Birdwatching at the speed of flight

Starting mileage: 17502 km
Day started: 08:00
Day ended: 22:00



What a day! Long before we usually leave a campsite we already had possibly the most fun so far, and the day did not end at that!

Our previous attempts at wildlife watching at sea were uniformly failures. On a whale watching tour few years ago all we saw was a single sunfish fin. On the puffin route in Pembrokeshire in 2008 we encountered a fog so thick that the only puffins we saw were the ones who flew directly overhead the boat.

We knew this time would have been a lot different, and not only because the weather was magnificent: hot, calm and clear; but the main difference was the Ramsey Island boat, waiting for us at St Justinian’s wharf at 9 am: a jet-powered RIB, not a rickety old fishing vessel, the kind of thing people pay good money for just to get into, not even thinking about actually getting somewhere. If this boat would not get us to where the animals were, nothing would.

The skipper had so far a 100% record of dolphins, which was encouraging to know. We were given thick coats (we had been warned to dress up warm, but not everyone listened – a common mistake made by people who’ve never been far out to sea) and life vests, and holding on for dear lives we were whooshed out past Ramsey Island into the Celtic Sea. Our destination was Grassholm, faintly shining white in the distance, but on the way we were already beginning to see the abundance of wildfowl these waters are so famous for. Puffins, guillemots and razorbills were scrambling away from the bow of our boat, and shearwaters decided to show us how little they thought of our feeble 40 knots by flying along us for a while and then cutting across the bow with no effort.

Shearwaters are fantastic flyers, and the only proper way to watch them is from a speeding boat: it’s the only time when they are not simply whizzing past you like swallows on crack. There’s about 30,000 of them in Pembrokeshire, and it seemed they were all around us. But neither shearwaters, nor puffins was what we had come to see. Everyone was looking for something else.

And then they appeared. ‘A seal!’ someone shouted; but it wasn’t a seal. It was a fin, and then another, and then a bluish-grey, perfectly streamlined body leapt out of the water. Common dolphins – a small pod, only a few, including a mother with a youngling, playing around the boat. The most amazing animals on the planet, graceful and playful. They soon grew bored of us and swam off, but it was a good sign, said the skipper: rarely did the dolphins appear so soon, before Grassholm.

Grassholm loomed closer; those of us who knew why the island is half-white, were preparing themselves for the enormity of the experience. The rest had no idea what awaited them, until we got close enough to discern the details.

Grassholm is white because of birds. Not even bird droppings: actual birds; a hundred thousand gannets gathered in one small place. Next to Shearwaters, the Gannets are our favourite birds: the largest of sea birds of Britain, marvelous in flight as well as in dive. They can dislocate their wings before plummeting into the water at 60 mph. Seeing a hundred thousand of them at the same time was a sight difficult to comprehend; the gannets need these great colonies to breed, and their “cities” – there are two more in UK, even larger than Grassholm – is the closest Britain, and indeed most of Europe, has to the great herds of Africa seen in the nature documentaries. The noise, the smell, the incessant swarm was overwhelming all senses. This was birdwatching at its most extreme; after Grassholm, no RSPB reserve would ever seem as exciting again.

On the rocks around Grassholm lay a couple dozens of grey seals – many pregnant – and among the gannets sat some auks – razorbills and guillemots, using the bigger birds company as perfect protection from predators. Slowly, we moved onwards, in search of more dolphins. We aimed for the Smalls Lighthouse – the most remote of Trinity House lighthouses, 20 miles off the coast, and almost half-way to Ireland. The lighthouse has a long and gruesome story – famously, one of the servicemen had to live with the corpse of his colleague for a few months, which turned him, understandably, mad. Ever since then, the lighthouses had to be serviced by three-man teams rather than two and these days it is wind- and solar-powered.

Not far off the lighthouse we spotted a vast pod of at least twenty if not more dolphins, rushing towards their fishing grounds. They were absorbed in reaching their prey, so they paid little attention to us; but that meant we could follow them closely for a long time, in good view.

The skipper was still not satisfied with this display, and veered north for one last time. His efforts were soon rewarded. A great fin emerged from the water for a brief moment, then again, and again – slowly, gently, in a wide circle.

It wasn’t exactly a whale, but a Risso dolphin, the largest of dolphins; it was asleep – or, as these animals do, half-asleep, swimming in the slow circle in the direction of the half of brain that was awake. Risso bodies have uniquely white colour – the white is not lack of pigment, but scarring from their fights with squids. The Risso are also the one of the species infamously slaughtered by the Japanese at Taiji, and seeing this majestic animal up close in the wild brought closer to home the awfulness of that custom.

That finally satisfied our skipper and we headed back home – at full speed, smashing the waves hard and fast; although even that was not enough to catch up to the restless shearwaters.

Common dolphin

Common dolphin

Gannets at Grassholm

Gannets at Grassholm

Smalls Lighthouse

Smalls Lighthouse



One thought on “Day 36, part 1 – Birdwatching at the speed of flight

  1. Pingback: Day 36, part 2 – Merlin’s Quarry | A Different Green

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