Like almost every other visitor to the Isles of Scilly, I had my sights set on puffins during my stay, not to mention razorbill, guillemot and perhaps a seal or two. I’d planned on joining the afternoon Sea Safari around Annet, known as the bird sanctuary island, and the Western Rocks.
I wandered down to St Mary’s Quay to check it was going ahead and saw there was a trip to Annet in the morning too. I stood at the harbour and pondered what to do. The weather didn’t look promising – the looming clouds threatened to burst at any moment. So, somewhat recklessly, I bought a ticket for the morning trip and boarded the Sea King. As St Mary’s drifted slowly out of view, I hoped I’d made the right decision.
By the time we reached St Agnes the sun was doing its best to break through. As we headed out towards Annet, our guide pointed out the rock called the Cow, a smaller rock named the Calf beside it. When the tide came up, the Calf disappeared completely, only emphasising the fact that boatmen on Scilly needed their wits about them when navigating such challenging waters. Shags were perched on the Cow with wings held wide. The structure of their wings reduced buoyancy, which made it easier for the birds to chase fish underwater. As a result of this adaptation, however, their feathers were not truly water-repellent, so they needed to hold them up to dry them. Although, I doubted these shags would have much luck drying them in the current temperature. Perhaps it was for another reason; spread-wing postures aid digestion. Birds that adopt this position have low metabolic rates and high rates of heat loss. By positioning themselves with their backs to the sun, shags could increase the rate of thermoregulation, absorbing solar energy to increase their metabolic rate.
Lesser black-backed and great black-backed gulls wheeled overhead, mouths open as they wailed at us. I had my binoculars scanning the rocks and nearby surf for a glimpse of vibrant, toucan-like beaks and droopy, clown eyes. The skipper slowed the boat suddenly and I sat up straight – a sure sign he’d seen something. A pair of great northern divers cruised into view when a wave subsided – beautiful grey birds not yet in their summer plumage. The divers, as a group, were extremely glamorous, with sleek heads and slender necks and bills.
A while after our divers had swum further away, I suddenly found myself looking at my first puffins. Two of them, perhaps a breeding pair. Down the binoculars, all concept of scale was warped, and it was impossible to see how small they were – just 12 inches tall! After a few moments they took to the air and, flapping rather ungainly, they gathered enough momentum to carry them off across the water. I was thrilled.
Leaving Annet behind, we moved into choppier water, the boat swaying beneath us as it negotiated unsteady waves. I was reminded again of how wild and isolated Scilly was, and it was this seclusion that protected and enhanced its flora and fauna. It was an island paradise.
A razorbill – a member of the puffin family – flew into view, wings beating rapidly either side of a stout, monochrome body. It wheeled in a wide circle, zooming back around the boat and away again; a bird’s second glance, too quick to photograph.
Just before it was time to turn back, a vast herd of forty grey seals appeared, some sprawled across the rocks and others bobbing in the water, long dog-like noses pointing in our direction. There were a range of ages, with some of the seals still sporting very lightly coloured coats and juvenile, inquisitive expressions. They continued to gaze after us until the rocks obscured us from their view, and the skipper took us back to St Agnes.
Once we had all disembarked from the Sea King, it wasn’t long before the Spirit of St Agnes had taken its place, ready to take more eager birdwatchers out to sea. I decided that I rarely had the opportunity to go looking for puffins, so I bought a ticket and left dry land again, excited to be back out on open water.
Amongst the blue-green waves were the white outlines of gannets, looking like swans of the sea with their slender necks and stocky bodies. Britain’s largest seabird, with a formidable wingspan of six feet; not only did they have beautiful plumage and facial markings, but they were truly built for a life at sea. Gannets can dive into the ocean from heights of 40 metres, hitting the water at speeds of almost 60mph. To withstand the pressure of such a dive, gannets have “airbags” that protect their organs on impact. They also breathe through slits, situated where the upper mandible meets the head, which are covered by flaps of hard tissue that prevent water from entering them.
These gannets weren’t diving, but they were soaring low over the boat, providing beautiful photo opportunities. It was always a challenge trying to focus a fully extended 400mm lens on a rocking boat, but I kept the camera as steady as possible and followed the birds as they glided majestically overhead.
The last bird to make an appearance was a special one; the Manx shearwater. Belonging to the order Procellariiformes along with albatrosses, these birds can live for some sixty years. They only produce one egg a year, so are highly susceptible to predation by rats. To combat this, the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project was established to eradicate rats from St Agnes, as it was suspected that they could swim the reasonably short distance to Annet, where the Manx shearwater bred. The project was successful, St Agnes was declared rat-free and the birds are now breeding successfully. In 2015, a total of 28 Manxie chicks were seen to be fledging from St Agnes and Gugh. These birds only breed on Scilly and Lundy in the UK, emphasising the importance of protecting the Scillonian population.
Before long it was time to leave rugged Annet behind and return to (scarcely) populated St Agnes. Although we’d had Manxies and gannets on this trip, the puffins had eluded us. I spoke to the guide on the journey back and she said they didn’t like bright sunlight. As the clouds had shifted and it had turned into another beautiful day, the puffins were obviously finding shade elsewhere. Later, as I looked through my photos, I felt very fortunate to have gone down to the harbour earlier than planned.