I am lying alone on the top of a cliff. My upper body exposed over the edge with my legs acting as a counter balance in a small indentation in the cliff. The cliffs are in the path of gale force winds that are blowing across the Atlantic Ocean directly towards where I am lying. Over 500 feet below me waves are crashing over rocky outcrops that jut out into the sea and into the base of the cliffs, sending spray into the air that is carried by the wind up over the cliffs and onto the moorland behind. All around me Northern Gannets wheel past where I am lying, some riding the wind along the cliffs, others hang almost motionless in the air suspended on the winds, whilst more are perched on the rocks below.
It is taking all of my strength to keep the camera and lens that I am holding steady enough to follow the Gannets against the stormy seas. Mr arms, shoulders and neck ache from the effort it takes to hold the weight of the camera and lens and to fight against the force of the wind. I can feel the spray from the sea hitting my hands and face, leaving a greasy coating of salt over them. I know that the glass on the front of the lens is also being covered, once again I crawl back away from the edge of the cliff to the relative shelter of a small grassy bank to clean the salt off the lens, my arms, shoulders and neck glad of the temporary respite from the weight of the camera and lens. After a short rest I am once again lying over the edge of the cliff photographing the Gannets. I had hoped that I would be lucky enough to have a storm and strong winds despite the difficulties these conditions pose for photography. At this moment in time, I am lost in the storm with the Gannets as my only companions.
The cliffs I have travelled to are at Hermaness on Unst, the northern most inhabited of the Shetland Islands. These cliffs are almost as far north as it is possible to travel to in the United Kingdom. Only the small uninhibited island of Muckle Flugga and Out Stack, a short distance off the coast at Hermaness, are further north. The cliffs at Hermaness are home to 30,000 Northern Gannets together with 25,000 Puffins and some thirteen other species of birds, including Fulmars, Guillemots, Razor Bills, Kittiwakes and Shags. But it is the Northern Gannets, which are the largest seabird found in the United Kingdom, that have drawn me to Hermaness.
One of the images I had hoped to make at Hermaness was a long exposure of the Gannets in flight, with their flight rendered as elegant ghostly white lines against the dark of the sea. I visited the cliffs several times during my stay on Unst. Each time the conditions are not favourable for long exposures, with strong winds continuing to batter the cliff tops. With my camera perched precariously near the cliff edge, I resort to kneeling on the tripod to hold the camera and tripod steady in the wind, trying to keep my body still for each exposure. Most of the images are blurred but in a few I manage to capture the flight of the Gannets and the movement of the sea in the storm with the cliffs rendered sharp.
My time on Unst is all too short, there is so much to see and photograph on the Shetland Islands that I have to travel back across Unst and Yell to the Main Island. Just off the Main Island, lies the Island of Noss with its spectacular mile long sea cliffs that rise almost 600 feet above the sea. The cliffs of Noss are also home to a relatively new Gannetry. Unlike Hermaness where I photographed from the cliff tops, at Noss I photograph from a boat out of Lerwick, this time I will be below the cliffs at sea level.
I am not alone on the boat trip. I am joined by an elderly lady who is visiting her daughter and a large group of French Photographers. The frenetic activity of the other photographers is a marked contrast to the solitude I enjoyed at Hermaness. However, the boat affords eye level and close views of the Gannets as they nest on the cliffs and is the only way to visit these cliffs by sea.
It is challenging working from the deck on a small boat as it pitches in the sea near the bottom of the cliffs. I find myself grateful for the high iso performance of the camera and the image stabilisation built into the lens I am using. As we move along the bottom of the cliffs, the boat passes an area of dark water under an overhanging section. Gannets dive into this dark water, white darts piercing the black darkness, emerging from the depths with sprays of white water as they take flight again.
As the boat turns away from the cliffs and heads back to Lerwick, I collapse into one of the seats in its cabin. Arms aching from yet again hand holding a heavy camera and lens but happy to having spent a few short hours with these Gannets in their environment.
After two weeks on the Shetland Islands I catch the overnight ferry back to Aberdeen. This time the crossing is smooth and I do not suffer the sea sickness I had on the outbound journey. A short journey north of Aberdeen sees me at the cliffs of Troup Head, which has Scotland’s only mainland Gannetry. The cliffs are a few fields away from where I pitch my tent. Evening sees the cliffs bathed in warm summer light. Troup Head is different from Hermaness and Noss. This time I am able to photograph the Gannets at their nest sites from the cliff top.
Being so close gives an insight into the Gannet’s character. With so many Gannets nesting in such a relatively small area disputes between neighbours are common. Each Gannet pair’s nest is just about of pecking range of their neighbours but they still manage to intrude on each other.
I have now visited and photographed at five of the United Kingdom’s Gannetries: Hermaness, Noss, Troup Head, St Kilda and Bempton Cliffs. Each of these Gannetries is different, offering different photographic opportunities and challenges. During these visits I have developed a strong appreciation of this magnificent seabird. Over the next few years I hope to visit more of the Gannetries that can be found around the shores of the United Kingdom and Ireland.