If you're looking to experience some of Shetland's incredible wildlife, you definitely need to add a trip to Noss to your list of things to see and do in Shetland. Joining Seabirds & Seals recently, I was able to 'act the tourist' for a morning and witness the incredible gannet colonies of Noss.
The experience is an astonishing spectacle – the natural world's equivalent of a teeming seabird apartment block, bursting with all the associated sights and sounds of one of Europe's largest gannet colonies. For this tour, you need look no further than Lerwick's Victoria Pier, where you can step onboard Seabird for a memorable boat tour around the islands of Bressay and Noss.
Seabirds and Seals celebrate their 30th anniversary tomorrow (Saturday 7th May), marking the beginning of the first Noss tour, established in 1992 by Dr Jonathan Wills. From early beginnings in the small 24ft Dunter, the business has grown and evolved over the years into the award-winning 4-star visitor experience that guests can enjoy today in the 13.5m catamaran Seabird, now operated by husband and wife duo, Brian and Marie Leask who took over from Jonathan in 2017.
Growing demand for wildlife tours saw an increase in the size of the boat over the years, and today Seabird plies the waters around Bressay and Noss. This comfortable and fast catamaran has a spacious viewing platform and a welcoming heated cabin where guests can relax.
Over the years, Seabirds and Seals have guided many visitors to the spectacular cliffs of Bressay and Noss, where the incredible gannet colonies are found. Last weekend I was lucky enough to join them as Marie and Brian invited Hansi and me onboard. I'm familiar with this tour as I sometimes work as relief crew on the boat, but this Sunday morning, it was just me, Hansi, my camera, and the opportunity to soak it all in.
The tour highlight, Noss National Nature Reserve, sits off Shetland's east coast, tucked out of view of Lerwick, for the most part, by the larger island of Bressay, which is home to around 360 people, and a short seven-minute hop from Lerwick by ferry.
Noss is now uninhabited for most of the year and, throughout the summer season, is home to two wardens who monitor seabird populations and keep track of all the other flora and fauna on the National Nature Reserve.
Noss comes from the Old Norse language and means 'nose'. The Norse settlers who arrived here in the 9th century would likely have called it Nossay – the island shaped like a nose.
We met Seabird on a bright and breezy post-Folk Festival Sunday morning. The town was eerily quiet as the resident's slept off the excesses of the night before!
After a safety briefing, we and the eight other guests left the quayside. We made our way south along the historic old part of Lerwick, passing the beautiful – and iconic – buildings that line the shores of South Commercial Street, including the Lodberrie, home of fictional tv character Jimmy Perez from the hit Shetland show. I always enjoy seeing a place from the water as it gives a different dimension and perspective – even those areas we are familiar with look entirely different from the sea.
Marie gave a lively and engaging commentary, pointing out buildings of interest and regaling us with stories and some of the town's colourful history.
Generally, the tour would continue out the south entrance to Lerwick Harbour, taking in the 19th-century Bressay Lighthouse, the Orkneyman's Cave and the spectacular natural arch called the Giant's Leg. But today, for the comfort of passengers, Brian took us out the more sheltered north entrance, avoiding a heavy swell and ensuring a smoother sailing towards the main event – the Noss cliffs.
The Noup of Noss is the island's highest point, and the sandstone cliffs that tower some 180 metres above the boat are an imposing sight from the deck of Seabird. We were expertly brought to within a stone's throw of these dominating cliffs, home to thousands of breeding seabirds, by skipper Brian. It's an incredible sensory explosion; the sheer cliffs plunge straight into the deep cobalt-coloured sea whilst a swirling mass of seabirds are busily nesting, feeding and generally creating a frenzy of noise and flight all around the boat.
It's hard to explain the heady sights and smells of the raucous gannet colony. It's a noisy cacophony that drowns out all other noise and is almost spellbinding in its melodious chatter. The experience is incredible grounding and makes you feel as insignificant as a speck of dirt.
The colony is one of the UK's most important seabird breeding grounds and is home to thousands of pairs of nesting gannets, guillemots, puffins, kittiwakes, razorbills and shags.
The most prevalent bird here are the 25,000 northern gannets that nest on the open sandstone ledges – a greater number of gannets are found in this one colony than the whole human population of Shetland (23,000). Mind-blowing.
There were also great skuas, known locally as bonxies, patrolling the area. The island's interior is home to a colony of breeding great skuas who patrol the waters and take out any unsuspecting chicks – particularly the young guillemots, who have taken to the water and are known as 'jumplings'.
After spending time absorbing life in the colony, observing the gannets busily readying their nests with beaks full of nesting material, and guillemots noisily babbling on the lower ledges, it was time to witness a feeding frenzy! Marie began tossing fish into the water. No sooner had they hit the water than hundreds of birds started diving in a noisy rabble, torpedoing their graceful bodies into the water, diving hungrily after their fishy reward. It was an incredible frenzy of wings, accompanied by a deafening screeching with every fish hitting the water.
Afterwards, we steamed around to the sheltered confines of Noss Sound for a steaming mug of coffee and some biscuits. The turquoise waters look Mediterranean – even if the wind chill means that the Rab jacket is zipped up tightly against the sea air – and it felt tranquil and still after the rabble of the colony.
Relaxing at anchor on Seabird is always a good time to get to know the other guests and ask questions. It also allows Brian the opportunity to come out and chat with the visitors, sharing his years of knowledge and considerable experience.
Afterwards, we had a pleasant steam back to Lerwick, enjoying the sights and sounds of Lerwick Harbour. All in all, it was a memorable way to spend a Sunday morning. As we left, Seabird was preparing to go on an afternoon tour – a slightly longer trip that included the opportunity to view the underwater world with an ROV camera. I've done this in the past, and it's incredible to see the sea life that lurks beneath the waves and one of the numerous shipwrecks dotted around Lerwick Harbour.
For a great insight into the area's history and wildlife, former owner Jonathan Wills published a book called Seabirds and Seals a few years ago, which is well worth a read. The lavishly illustrated publication contains a collection of stories from 25 years of wildlife guiding around Bressay and Noss and was packed full of history, nature and interesting anecdotes from his time skippering Dunter (Seabird's predecessor).
Over the years, Jonathan completed over 4,000 circuits of Bressay and Noss, and the book is borne from the 'spiel' that he developed during this time as he guided 39,000 visitors around his little patch of home. He describes his career on Dunter as "a 24-year voyage of some 85,000 miles in all – more than three times around the world without ever being more than three miles from Victoria Pier."
Seabird is well-equipped with safety equipment and lifejackets and has a toilet on board for anyone considering a tour. Seabird also has an accessible deck allowing wheelchair users the opportunity to experience this incredible tour.
There are two tours a day from April to October, seven days a week – departing from Victoria Pier Lerwick at 9. 30 am and 12.30 pm. Both tours cover the same route, with refreshments included. The three-hour afternoon tour spends more time at some locations and includes underwater viewing of a shipwreck in Lerwick Harbour.
Many thanks to Brian & Marie for having us, and we hope you have a fantastic season!
Until next time,
Hello from Laurie
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