By David Stevenson Website
The trip started as a birthday present to me from me. I happened to be in the Scottish Seabird Centre and was asking about possible photography opportunities of Puffins and was told about their photography trips to the Bass Rock for the gannets. I signed up there and then (after asking my wife obviously) and paid the £89. For this you get the trip to the island, around three hours on it and a chance to see/photograph the gannets diving on the way back. I was also warned that landing was very much weather dependent, but that they would let me know the night before if it was going ahead or not. Sadly the first two dates I could manage were cancelled, but it was third time lucky.
The day came and was a lovely bright morning, though a lot earlier than I usually see! We had to meet in Dunbar harbour for about 06:45. My first piece of advice would be to stop off in one of the service areas on the way and go to the toilet as there are no facilities in the harbour at that time of the morning. Parking is no problem, there is limited parking in the harbour, but much easier to park in the car park of the swimming pool and walk the 2min to the harbour.
The boat trip takes about an hour and uses a working lobster boat. The trips are limited to 12 people and there was a nice friendly atmosphere on the boat. As we neared the island more and more gannets started to appear. It was tempting to start trying to get some flight images, but not worth it as much better opportunities were to come. The landing is on to some stone steps and it was clear why any rough weather would make this impossible. As long as you listen to the advice given, there is no problem getting onto the island though.
Once there the first thing you will probably notice is the smell, oh yes. This is closely followed by the noise and the sheer experience of being so close to so many birds. Before you are allowed to go running off with your camera there is a safety and behaviour talk. Basically you stick to the paths up to an area above the lighthouse (the island itself has an interesting history which is worth looking at). Although this sounds a bit limiting, in reality, it isn’t. Paramount to the organisers is the welfare of the birds (as it should be) and any disruption to them is kept to the minimum.
At first the experience of just being there and watching these marvellous birds was almost overwhelming. They were all around, building nests on the ground and swooping overhead. I was most interested in flight shots initially and so got myself into a likely position and just sat there trying to pick off individual birds as they flew past. I changed positions a few times and managed to get some images that I was happy with of gannets in flight and coming in to land.
I took the same approach for the gannets on the ground, settled down as close to them as I could without disturbing them and just quietly sat or lay there until they were used to me. They then pretty much ignored me and got on with what they were doing: fighting, mating, nest building etc. The two biggest problems I had were trying to separate individual birds out from the rest of the colony and the temptation to just watch them as I found them fascinating.
I had taken a bag with water/windproofs (living in Scotland I know our weather) and something to eat and drink. To be honest though I only stopped for a drink once as I was so caught up with photographing the birds. Luckily the weather was lovely and I didn’t need the foul weather gear. Again there are no toilet facilities on the island, although there are some out of the way bushes (you need to be careful though as there are one or two webcams!)
When it was time to leave people gathered around the landing stage at the bottom. This also gave a further photo opportunity as there were some shags in the area as well. Although getting close enough for an image involved crawling over some guano covered rocks (and consequently smelling pretty badly afterwards) .Once on the boat again there is 30 mins of ‘chumming’ (throwing fish parts into the water). The gannets swarm around the boat at this point and then show of their diving prowess. You are advised not to use a long focal length. Sadly I hadn’t changed lenses in time and the birds were too close for my 80 – 400 to focus on the diving birds.
All in all the trip was worth every penny, both for the experience and the chance to
photograph the birds.
All images by David Stephenson. Nikon D300, Nikkor 80-400VR.