It’s always a delight to visit any of the Islands off the Pembrokeshire coast but sometimes the experience is not exactly as you’d like.
I’m used to staying on the islands and having them much to myself, this was particularly the case on Skokholm which very rarely took day visitors, so the island would never have more than fifteen people on it at any time. Skomer is always busier being far more accessible but again if you stay on the island then when the last boat sales out of North Haven you see the island at its best and experience the peace and meditative qualities these islands possess. You also get them at night when the spectacle of the shearwaters returning to their burrows can be witnessed.
Feeling like Blackpool
A few weeks ago we decided to try to get over to Grassholm and Skomer as day vistors (you can’t stay on Grassholm, or even land on it but a sail to and around it is one of the great wildlife spectacles that Britain has to offer). Grassholm was not possible due to the weather but Skomer looked hopeful the following day. We were not expecting the numbers of people that also had the same idea for a day trip to this wildlife mecca. I suppose it was a little naive to expect to turn up, get on the first boat over and experience something akin to wilderness on the edge of the Atlantic. That feeling would have to wait until late in the evening as the sun set over the Deer Park overlooking the island when we were the last people left and the carpark, which had felt like something you’d expect at Blackpool, had totally emptied. But now it seemed as if the world had arrived at the end of the Marloes peninsula, including two students from the BA programme I lecture on! Good to see them here though and we spent some time on the island together.
It was the prime time of the year when the seabirds are at their best and the Puffins are coming to their burrows with white bait and sand eels, it was also a good day with poor weather forecast for the next few days, so despite being a weekday out of the holiday period I should have anticipated that it was always likely to be heaving.
We arrived just before 8.30am and it felt like we may not even get over as the queue to book the Dale Princess was spiralling out of Lockley Lodge. I’d never seen Martin’s Haven so busy and we heard that people had been queuing since 6.30am! We managed to get on to the 11.30am boat, which would give us about five hours on the island. It was hot and we had a couple of hours before our boat. A cuppa back at the van and then an hour on the Deer Park seemed a good plan and gave us some breathing space from the hoards around the Haven.
The trip over to Skomer was uncomfortably crammed and it felt like we were sardines in some floating can as we ploughed through a lively Jack Sound, already I was wondering if it was really all worth it. Despite the many times I’d been on the island it had never coincided with the time the Puffins are bringing back food in to their young. I knew something of what I wanted from the trip, a bit of a cliched image perhaps but a puffin with beak full of sand eels in flight was the aim. I also knew that to continue the work that placed the birds in a wider context was key to the visit. I think it’s good to have some specific aims when visiting such a rich area in possibilities for photography. Without a plan it’s easy to become overwhelmed and come away feeling that you never really gave anything enough time.
On arrival at Skomer, and after the welcome talk from the warden, we set off to the quieter end of the island, away from the Wick, which can become something of a bottle neck for both people and puffins. It’s the best place to get really close up, (so close that a gentle stroke on the back is possible) but when the island is at it’s busiest it not the place to be so we planned to have the last hour there giving the chance to spend time at the less congested parts of the island and hopefully giving some time for it to quieten down a little.
Out towards the Garland Stone a peregrine flew low over the sea giving good views and a scattering of puffins, guillemots, razorbills and fulmars plied the air around the cliffs. Gannets passed close by with the occasional one obliging with a arrow like dive into wonderfully blue waters. Eventually we arrived at the Wick, it was still busy but before reaching the head of the inlet it was possible to find a spot that was active with the puffins bringing in feed to the burrows. The sun was strong causing difficult shadows for tight close up work but the shear cliffs opposite were in shadow giving a perfect background to the brilliantly lit birds flying against it. The arrival of birds with food held on the serrated beak was rapid and brief, most going direct into the burrows and giving no time for photography. Occasionally though one would land a few feet from its home and walk, pretty quickly mind, to the burrow. On these occasional visits it was just possible to lock onto them before they disappeared.
The Best Part Of The Day
Back on the mainland, after another cramped and pretty unpleasant journey back across the sound, we decided to wait until sunset on the Deer Park. The choughs were around and I decided to set up in one spot overlooking Skomer and wait for whatever came my way. This was the best part of the day. The temperature dropped, the people dispersed, the sun dipped in the between Skomer and the Bishops and Clerks and the choughs came close. A fulmar also plied its regular route close by and in much the same way as the puffins were lit against the cliffs of the Wick, the fulmar was also beautifully lit in a low evening light against the shadowing cliffs off the Deer Park. We were the last to leave, the carpark was empty, the sun below the horizon, and a sense that we had again experienced something of the essence this part of the world has to offer. Perfect fish and chips freshly cooked in Haverfordwest rounded off a day that had been well worth it after all.
This post has primarily looked at the puffins, the following one will look at the other images taken during the same day – razorbills, guillemots, choughs, fulmars and some of the landscapes of the islands.