As my next cruise approaches with alarming speed, I realised that there are a few stories I never shared on my blog from the end of my last one. It’s a shame, really, since I had some incredible experiences that left an indelible mark on me, and I wish I’d had the time when I was there to record them. My favourite story, and favourite moment of the cruise, occurred when we were just off the coast of the Shetland Islands in early July. It was 4am, and everyone was busy working on our final experiment of the cruise. The ship had stopped to allow us to take some samples from what would be the most northernly point of the whole cruise. I was busy filtering seawater when someone asked if I had been outside, which I hadn’t. I was a little puzzled as to why they were asking. Sure, it looked like it was a nice day outside, but it wasn’t like there hadn’t been any sunny, calm days on the cruise. My shipmate assured me I should go outside, and that I should grab my camera before I went. It wasn’t until I stepped out onto the deck that I understood what was so special.
The water was calm. …No, that’s the wrong word. I had seen calm in the North Sea, the water’s surface wrinkled by a moderate breeze, which had been a welcome contrast to the mountainous waves we encountered in the Bay of Biscay. But this water wasn’t just calm, it was completely still. The surface was like glass, forming a barrier between me and a slightly distorted, upside down version of the world that was trapped underwater. There were no clouds, and everything was just… blue.
I started taking pictures of the few birds that had settled around the ship. These are birds that, in general, are not seen from land. They are truly sea-faring birds that only come to land to breed. It was exciting to get the chance to photograph them up close, as they seemed not to mind swimming close to the odd metal whale lounging in the water. My supervisor noticed my interest in the birds, and told me I should have a look on the other side of the ship. Intrigued, I made my way to the front deck. I was stunned.
The water was filled with hundreds of birds, all floating on the immaculately flat surface. Behind them, rising up from the misty horizon, was Foula Island. I’ve read an account of Foula, describing it as rising “impurely out of the water”, and I can understand the use of the language. The island looked like a mountain, there are no gently sloping coasts, only the harsh incline of sheer cliffs. With the horizon shrouded in haze, it almost looked like it was just hovering above the water. It provided the perfect backdrop for the surreal bird show.
Most of the birds were fulmars, which at a casual glance appear like gulls, but are actually almost like small albatrosses. If you have a look at their beaks, you can see how greatly it differs from a gull’s, and they have a much “stubbier” appearance in flight. Like most of the seabirds present, they only come to land to breed at specific sites (they will only ever return to one site, returning to the same place year on year). They have quite a soft, gentle appearance, which I think comes from the big black eyes, with their smudgy outline.
The other prominent bird that accumulated was the great skua, which is something of a pirate in the avian world. Skuas frequently chase, harass and steal from other seabirds, and if that doesn’t make them swashbuckling enough, they also have a habit of killing and eating them. Skuas have been known to take down birds as large as black-backed gulls, which are almost as big as they are, so that’s impressive. They have a huge barrel chest, brown plumage flecked with white and an intimidating hooked bill. Despite all this, I only ever saw them being chased off by gangs of fulmars. Perhaps they wised up to the skuas’ antics and only move in groups for protection.
We hung around Foula for a good hour before the ship’s engines roared back to life and we steamed into the final leg of our cruise along the western coast of Scotland. The good weather happily followed us until we made it back to port, and made sure the final week of the cruise was actually pretty pleasant. I remember standing on the back deck as we pulled away from the Shetlands, watching Foula disappear into the haze, with the seabirds now gliding in the ship’s slipstream. Later I found out that “Foula” translates from Old Norse as “Bird Island”. I could not think of a more appropriate name.