Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Puffins, Puffins and More Puffins


Map picture

Before beginning, I would just like to remind everyone that this “e-mail” is also posted in a “blog” format at our web page Included on that page is a map of the area I am discussing, and scattered throughout the article are a few pictures.

Photographs of our trip are hosted on my Picasa Page

Our first cruise is in an album entitled “Artic Explorer,” while the cruise we are currently on is entitled “Artic Explorer 2.” All of my pictures can easily be reached from a link on our globe-trotters web page that takes you directly to my Picasa Album.

So, let’s move on with our current trip.

Lisa and I absolutely love this cruise ship. There is so much going on that it is difficult to keep up with it all – it is NOT your ordinary type of cruise. The ship is now working its way northward along the Hebrides Islands of Scotland. Because we are a small vessel, it can anchor at these small islands, and we are getting to see things that most people would never encounter. Yesterday was absolutely one of the best days I have ever had on a cruise – but let me get to that in a minute.

When I last wrote, we were departing Dublin, Ireland, and heading northward to our eventual destination in Iceland for this segment of our cruise. On Saturday, June 2nd, the ship anchored off the Isle of Gigha. The island is now privately owned by its 120 residents, and with heather clad hills, deserted beaches, and only a single lane that meanders for six miles between cottages and farms, Gigha is truly a place apart. It is famous for the Achamore Gardens which were created by the Horlick family years ago. Today the residents of the island are dedicated to maintaining the garden, which is famous, worldwide for its many rare species. DSC01227We anchored off the island around 1pm, and started going ashore around 2pm. We were met by the only little bus on the island, which whisked us to the gardens where we had several hours to explore the truly magnificent landscape. Of course, we were accompanied by the onboard botanist, who was in absolute heaven over the collection, and also our resident ornithologist, who was ever present with his binoculars and spotting scope. We easily spent 3 hours exploring before returning to the ship. DSC01233My pictures will tell the story of this visit.

On the next day, Sunday June 3rd, the ship returned to the Island of Iona, home to Iona Abbey. Since we had gone ashore when we visited this island on our first cruise, Lisa and I took the morning “at leisure.” During lunch, the ship moved to the Island of Lunga, again in the Scottish Hebrides.DSC01277(2) Lunga is part of the remote and unsheltered Treshnish archipelago of eight main islands, and many smaller skerries of volcanic origin, and all are uninhabited by humans. There are remains, however, of early Vikings and medieval castles that tell us at one time they were inhabited. The islands are now protected not only for their historic value, but because they are important breeding grounds for many, many species of seabirds and grey seals. At Lunga, there are no good landing sites, and so our plans called for a one hour tour of the island by Zodiac. To the surprise of everyone, our day had once again dawned sunny which is almost unheard of in this part of the world. We had some strong winds early, but as the day progressed, they died down, so the expedition staff set about trying to see if they could locate a landing site that would allow us an opportunity to explore the island on foot. DSC01330(2)During our Zodiac ride, we were surrounded by grey seals, who kept sticking their heads up out of the water to see who we were. It was funny because the seal would pop up first at some distance, and then over time it would come closer and closer. Overhead the air was filled with birds of all types, and huge colonies were nesting along the cliff side, as well as, floating in mass herds which the crew calls “rafts of birds.” Suddenly the radio crackled into life and the onshore scouting team said they had found a place to put the Zodiac in so that we could come ashore, and that the onboard bird specialist had discovered the largest nesting colony of Puffins he had ever seen.

Our Zodiac headed towards the landing site which turned out to be an outcropping of volcanic rock. Lisa took one look, and because of her fake knees decided to stay on the Zodiac and return to the ship. Not having planned on going ashore, I did not have my walking stick, but when it came my turn, I gamely got off the Zodiac, and within a minute, I was in serious trouble; I had absolutely no balance on those uneven volcanic rocks. I started to turn back, but the entire crew knew how important it was for me to get good pictures of a Puffin for my granddaughter, Jennifer that they literally begged me to let them help me see what they said was the most amazing collection of nesting Puffins they had ever encountered. So, I gave in, and one of the Expedition Staff led me by the hand across the large plateau of uneven volcanic rock, and then pointed up to a narrow trail that climbed up a steep hill for some 300 ft. to where the Puffins were nesting. He said it would be a steep, but easy walk and climb from here, and he would be waiting for me when I came back.

Well, his definition of an “easy,” but steep climb did not match my experience. It started out easy enough, but then descended down a steep embankment only to present me with a boulder strewn river bed that required over 200 ft. to cross. Lung, Treshnish Islands, ScotlandTry as I might, I just could not balance well and almost fell several times. So, the other passengers started helping me, and I became somewhat of a “mascot.” Once across the ravine, the path started a climb. It was not only narrow and steep, but was filled with loose rocks and large boulders.Lung, Treshnish Islands, Scotland I thank my trainer, Matt Terry, because I had the strength and stamina to make the climb, but my balance was so bad that what I was doing was really dangerous. More than once, in fact, perhaps a dozen times, I almost lost my balance and could easily have fallen down the hillside. I did “kind of” fall on my recently injured knee, but a little fall does not count. At one point I realized how crazy this was, but I was determined to see it through. People kept helping and encouraging me, and in the end, I finally made it to the top. What lay before me was a scene unlike anything I had ever seen before. There were literally thousands of cute little Puffins that had decided this hilltop was their perfect place this year for nesting. Lung, Treshnish Islands, ScotlandI could literally walk right up to them, and they ignored my presence. People were lying on the ground snapping pictures within inches of the little birds. As soon as I caught my breath, I joined in the fray and must have taken almost 100 pictures. While I was standing there, so many people came to congratulate me for making the effort and saying how worried they were about me. To a person, they offered to help me down, but for some dumb reason, I said I would be fine! “Yeah, right!”

Going down that pebble strewn steep path was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I slipped, slid, and stumbled like a drunken sailor. At one point, I completely walked out of my right shoe, and had to go back and pry it from the rocks. People helped when they could, but at my pace, I kept telling them I was Ok, and to go on. At the bottom, I once again had to navigate the boulder strewn river bed, and then I climbed up to the path that took me to the volcanic rocks. True to their promise, the Expedition Staff had been on the lookout for me, and they rushed to help me across the rock, all the while slapping me on the back and congratulating me for a job well done. Back at the little outcropping, I looked up as a Zodiac came to pick me up and to my surprise; the Captain of the ship was driving the little boat. I swear, this man is everywhere, and he really enjoys what he is doing. He too offers congratulations, and I am starting to feel a little special. In truth, when I got back to the cabin I admitted to Lisa what a really dumb thing I had done. I could so easily have fallen yet again, that it was scary. This really proved to me that, with my having lost virtually all feeling in both my feet up to my knees, I simply have very poor balance awareness, and on any uneven surface, a cane is a must. In any case, what an exciting day! I have so many Puffin pictures, and so many memories – that I slept well last night!

Overnight the ship moved further North to over 50 miles north of the Outer Hebrides Islands. Our destination was to be St. Kilda Island. The Islands of St. Kilda form the last outpost of the north-west edge of Europe, and rise out of the Atlantic Ocean West of the Outer Hebrides. In four previous attempts to make a landing here, the weather was so bad that it had to be skipped. The island is almost in the Atlantic Ocean and subject to ocean swells and almost constant foggy weather. Last night we were told that the weather forecast was for sunny skies and light winds. The Expedition Team was very excited, and the Captain increased speed overnight in order to arrive at the islands just at first light. St. Kilda, ScotlandHe would then do a ship cruise around the island in the morning light, before anchoring in the small cove that is at the center of the island. We were all awakened at 6 am, although most of us had been up much earlier to see the arrival.St. Kilda, Scotland It was a spectacular sight, and one that almost took our breath away. The majestic cliffs rose for hundreds of feet, and the sea and skies were full of birds of all varieties.

So, what is so special about St. Kilda anyway? Well, it has the distinction of being the first property to be included in The Scottish National Nature Reserve, and in addition it has been accorded two different designations by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, one for cultural history and two as a wildlife reserve. The Island is home to over 1 million birds. The Island was inhabited in the early 1800’s, but the last residents were evacuated in 1930. Today, there is a small staff of 3 Park Rangers to oversee the Island, and there is a small British military facility that maintains the radar installations that were first installed during the Second World War, but which today are used for the tracking of missiles.St. Kilda, Scotland We had 4 hours to wander around the island and to explore the ruins. The island is quite overrun with wild sheep which were abandoned by the last residents.

We are now back onboard the ship and have had lunch, when as I am typing this, the Captain announced that he was going to do a “cruise by” the nearby Island of Soay, one of the largest gannetries in the world. So, we just all ran outside for the show, and what a show it was. Soay, St. Kilda Archepeligo, ScotlandThe huge towering monolithic rocks were white with birds, and the sky was literally filled with flying gannets. The Captain took the ship within about 50 ft. of the large rocks, and he maneuvered the big vessel as if he were driving a Zodiac; it was impressive to watch. I went to the Bridge out of curiosity, and here was the Captain surrounded with all this high tech equipment, and he is calmly sitting in the Captain’s chair with an old fashioned map in his lap and a pair of calipers.St. Kilda, Scotland

Anyway, we are now heading to our next destination with a briefing at 5pm, but for some unknown reason, they have moved dinner forward to 6 pm and they will not say why. It has been implied that later this evening there is yet another surprise, weather permitting. I am just loving it, and so is Lisa.


PS About half way through dinner, our ship stopped a few hundred yards from a huge rock outcropping which had a large lighthouse on top. No one on the crew would say a word about the “surprise,” but soon after stopping the Expedition Team set out in a Zodiac headed to shore. Quite some time later the team leader came on to say that the reason the ship had stopped was that the last time they were in this area, they had discovered a huge Puffin colony on this island, and if it was still there, they were going to shuttle us ashore to take pictures in the low evening sun. Sula Sgeir, ScotlandSadly, the Puffins had moved somewhere else this year, because all they could find were five mating pairs. So, the BIG surprise fizzled, but at least the ship tried. So, overnight we have set sail towards the Northeast and the Orkney Islands of northern Scotland.

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