First, an acknowledgement here for this photo of Mousa. Not at midnight, but beautiful nonetheless. Now, the story: not the repeat trip I’d planned for this year, obviously, but from a few years ago.
It’s the 21st June – Midsummer – and eleven fifteen in the evening. Apart from an overnight ferry trip across the Bay of Biscay, I’ve never been on the sea at this time before. A family group climbs aboard the boat, shrieking with laughter. A couple of ASBO-looking youths stand on the harbour side, taking a last few drags of their roll-ups. Other assorted tourists, many dressed in completely inappropriate gear for an evening boat trip and a walk across an uninhabited island, step – or rather, scramble – into the boat. There is much wiping of damp wooden benches and muttering about the hardness of seats.
This was not at all what I had in mind when I imagined – as I had done many times before – this journey out to Mousa, in the ‘simmer dim’ of the Shetland Islands. I had read about the 44-foot high Iron Age broch on the small uninhabited island of Mousa. As the tallest and best-preserved broch in the world, it’s worth seeing for its own sake, though it’s also home to a breeding colony of storm petrels.
These tiny, black birds are not particularly rare, but they might as well be since they only come ashore to breed; only on remote north-westerly stretches of coastline; and only feed at nightfall. This way, the larger gulls and skuas find them less easy prey, and the petrels’ nests in the crevices of the broch are more difficult to locate and attack. The pair spends quality time together, and then swaps over, the recently arrived bird staying to incubate the eggs, or later in the season guard the chicks, whilst the other bird leaves for a few days at sea to feed up. I’d heard too – and seen tv footage – about the strange noise they make as they return, and how they appear to have no fear of people, dancing and diving about their heads in the bat-like, gull-confusing flying patterns they make around the broch before slipping into their own little crevice.
There would be other seabirds too, and seals on or around the island, and even the possibility of whale, or dolphin. The fact that all this took place on an island-off-an-island in one of the most northerly points of the UK (beyond the 60 degree latitude, in fact) and in high summer when the quality of half-light, half-darkness – the Shetlanders’ ‘simmer dim’ – was supposed to be very special, meant this was a journey which had been high on my list for some time.
But so far, the reality is not matching the fantasy. As well as my fellow travellers who are not taking this trip anywhere near seriously enough in my opinion, there is another problem. The skyscape is exceptionally dramatic, because although the sun has (just) set, it’s been a bright, warm, sunny day, and the sky is still pulsating with purples and pinks and swathes of blue, as if reluctant to finally commit to night on this beautiful late June day.
Tom, the boat owner, explains that the downside of this is that occasionally, on such a night, the birds haven’t ‘come in’ by it’s time to leave the island. From what I’d researched beforehand about the Shetland Islands, I’d prepared myself for cold, wind, rain, mist, or it being just too dark to see much. I’m not prepared for this warm balmy evening with its glorious array of colours that means the birds may not show, and yet every common-or-garden tourist looking for any common-or-garden boat trip is indeed showing. I tut at myself. I know I have to change my mindset, or it will be me spoiling the journey for myself, not the tourists or the too-good weather.
I don’t have to work too hard. As the boat pulls away from the harbour, and a cool breeze catches the day trippers’ bare shoulders and arms, the chatter quietens. Soon, there is only the noise of the boat engine, and the rushing of the backwash. I take a few calming breaths, raising my head and flaring my nostrils to take in the smells and sensations of the night. I remember snatches of conversation I’d overheard earlier in the day: a pod of orcas had been seen, not far from where we are now, but in a later report, they had been further south, and swimming steadily on, rather than working the rocky coastline for seals, where the best orca sightings are often obtained. I try not to think about how it would be to encounter orca: I’d had a previous amazing experience with bottlenose dolphins; occasional sightings of harbour porpoise; twice in the past had seen distant fins of unknown species of whale, but orca… aka killer whale… and possibly close up?
As we draw nearer to Mousa, I notice a shifting of colours in the sky. There’s now little day-blue left, and less pink, though still plenty of purples, and wide bands of navy blue, some shading into an almost green hue I’ve never seen in the sky before. I feel the thrill of anticipation: surely now the birds would soon be coming in?
With this quality of light, and my poor eyesight, my vision is far from 20/20, but as we approach the jetty, I can’t miss two seals scrambling hastily onto a rocky outcrop. Seals only move in haste for one reason, and I look around, but can see nothing. At that point, the boat suddenly changes direction, moving away from the jetty, towards the open sea.
In his talk before we set off, Tom said that if we were lucky enough to spot orcas, or any other cetacean, he would go as close as he knew was appropriate, and if safe to do so, would cut the engines, and we should keep quiet. I narrow my eyes to look out over what Homer in The Odyssey calls ‘the wine-dark sea’ (he must have been here) and there, a little way ahead, are two fins pointing out of the water, one a lot bigger than the other.
On the boat, there’s much shuffling for position, and whispering and pointing between the passengers, but I am well positioned in the stern and able to stand on a raised platform and watch the fins, and then more of the backs, of whatever is in front of the boat. The animals are not swimming purposefully in any one direction, but quite slowly, meandering a little from side to side. Then, both fins disappear, and I realise I’m holding my breath and not blinking. I take a breath, blink rapidly a few times, then close my eyes for a beat of one. As I open them, a fine spray goes up, very close to where I am in the boat, and then the whole left flank of an orca becomes visible to me as it lifts out of the water. Huge, black, with the signature white patch – startlingly white in the gloaming.
I’m not sure what kind of noise comes out of my mouth, but something unrecognisable does. From that moment, five or six minutes of pure joy as the orcas swim about close to the boat, probably checking us out. I realise there are at least three: a massive one with a fin of almost six feet, another smaller, and one much smaller still. It was confirmed later that a probable family pod of bull, cow and calf had been seen all along that stretch of coast that day and the next. I don’t have the dramatic eye contact experience that I had with the Moray Firth dolphins, but it’s still pure magic to see such creatures close up, and to experience with them, however briefly, my sense of their wildness and freedom.
The walk to the broch from the jetty is a little hair-raising. It’s not dark – it won’t get completely dark all night – but it is definitely dusk, and there is only the narrowest of paths, often right on the cliff edge, and with a steady incline. I want to have the experience of being alone at the broch if only for a few moments – there must be fifteen or so of us straggling along the path – so I walk ahead as briskly as I dare.
I do have to stop though. Partly to catch my breath, and partly to soak in the experience. The sound of the sea and seabirds in this strange light is other-worldly, and I can hear seals singing below the cliffs. I can’t quite believe it’s turned midnight, I’m on Mousa, and I’ve seen orcas. The Shetland Islands at last.
I begin walking again; the cooling tower shape of the broch getting nearer and nearer until it fills my vision. I can’t see any birds that might be storm petrels but I can hear a strange squeaking noise coming from the walls of the broch. I go right up to it and place my palms on the stone walls, which still hold some warmth from the day’s sun. I can see the tiny markers the archaeologists use to check the movements of the structure, and I can hear the curious chittering of the storm petrels in their nests between the broch’s twin walls. I place my ear directly on the wall, and realise with a thrill that I must be only centimetres from the birds.
I can hear other people approaching, but I don’t move. It’s as if I could stand here forever, feeling the wall of the broch against my face and hands, attuning to these strange little creatures living out their particular survival drama in this ancient structure where once my species lived out theirs.
At last I step back and survey the night. Almost at once a bird circles around my head, and then another, and another. I realise the birds are coming in, and that there are dozens darting and circling around the broch.
With the dim light, and their rapid changes of direction, it’s almost impossible to follow an individual bird, but as I step back further still, I decide this is the best way to experience the phenomenon: I can see, and hear, birds coming in from the sea to the broch, some nearer to it still weaving and winding, and also those disappearing (with quite a wriggle and a squeeze) into their particular nest space.
People are talking, but it’s subdued, and I like the view of the shadowy broch circled by the fast-moving black dots of birds and the stationary black human figures, all backdropped by the deep bands of colour in the night sky.
Eventually, Tom tells us it’s time to go, and on the walk back there’s one last treat: I hadn’t realised the petrels also nest in the remaining stone boundary walls on the island, and as I approach a section of wall two birds are sitting on top of it, snuggling together. With no fear of people, they don’t bother to fly away as I get nearer, and stand for a moment watching them. Two little black birds sitting on a wall…. I walk back to the jetty with a singing heart.
Two little videos here and here if you’d like a visual… thank you to John Poyner who was the guide on this wildlife trip.