Ramsey and Skomer Islands were our main wish list items on our week in West Wales, but we had a third island in our sights. Well not quite in our sights, we couldn’t see it from land as it’s a long way out. Aunty has never fancied an 8 mile trip in a small boat to a “rock in the middle of nowhere”. I think that captures her enthusiasm neatly. So it was down to the Two Pauls to become intrepid sailors for the day. But why go there? Well not only is it the most westernmost point in Wales, but it has a huge colony of Gannets. And who can resist a huge colony of screaming, smelly Gannets?
We were booked on the morning trip, but the night before the booking agent phoned us to say that the trip would be delayed as fog was forecast, and would we mind changing our plans. And the forecast was right. We woke up to thick fog which quickly cleared by mid-morning. The morning was spent mooching around a local nature reserve until after after lunch when we made the short trip to St Justinian’s to catch the boat. This also gave the opportunity to have a mooch around the lifeboat station and see the immaculately kept life boat.
The course to Grassholm took us through the Ramsey Sound and South West into the open sea. We quickly lost sight of the cliffs of St Justinian’s and 20 minutes later saw a white speck on the horizon.
As we neared Grassholm we started seeing more birds, Gannets, Razorbills, Guillemots and small rafts or Puffins. Then suddenly we were there under the white slopes of Grassholm. White because the rocks are covered in guano. I was expecting a rather pungent aroma to greet us, but nothing bothered my olfactory nerves. Probably best now that I think about it. A group of gannets has many collective nouns, including a “company”, “gannetry”, and a “plunging” of gannets. Reflecting on the images of Grassholm I think a Company of Gannets is about right.
Grassholm has been owned since 1947 by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and is one of its oldest reserves. It reaches 42 metres (138 feet). It is the third most important site for gannets in the world, after two sites in Scotland; St Kilda and Bass Rock. During the summer is is home and breeding site for 39,000 pairs of the birds, and supports around 10 percent of the world population. Impressive for a small rock 8 miles from the mainland. Even though the sea was calm the small boat still rocked backwards and forwards making photography a real challenge. Many of my shots included tails or blue sky only.
As we sailed around the rock hundreds of Gannets were flying over head, either returning to their nest and leaving to go fishing. Dotted among the serried ranks of Gannet nests were Razorbill and Guillemots, who nest among the noisy confusion as the larger gannets provide protection from predation by Black-backed Gulls.
As you look at the Gannets arranged all over the rock it seems that there must be some organisation as the nests look to be arranged in lines. In fact each nest is just far enough away from it’s neighbour that it can’t be reached while the parents are sitting on the eggs to prevent conflict. But it does seem to give a sense of town planning – but I must avoid anthropomorphising.
The turbulent sea around Grassholm also provides good feeding ground for porpoises and bottlenose dolphins. No dolphins this time, but we did see a Porpoise. The cetaceans are smaller and shyer than Dolphins. The seas today were unusually calm, even Aunty would have enjoyed the trip.
The trip then got even better. A little further out we came across two Minke Whales. they circled the boat for 10 minutes inspecting us closely. Even the guide and boatman were excited.
Grassholm has been identified with Gwales, an island featured in the Mabinogion. In the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Gwales is the site of a fabulous castle where the severed head of Bran the Blessed is kept miraculously alive for eighty years while his companions feast in blissful forgetfulness. Maybe more on this in another post.
Would I go again? Yes! And so should you.