Anchored in Gometra Harbour

Saxon Blue's Blog
Harvey Jones and Andrea Stokes
Sat 15 May 2010 10:47
56:28.908N 006:15.923W

Having a lazy morning today (saturday) after a full-on day yesterday.

We set out from our lovely sheltered loch aiming to see some Puffins on Lunga. A couple of hours later and we were following the leading line into the anchorage on the North side of the island. The anchorage feels like being in the middle of the sea. We entered at low tide so we could see most of the rocks but the passage has a tiny island on one side and a load of jagged drying rocks on the other. It's only about 200 meters wide which seems very small from the boat. We had the forward-looking sonar on with Andrea looking at it all the time to make sure I didn't hit anything.

Once we were anchored, it seemed like a truly wild place. The rocks gave some shelter from the swell but the boat was moving all the time and we could see the open sea with distant islands all around. Luke from High Latitudes had told us that the best time to see the Puffins was when the tour boat arrived. He said the visitors deterred the predatory birds so the Puffins felt safe to come out. This didn't sound very likely to me.

Anyway, the small trip boat arrived with about a dozen visitors onboard. They do that local trick of picking up a pontoon that they've left on a mooring buoy, making it fast to the boat then dropping the buoy and motoring it into the shore. Visitors get off with dry feet. Cunning. We had to launch the tender and get it ashore without getting wet which was a lot more tricky but we managed it, leaving the tender hanging off its anchor which we put well up the beach. Then walk up the hill and there were the puffins. Hundreds of them. We just stood and stared.

They were all stood outside their burrows which look exactly like rabbit holes but right on the edge of the cliff. In fact there were some rabbits around, too, so it was hard to tell who was digging and who was squatting. When they land or take off, the Puffins' wings thrum with the effort and I was ducking as it sounded like they were going to fly into me. I think they can only just about fly, being most of the way towards evolving into Penguins, and it seems like a massive effort for them. They are really not bothered about people. There were visitors sitting within 6 feet of birds who were just carrying on showing off their amazing beaks to each other and performing like right little show-offs. We watched on pulling with all his might on a tuft of grass. Eventually, it gave way and he nearly fell over backwards. On the way back to his burrow, though, he spotted an even more luxurious piece of bedding and, in his efforts to grab that, the first piece blew away over the cliff. Such is the futility of life!

We just sat there amazed. They are so unlikely looking. Their beaks are striped in vivid colours that contrast to the black eye makeup. They strut around on too-big feet looking both pompous and sad. It's so hard not to anthropomorphise them. Looking in our book of Arctic wildlife, they live around most of the North Atlantic so they're very successful.

After a while, we continued walking around the island and then spotted whole rafts of Puffins floating just off the shore. In the rocky clefts there were flocks of gulls nesting and every so often, a cormorant would hiss and gape at us from underneath a large rock. They look seriously well-armed so we gave them a wide berth.

Some years back, Cind and I paddled a tender between Lunga and a stack just offshore with the cormorants looking down at us angrily. This time, we were above the same stack and could see that the top of it was covered in a whole colony of Guillemots. They were huddled together like Penguins with hardly any space between each bird. Most of them were contentedly staring at the cliff in front but a few pairs were still doing their mating rituals. The noise was constant and the smell intense. Overhead, a parade of large gulls were looking out for the main chance and, judging by the number of broken eggs and dismembered birds lying around, they were regularly successful.

We walked right around the island and the landward side was much more sheltered with hillsides of bluebells where we sat and looked out towards Gometra and Mull. Then we thought, right, let's go and see the Puffins again on the way back to Saxon Blue. We clambered down the hill, the other visitors had gone and so had the Puffins. Just as Luke had said, they'd all disappeared. I don't know if they were safe underground or whether they'd all gone back out to sea. I don't think they had chicks to feed yet so there was no reason to run the gauntlet of the gulls and crows. I saw the odd one take off and make a hasty trip out to sea but there wasn't a single one sitting outside its burrow.

So how did that little lot come about? Did the Puffins come out after the people started to come? Did the people come at the same time that the Puffins were already coming out to display? Did the Puffins who displayed at any time other than 3pm get eaten and their genes disappear from the pool? My mind is boggled. Not only do the Puffins not mind the people being there, they actually welcome it! They possibly need it, or at least it helps them survive.

So, after a 20 minute yoga session (not me, I was beachcombing) we got back into the dinghy and with only one wet foot (Andrea who hadn't worn her wellies) we went back to Saxon Blue. The tide had come up and she was rolling around as there was now less rock showing to protect us from the swell. I downloaded the shipping forecast which was warning off gale 8 in Hebrides and we decided to get the hell out of Dodge and find a more sheltered anchorage.

Pausing only to eat a delicious tortilla (thick omelette with vegetables and potato in it) we hauled up the anchor and headed into Gometra harbour where we are still bobbing about. We arrived just as it got dark. It was a good call as the wind really picked up over night and Kali and I got up a couple of times to check the anchor was holding. No problems on that score. The forecast is for more gales today so we're going to stay anchored here and go for a walk ashore this afternoon and see what we can see.


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