Puffins, gannets and idyllic beaches | Unst Island, Shetland

Hermaness Nature Reserve is situated at the most northern part of Britain on the island of Unst. The sea cliffs are home to thousands of nesting birds including puffins and gannets. A boardwalk led us across the moorland until we arrived on a grassy topped cliff with a huge drop down to the open sea. We took a seat straight away and had some tea while taking in the view. It didn’t take long for eagle-eyed Craig to spot a few risso dolphins swimming by.

There were hundreds, if not thousands of gannets swooping below us and diving into the sea. They dive down at 60mph, carefully tucking their wings in to lessen the impact as they hit the water. They can also dive about 30m down for fish which is remarkable!

From the coast the trail led north or south so we opted for south first, we passed a small puffin colony atop the tall cliffs. There weren’t too many around but regardless they were still bloomin’ photogenic so I took a lot of photos. Further down the coast we ended up in Gannet Central – The cliffs were absolutely swarming with them!!

They were nesting on precarious cliff edges and swooping down into the deep blue sea. Gannets are very beautiful birds, pure white like a swan but with a hint of amber through their head feathers and neon blue eyeliner around their eyes. The chicks didn’t look quite as elegant, they were big white fluff-balls, sitting in their nests and waiting for food deliveries.

Most people stopped walking here and turned back north but we continued around and we ended up at a good location to photograph the gannets. Beforehand we’d been peering down on them but now we were more at eye level which was much nicer. So we stopped for lunch atop the cliff and watched as they glided through the sky and shot down like arrows into the sea. The sun gradually came out and we were so happy, it was our first day in Shetland where the sun was out, and the first in a few weeks according to locals.

The northern track offered a lot more puffin encounters. In fact they were everywhere! At one point we sat down a couple meters away from some and started taking photos when one unexpectedly stepped out of its little burrow right next to us. They were so unfazed by humans and just acted like we were a normal sight outside their front door.

My mission for this puffin experience was to try and capture some in-flight images. Luckily we had some help from the local bullies – the Bonxie birds which occasionally swooped over the puffins. Whenever they did big groups of puffins would fly off and we’d be able to watch them fly a couple laps before they all landed back at their nests. We sat and watched them for about an hour and we even managed to spot our first and only one with a mouth full of tiny silver fish.

There was another gannet city with a good view down onto some flat rocks where they’d made their nests. It all looked like an egg box with neat lumps where the nests were and a fluffy chick sitting atop each one. Just off the shoreline was Muckle Flugga lighthouse which sat atop a rocky outcrop in the sea and marked the most northerly point in Britain. I don’t think anyone was on the trail ahead of us so for a short while we may of been the most northerly people in Britain.

When we got back to Helga we wasted no time in zooming off and trying to see some of the glorious Shetland beaches in sunshine. Norwich had a double beach, separated by a rocky mound. The right side had a beautiful beach with turquoise water and to the left was a really calm bay with rocks covered in fluorescent green algae. For a sunny weekend there were just 4 people on the beach. We noticed a kid was wearing a helmet on the shoreline which we thought was strange as he didn’t have a bike. We walked past him along the beach and then the Arctic Terns began attacking us and we realised why the kid was wearing a damn helmet.

We continued the drive north to the village of Skaw, although it seemed strange to call it a village because it just had one house. In fact the house was pretty special because it was the most northerly home in Britain. It was situated right beside a stunning beach that felt so remote and wild. We didn’t want to waste any time so we packed a quick flask of tea and some cookies and hiked around the coast to see the beach from up high. It was such an incredible view from the top; there was another beach below us and the sea was crystal clear. I’ve realised the water looks more impressive if there’s some dark rocks and seaweed around as it gives a perfect contrast to the turquoise hues.

After our cup of tea we headed back to the carpark and then continued north on some random trails…sheep trails as shetland doesn’t really have footpaths. We couldn’t believe how calm the water was, we’d anticipated wild, choppy sea in Shetland but today it was like glass. We could hear seals roaring but after peering down the cliffs we couldn’t spot any so Craig searched with his binoculars and there they were, way off on a distant island. I was surprised how loud they were! As we walked back along the fields we passed who we presume to be the owner of the lonely house. He was casually chatting on his mobile to someone while holding a huge shotgun in the other hand.

We headed back to Helga and drove to a little pull out we’d spotted earlier. It offered a fab view across the sea…for a few minutes until we were engulfed in a bizarre fog. It came out of nowhere after such a wonderful sunny day.

The following day was due to be a rainy right off, it poured it down and we kept saying how lucky we were to not be out walking. But then the rain seemed to ease so we felt a little optimistic and risked a walk anyway, heading up a disused road to the Lamba Ness peninsula. Halfway down the track Craig pointed to a smudge of grey cloud in the sky and said “we need to take cover because that rain is coming our way!”. The area had old military buildings from World War II, just simple concrete squares that we knew we could hide in if need-be. I didn’t seem to think it was that urgent to run from the rain but within 30 seconds it hit us and it was like we were standing under a gushing waterfall!! We were running like hooligans to the first building we could reach but as soon as Craig got there he reversed straight back out. I looked inside the dark little room which was piled up with dirt and sheep shit and atop the dirt was a decomposing sheep. We were getting drenched but the only way I was getting into that building is if I had to hide from an axe murderer. So we quickly ran off, heading for the next building – which didn’t have a fucking roof! Finally we found one with a roof and no dead animals inside, saying that we just hid under the foyer area, there was an additional room with an old rusty boat inside and an eerie air to it so we didn’t dare peep inside. My jeans were soaked and so heavy, as were my hiking boots which squelched on every step. The walk also ended up being rather shit so overall not the best start to a day. I’m sure tomorrow will be better!

5 Comments Add yours

  1. fantastic, you captured those puffins perfectly 🙂

    1. Thanks so much! They were very fun to photograph 😃

      1. You’re welcome 😊

  2. Brilliant pics and great writing.

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