Fulmars are from the Procellariidae family, also known as ‘tubenoses’. This is a reference to the nostril-like feature above their beaks. Offshore, they glide low above the water, stiff-winged and graceful, and it’s no surprise that they are related to albatrosses. Ashore, they are perhaps less endearing; one of their characteristics is to retch foul-smelling gloop at those who approach their nests. These images show fulmars of all ages and were taken in the islands of Orkney and Shetland. Incidentally, I do have some photos of fulmars taken right here on the Isle of Purbeck, but can’t for the life of me find them right now.
Fulmars seem to like investigating sea kayaks close up, circling repeatedly with low passes beneath the stern and bow. They have lifted our spirits many times whilst out on the water and tired, nervous or simply jaded. We have joked on occasion that each paddler has a ‘personal fulmar’ who looks out for them on the seas…
The hunk of rock above is Out Stack, which happens to be the northernmost point of Britain. It’s located a short way north of Muckle Flugga Lighthouse, which is a short way north of the Shetland Isles.
I certainly wasn’t on my own, out on the water up there on top of the UK. The skies were full of gannets from the colonies on the rocks of Muckle Flugga, intermittently diving for food. Whenever one surfaced from a dive with a fish in his mouth, he would instantly be mobbed by scores of great skuas (aka ‘Bonxies’) who would harass and even physically assault the gannet until he dropped his food…leading to another ugly scrap, this time amongst the skuas.
Although time and tide dictated that I was supposed to be moving on, I spent a full hour floating in this one spot, watching this extraordinary and unending spectacle unfold around me.
This fellow’s take-off was much more impressive than what followed. He got caught up in the gusty draughts in the cliff gulley and zig-zagged seawards out of control, barely avoiding the walls with manic flapping. In fact, I suspect that was what he meant to do…
I’ve just been writing about otters, which prompted me to dig out these images.
Britain’s otters are not marine animals. They evolved as river animals, but have successfully adapted to survive and even thrive in UK coastal environments, especially areas with few major rivers. Otters are part of family mustelidae, which includes stoats and weasels. There are nine species of otter worldwide, divided into three tribes. Britain’s otters are Eurasian otters (lutra lutra, tribe lutrini). They should not be confused with sea otters (enhydra lutra, tribe anoychini) which are not found outside the Pacific Ocean.
We saw otters almost daily whilst paddling in Shetland last year. Nevertheless, I didn’t come remotely close to taking a worthwhile photo of one.
Post-WWII, the development of atomic weapons made coastal fortifications obsolete. The ‘strategy’ of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) reduced the concept of defence to, surviving a Soviet nuclear onslaught just enough to be able to retaliate in kind. This ‘Cold War’ left its imprint on our coastal landscape. Enormous radar domes were constructed to detect incoming missiles, e.g. RAF Saxa Vord on the island of Unst in Shetland. The Needles Battery on the Isle of Wight became the unlikely location of a rocket testing station.
Pretty well the only thing about Shetland that failed to impress us was their Tourist Office. Maybe it was just the particular staff we ran into at their Lerwick office, but they didn’t seem particularly informed or helpful regarding their home. For example, we had to practically beg on knees to view and then get a photocopy of their (very out of date) contact sheet on Camping Bods, and when we asked what events or entertainment were coming up, without irony they recommended that we head up the street to the newsagents and look in a newspaper…
The good news is that they clearly recognise good writing when they see it. They have made use of Heather’s article about Shetland in their latest promotional bulletin! We only heard about this when it was forwarded by a friend. The bulletin seems to link Heather’s article to Sea Kayak Shetland, a commercial coaching operation. We had no dealings with them and know little about them. However, the sea kayaking guidebook is written by someone from this company and is great, highly recommended if you are trying to decide whether to head north. I’ve just dug out the comments I earlier wrote about the Shetland section of this guidebook (it also covers Orkney) and here they are…
- We thought quite highly of the guidebook, it tended to give a pretty readable and recognisable flavour of each island/ region of Shetland. Info was clear and precise.
- Tidal info is a bit limited in some cases, instead the book tends to say ‘tides aren’t really an issue here’ and leave it at that. Truth is, tides really aren’t much of an issue around Shetland, not at least compared to the crazy stuff to be found in Orkney. The Admiralty pilot (and tidal atlas) have more tidal info if required.
- One thing I liked a lot was that although the book can’t cover everywhere in Shetland in 25 routes (there are 900+ miles of coast), what it does do is add a surprisingly large amount of supplementary notes alongside the formally listed routes, along the lines of, ‘If you also check out the coast south of here, you’ll find…’
- If there was a problem with the guidebook, it was one of modesty/ understatement! Time after time we completed some paddle mentioned in the guidebook and were surprised to be absolutely blown away by the quality/ scenery etc – the author doesn’t waste adjectives or hyperbole! I guess that the bar is set pretty high in Shetland, the local paddlers have seen it all before and what might amaze the rest of us is bog-standard to them…
The guidebook is probably more essential for Shetland and Orkney than any other region so far covered by Pesda – the Shetland pilot book printed by Imray is fairly useless for paddlers (just lists anchorages) and the respective Clyde Cruising Club pilots for the two archipelagos are only marginally more useful.
We’ve had two very full summers’ paddling out of our Pesda ‘Northern Isles’ guidebook – great value for £20. Yes, we would have paddled all of it anyway, but it’s entertained and informed us a great deal, made our lives a whole lot easier, and saved us from carrying a large amount of maritime-related paperwork around. Our thanks to the authors.
The aforementioned issue of Paddle World carrying my feature on Shetland is now on sale.
This is the cover of the 2011 edition of Paddle World magazine. Paddle World is published annually by the same French/ US team who produce Kayak Session. Just as Kayak Session is indisputably the highest quality white water magazine, Paddle World is the best of the various touring-specific paddling magazines available. As the cover above indicates, the focus is on what’s great and appealing about the sport. Inside you will find glossy reports from exotic places, with some amazing paddling lifestyle photography…but you’re unlikely to find yourself poring over text-heavy reports on the latest skeg positioning trends. Each to their own, of course!
However…this year they’ve lowered their guard slightly and allowed a grey and rainy UK location to sneak into their magazine; as you’ll notice from the contents listed on the cover, they’re running an article by myself on the incredible Shetland Isles. The 2011 issue will be on sale very shortly. Give Paddle World a try, it’s a glorious publication.
The following article is written by Heather and was previously published in Canoe Kayak UK magazine…
…Shetland is the best Sea Kayaking destination in the UK
There! I’ve said it. I’ll even repeat it: Shetland is the best Sea Kayaking destination in the UK. Now, before you spit in horror and say something like, “Well she obviously hasn’t been to (insert your favourite spot here)” and flick past these pages in disgust, please just pause. What is it you like about sea kayaking? What makes you keep on loading that boat onto the car and going down to the sea? Make a quick list…let’s see how many of your boxes are ticked, as I give you some flavours of the five weeks I spent exploring the nooks and crannies of Shetland’s 900 mile coastline, earlier this year.
Arriving at the ferry port in Shetland’s capital Lerwick, we drove north-west to Braewick campsite through damp grey weather and bleak countryside. As we reached the western shores, the barren-ness was replaced by dramatic views of precipitous cliffs and steep cobbled beaches. Pitching our tent looking out to sea, our first paddle was obvious. We looked out to a cluster of tall sea stacks and spires called Da Drongs, battered by a westerly swell.
Parking the car beside Hillswick Seal and Otter Sanctuary, we watched a baby seal follow his yellow dungaree clad ‘mum’ around, begging for fish. On the water, we paddled past increasingly steep cliffs pocked with caves that invited further exploration, and then around the headland of Hillswick Ness into the Atlantic swell. A large lazy rolling swell, of the kind that on a windless day glides sleepily and glassily beneath you, its peaceful heaving only interrupted by reefs and cliffs…awakening waves of turquoise and white foam whose roars drone through your body before they collapse in a froth of fizzing bubbles.
We struck out to The Drongs themselves, sitting like spires from a Wild West canyon. Sea birds wheeled around; fulmars gliding stiff winged across wave tops and gannets plunging with sudden splashes. This was just day one.
Location, Location, Location
Maps of Britain very rarely show Shetland in its true position north of Orkney. Instead, it is generally stuck in a box somewhere east of Inverness. Shetland is actually 130 miles north of John O’Groats, the most northern extremity of the British Isles. It takes an overnight ferry journey from Aberdeen to get here, and the journey to Aberdeen is an undertaking in itself from most places south of the border.
Getting to Shetland certainly requires an investment of time, but once you’ve arrived, the entire multitude of paddling possibilities are within easy striking distance. It’s only an 80 mile drive (including two short ferry crossings) from Sumburgh Head in the south, to Hermaness at the north tip of Shetland. The location puts the islands right out there. Atlantic Ocean to the west. North Sea to the east and south. Head north and there is only some pack ice to stop you paddling across the North Pole and all the way to Siberia. Norway is closer than Edinburgh.
Swell can come from any or every direction. Tides, although not huge in range, in some places create substantial races and flows. Despite the very real exposure that this location implies, the fact that the Shetlands are a chain of islands means that there is generally a sheltered option to be found. A number of long inlets – ‘Voes’- also offer sheltered paddling.
The culture of the islands is one of a life lived intimately with the sea. For a Shetlander, commuting to work by ferry is often a way of life. As a kayaker, you will find yourself having endless conversations with people whose life has for generations revolved around the sea and who are genuinely interested in the antics of sea kayakers. The rich waters are full of life and have sustained 5000 years of continuous human occupation. We might think of these islands as being on the extremity of things, yet archaeological sites on a dramatic scale suggest otherwise! Mousa Broch is a perfectly preserved 2000 year old tower, one of at least 120 around the islands. These stand out as landmarks along the coast; navigational aids and great picnic spots.
Shetland belonged to Norway until 1469. The Nordic influence is still clearly felt in place names, family names and the local dialect. In recent times, North Sea oil has brought communal wealth via the Sullom Voe oil terminal; this has funded eight sports centres for a population of 22,000! There are numerous museums and interpretive centres where, we were welcomed by friendly and knowledgeable Shetlanders who were proud to share their heritage with us.
Let’s Rock and Roll
Shetland’s geology is of international importance and has European Geopark status. Some of the oldest rocks in Britain can be seen, 2500 million year old Lewisian Gneisses. The major faults which created mainland Scotland’s landscape continue here. This complex geology is reflected in the complex coastline. Erosion wears away softer rocks, slices up through fault lines and undermines even the hardest of rocks. The result is, steep cliffs riddled with caves, geos, inlets, hidden channels and mazes, guarded by stacks and arches.
The most dramatically eroded coastline is that of the isle of Papa Stour; every few hundred metres of paddling brings another cave into view! Some are tiny crevices studded with sea anemones. Others snake back endlessly to open into vast caverns and amphitheatres, dramatically booming with swell and ringing with the calls of seabirds. To the north-west of Papa Stour, Fogla Skerry and Lyra Skerry sit exposed to tide and swell, riddled with tunnels. Lyra Skerry has two passages intersecting at right angles. Sitting underneath an island at a crossroads between two streams of flowing water is an experience which will stay with me. These are phenomenal places to explore, yet there is always a tension between the wish to linger and the anxiety about building tide and wind…
Walk on the Wild Side
Shetland has the highest concentration of otters in the UK, and we met them regularly. The squeaky baby otters who swam around our boats were a standout moment! Seals, common and grey, are ubiquitous, although they tend to be shyer than those in other areas. Perhaps they are wary because they are the main prey of the local pods of killer whales. Twenty-one of the twenty-four species of British seabirds breed there; we met our favourite, puffins, on most of our paddling trips. They nest in burrows and whirr in and out with beaks full of small sand eels, or stroll pompously along the ledges, cawing for all the world as if they had just heard a particularly juicy and shocking piece of gossip. The sea cliffs at Noss and Hermaness are home to vast gannet colonies. These birds, with two metre wing spans, glided en masse in dizzying circles over our kayaks. Combined with neck-achingly high cliffs, deafening croaks and the stench of fish, this spectacle made me feel quite queasy.
Here Be Monsters
Paddling back over glassy seas from the Out Skerries to Whalsay one morning, we were surrounded by hundreds of porpoises. This area is well known for sightings of cetaceans, congregating to feed on fish funnelled up through the strait by the tide. Porpoises are known as neesiks (meaning sneezies) in Shetland, due to the snuffle sound they make as they break the water’s surface. After half an hour we became quite blasé about their numbers and presence. Suddenly, a much larger ‘porpoise’ emerged…but kept on surfacing. We were looking at a minke whale! I cannot describe the awe that I felt being within touching distance of this, one of the smaller members of the whale family but nevertheless at least seven metres long and rearing significantly higher than us.
So, have I worn you down and convinced you? Perhaps your favourite paddling spot can supply you with some of the experiences I’ve described. But can it provide all of the above? If so, let me know, I want to go there too.
The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland Sea Kayaking by Tom Smith and Chris Jex. Yet another winner from Pesda Press, this indispensible guidebook includes masses of tidal flow data alongside knowledge from local experts to help you get the best out of your trip.
Admiralty Tidal Stream Atlas – Orkney and Shetland Islands. Your best bet for visualising what the tide flows are doing.
Clyde Cruising Club Sailing Directions and Anchorages: Shetland Islands by Arthur Houston/ Shetland Islands Pilot by Gordon Buchanan. These are the two options if you are looking for a nautical pilot book. In truth, neither book is of much use to paddlers; they simply list sheltered anchorages. If you have to buy one (to look the part), the CCC one looks prettier.
Shetland: Island Guide by Jill Slee Blackadder and Iain Sarjeant – published by photographer Colin Baxter, the pictures in this guidebook will inspire you before you even start on the text.
www.shetlopedia.com – as usual, the internet knows everything. This website is an amazing source of information about everything Shetland.
www.ukseakayakguidebook.co.uk – useful information and advice.
The most easterly point of Shetland is a group of rocky islands known as the ‘Out Skerries’ – ‘Out’ being derived from ‘East’. The crossing from the island of Whalsay is only a few miles, but traverses one of the UK’s cetacean hotspots; paddling through the swelly tide race on the way out, we saw several dolphins and porpoises. Our paddle back was in dead calm conditions; and we were surrounded by hundreds of porpoises. Just when we’d reached porpoise saturation point, we met two successive whales at very close range …
Although Shetland is famed for monumental coastal landscapes and epic cliffs, the Out Skerries are small in every respect. The land area is less than two square miles. Three islands shelter a remarkable natural harbour, with three inlets to the sea. This is the nearest part of Shetland to Norway, and the landscape and houses do indeed have a vaguely Scandinavian feel and look to them. The population is about seventy, seemingly mainly surviving from the communally owned fish farms. The Skerries have the smallest Secondary School in the UK. In a bit of economic insanity (presumably oil-subsidised), a massive ferry makes the three-hour round trip to the Out Skerries three or four times a day, charging almost nothing and usually half empty.
We felt particularly sorry for the island’s few teenagers, who spent the entire three or four days we were there continuously driving up and down the islands’ one mile of road. Nothing happens and there is absolutely nothing to do in the Out Skerries. We loved it.
Right at the very top of the Shetland Isles is the island of Unst, the most far northerly bit of the UK. Just north of that is the lighthouse of Muckle Flugga and just north of that is Out Stack, a rather unimpressive rock. Nothing else to be found, north of there. That’s it.
I have cynically used the word ‘cliffs’ in the title here, as this Google search engine keyword brings more people here than any other, by some distance. So, if you came here looking for your GCSE Geography homework, bad luck, you’ve been conned - but you can at least copy and paste the two pictures into your work and impress your teacher by titling them, ‘The cliffs of Noss, Isles of Shetland’.
Anyway, the latest Canoe Kayak UK magazine, available from 11th Jan, includes an article from my wife Heather about why the Shetland Isles are The Best Sea Kayak Destination in the UK. Hope it’s of interest!