I have to keep coming back to these places, the islands off the coast of Pembrokeshire. Both, and their more elusive brother Skokholm, had, until this year, been closed since 2019. For Skokholm you have to book a stay, and I have done so twice, both times in August, the low season and the cheapest month. It’s a quiet time for the other two as well, with less boat trips and fewer people to disturb the tranquillity. Why? – simple: the puffins have gone!
Skokholm in August is fascinating because you have the time and the company of experts to get a real feel for the movements of the birds and the sea animals as the migration season gets under way and the seal pups arrive on the stony beaches.
Today, on Ramsey, there is little time. Because of the Spring tide the first boat is at 12 and the last out at 4. On the open boat we all have to wear masks in case the sea air blows some virus into our faces. Inside the stuffy cabin the crew are bare-faced. I smile under my mask. Once we scale the steep path up from the jetty, it’s fine and warm with drifts of sea mist creating new islands for a few minutes before drifting away like smoke. The old walls are dry and bleached at the end of summer, the dull bracken a muted backdrop to the vivid heather.
On both islands there are very steep cliffs and in Spring many of them are nosily alive with thousands of sea birds squabbling for nesting spaces on every tiny ledge. Now, it’s just the ever-present gulls and the stiff-winged fulmars drifting across and the colours and textures stand out as beautiful objects in their own right. Way below in the mist on the stony beaches the seal pups are being born.
This year the boat operators have found new ways to waste fossil fuel by taking groups of visitors at top speed around the island. Wow – look at the size of those engines! They slow down to creep into the bays and watch the silent cliffs for a few minutes and then off they go again churning up the sea to get the punters screaming. During my four hours I was seldom out of sight of one of these boats. Never mind, I’m sure the dolphins love them, and any disturbance to the sea bed is soon washed away by the notoriously fierce tide race between the islands and the mainland.
Later the mist descends in earnest the temperature drops and I need the extra layers I packed. I find I’m not enjoying trudging up the steep paths with the weight of my camera, lens and binoculars. With little to see, the walk back is dull – here a Chough contemplates an obelisk topped by a White Wagtail, and down by the jetty a Grey Seal poses above a sculptured rock. On the boat a piece of rope, frayed by the sea, is evolving into some form of marine life.
Back on land, I pack the van and head South. Some out-dated memory drifting around my decaying brain cells told me I didn’t need to book at the camp site near the harbour for Skomer. Of course, like everywhere else, it was full and the roads were heaving with holiday traffic. I had driven past a few campsite and now there was no choice left. I settled in by the roadside. Despite all the crowds there was happiness everywhere – the simple joy of friendly company in fine weather and glorious landscape, and of course relief from the iron grip of the pandemic restrictions.
On Skomer it was flat calm, no mist, and a perfect temperature. After the long trudge up to the centre I found that late summer had switched the island pallet from the dense blue and pink spring colours of the bluebells and campion to the rich yellow of ragwort, the deep purple of the Loostrife and a more subtle sprinkling of white camomile.
It wasn’t until I got to the top of the island and joined a few sea watchers that I began to feel the simple but profound pleasure of gazing out at a calm blue sea which itself was moving with the tide but was also the backdrop to the gannets and gulls which were slowly patrolling the surface. Amongst some rocks near the top of one of the massive cliffs along the Western side I found a place where I could tuck myself in and watch the sea and beach below while I ate my sandwich. A tiny white patch in the sea caught my attention and getting it into focus I found it was a seal pup learning to swim. Just like a young human it clearly didn’t like going underwater for long and kept flapping its fins to keep its head above the surface. A huge parent joined it from time to time to give encouragement, but for most of the time it was alone.
I was hoping to see Peregrines and this shape in the distance looked promising. The camera showed it to be a Sparrowhawk, but it slid away on the breeze and began gaining height before I could get near enough for a decent picture.
There were rabbits, some White Campion, Choughs and more beautiful rocks but all too soon it was time to get back to the boat. The brief trip back was entertained by the Dale Sailings Seagull, a bird I had caught last time I was here and which has learnt that there is food to be had by being just that bit too close for the comfort of some of us.