Seal-watching on the Isle of May

It was the perfect day for a trip out to sea, and as we waited for the ferry we sampled the culinary delights of Anstruther; some chose fish and chips, whilst others experienced victoria sponge cake with real cream for the first time.

There was a rare moment of hot sun as we gathered at the harbour office along with staff and other students from SMRU. An additional bonus of the trip was meeting Dr Kimberley Bennett from Abertay University, an expert on the physiology and ecology of seals on the Isle of May.

Kimberley explains seal research on the May (photo: Sonja Heinrich)

The trip over to the island on the May Princess was fresh and exhilarating.  Rowan promised to find us all a whale, but alas this was not meant to be.  There were however, numerous sea birds including gannets of all ages, shags, herring and lesser black backed gulls, as well as one kittiwake sighting. Sonja also pointed out the numerous creel crab and lobster pots along the way.

First pup of the season (photo: Mikhail Barabanov)

We were awe struck as we approached the towering black cliffs caked in guano, a sign of the guillemots, razorbills, and kittiwakes that occupied the cliffs during the summer breeding season. Once on the island we saw the multiple burrows, mostly made by rabbits but also puffins which take over the islands in their thousands during the summer months.  Of course, the greatest excitement was from spotting the first seal pup of the season – unmistakable with its white fluffy coat. We watched it from a safe distance from the deck of the May Princess and later from the top of the cliff. Its mother was nearby keeping a watchful eye on us and the pup.

Watching the first pup of the season from the stern of the May Princess (photo: Sonja Heinrich)

Kimberley talked to us about the seal research undertaken on the island to investigate the seals’ breeding success, physiology and numerous other biological questions, and what it is like as a scientist to be living on the island. She survived the interrogation about nearly every aspect of seal science imaginable and despite her best efforts to terrify us with tales of field work horrors and realities such as the 2-month isolation period, fortnightly showers and blood licking mice, we remain undeterred. Lucinda in particular, has placed the challenge that she could easily do three or more months on the island.

Students under the rainbow (photo: Sonja Heinrich)

From the visitor centre we puffed (well some of us) our way up Palpitation Brae to visit the grand historical lighthouse. The views from the top were spectacular, as the passing rain shower presented us with an array of rainbows and contrasting colours in every direction.

Rainbows everywhere… (photos left: Mikhail Barabanov, right: Amelia Johnson)

Following this, we headed over to the north of the island where most of the grey seals will start to congregate during the breeding season in an area of rocky outcrops and pools. Reptilian like nosey seals glided through the clear glassy water subtly eyeballing our every move.

Grey seal submarine (photo: Mikhail Barabanov)

Others were far more intent on keeping their flippers dry, hauled out on the rocks in various banana shaped poses.  We could not help but wonder whether the notorious Hannibal was lurking amongst the bathing beauties.  Was he watching us?

Flippers up! (photo: Mikhail Barabanov)

After nearly three hours on the island, the time had come to head back to Anstruther. The afternoon had passed quickly, and we all felt inspired, and lucky to see the island before it closed to the public for the winter months.  I thought the day could not have gotten any better, until Annabel announced she had brought some homemade cookies for the journey home! We enjoyed them immensely, and even the locals looked content as the perfect day ended with a picture-perfect sunset.

Luke gazing into the sunset (photo: Mikhail Barabanov)