Last (but not least) Ones to the Isle of May (by Cher Chow)

To start the MSc programmes (Marine Ecosystem Management, Marine Mammal Science, and Animal Behaviour), with a bang, the program cohorts got to go on a day trip over the first weekend of the semester to the Isle of May nature reserve. We, along with Lars, Sonja, and Dr. Kimberly Bennett from Abertay University, hopped on the May Princess on a sunny (sunny!!) Saturday morning from Anstruther for a boat ride over to the island. We were all grateful for the beautiful, cooperative weather since this was the last trip to the Isle of May before the island closes off for peak grey seal breeding season (more on that later).

To those unfamiliar with the Isle of May national nature reserve, it’s an island 8 km off the coast of Anstruther right in the middle of the outer Firth of Forth. It’s managed by the Scottish Natural Heritage and has some of the most comprehensive long-term monitoring programmes for marine mammals and seabirds for the region. SMRU at St Andrews has a long-standing relationship with the island due to its importance as a grey seal breeding site.

The boat ride over wasn’t too choppy, and some of us even started practicing our seabird identification for upcoming boat surveys. We spotted the Isle 30-40 minutes later, and a little later, the iconic chubby but streamlined silhouettes of grey seals lying on the rocks. The ones in the water popped up their heads to look over at the strange sight of the boat.

Spotting the first seals
The May Princess in the little harbour on the Isle of May.

During the summer months, the cliffs are covered with guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins, razorbills, and other nesting seabirds. For our trip at the end of September, seabird parents and chicks have all already left. We were hoping to see the first grey seal pup born this year on the pebble beach of Mill Door at the beginning of the month. Dr Kimberly Bennett briefed us about these grey seals on the boat and once we were on land. She did her PhD with SMRU and focused particularly on the breeding population right on the Isle of May, so we really got to hear about the seals from someone’s who’s been with them up close and personal. Her work required a lot of seasons spent living on the island and gave us some interesting stories about storms during field season and the challenges of running a -80ºC refrigerator on a remote location. Grey seal females spend their year gaining weight and preparing for their annual return to the island to give birth and mate again.

Sonja showing us the way to get to Mill Door.

We were so lucky to be welcomed by beautiful sunny weather. It made everything look especially lush on our walks around the island. Although Mill Door is a pebble beach, it’s not easily accessible by visitors at all. The best view is to stand at the cliff edge across from the lighthouse and look straight down.

Grey seal pups are born with a white fur coat. As they grow for the first few weeks on the island (putting on weight as quickly as 2 kg a day!), they also end up with their “grown up look,” the waterproof and sleek grey fur. From our view from the cliff, this pup is not really pup-sized anymore. It’s had a month to gain lots of weight and already has the grey coat like its mum.

The tiny speck of grey is the first grey seal pup born this year.
It was a mix of excitement and peril at the same time with the group of 25+ standing at the edge of the cliff.

To wrap up our beautiful afternoon at the island, we also got to pop in to the decommissioned lighthouse to look at some of their galleries of Isle-inspired art and take in as many gorgeous views as we can before heading back to Anstruther.

We were so grateful to the staff of the Isle of May nature reserve for having us on their last day open. And of course, took one more peek at the seals on the shore. Everyone ended up at the fish and chips shop, and I think most of us will be back next summer to see the seabirds at their peak.