I have just spent an exciting hour out on the cliff top in a howling gale (the last gasp of hurricane Katia) watching a flock of gannets feed out at sea. There is a particular point which juts out where the slope of the cliff face is quite gentle and I can sit on the edge safely with my legs stretched in front of me resting on the overhanging soft turf. There is nothing but air between me and the vista of the bay and it feels like I am flying. This afternoon the noise of the wind in my ears and the angry air swirling around me gave an illusion of danger, as though I might be carried out to sea on the wind at any moment. The turbulence in the water must have brought in a shoal of herring sile close to the beach as the gannets don’t often come in that close to feed. Usually they feed round the back of the Brigg or out at sea. They were a magnificent sight as they whirled around, their black and white wings catching the sun, balancing and floating on the wind. They are large birds, weighing between 2.3 and 3.6 kilos yet they seemed weightless. Quite suddenly one after another would freeze in flight, fold in their wings, and drop like a bullet into the water from 30 metres up, hitting the surface of the water at a speed of 100km/h with a neat splash that an Olympic high diver would envy. All the force and energy of their flight was redirected downwards into the centre of the shoal as they plummeted into the flashing silver mass of tiny fish. It was a display of deadly grace, focussed and exact.
It was hard for me not to project a feeling of exuberance and joy onto their actions as I watched but of course they were diving for survival, not for pleasure or show. Their skill in the air was perfect because it had to be. After each dive I knew that a small fish was swimming for its life under the water, trying desperately to put itself out of reach, caught in the perfect binocular vision of a merciless predator and in the direct line of a beak shaped like a rapier. The small fish would be eaten by the gannet in one swift efficient movement which would lead their attacker back up to the surface of the water ready to rise up again on the wind.
Over and over again the gannets plummeted down before surfacing again as I watched, using their wings to lift themselves back up into the air. It was almost like a kind of group dance which seemed to defy the wind, a dance in which they used the wild air to their own advantage, graceful, dramatic and repetitive. A dance of death.
Apologies for the poor quality of my photo. I have included it because it is real and those are the gannets that I watched- even if it isn’t very good. David Tipling’s shot of a gannet plunge diving in the Shetlands is rather better. That’s why he is an acclaimed wildlife photographer and I am not.