(Note: "Shorkney" is not a real word. We're just using it to write about our recent trip to Aberdeen, Orkney, and Shetland.)
We're coming to the end of our Shorkney posts, which is probably good, since we're also coming to the end of our time here in Scotland (more on that later).
But we've saved one of the best for one of the last: a day trip on the Dunter III to the Noss National Nature Reserve in Shetland.
We hadn't originally planned to take the Dunter III "seabirds-and-seals" cruise, but all our other attempts to get out on the water (in sea kayaks, on a big sailboat, etc) were scrapped by rough seas. But on our last day in Shetland we had calm seas and two empty spots on a last-minute wildlife cruise.
And I am so glad all those other plans fell through! The Noup, which is the local name for the largest of the seabird cliffs on Noss, is truly a world-class natural wonder. As we were pulling out of Lerwick Harbor, our guide and skipper kept lamenting all the tourists on the pier who had "come to Niagara and missed the falls." I have to admit, at first I dismissed this as the hyperbole of a fanatic naturalist--but he was right, the Noup really does belong in the same category as Niagara Falls.
Of course, the bubbling (even childlike) enthusiasm of the Dunter III's crew--much touted in every review I've read of their service--only added to the sense of wonder. Nana and I peppered them with questions throughout the trip, and there wasn't an answer they didn't seem delighted to share.
Seriously, if you only do one thing in Shetland, do this.
Now, to the tour . . .
We started out by going north out of Lerwick, passing a seafood processing plant where the old seals like to hang out (for the free food).
From there, we flitted back and forth between some of the smaller islands in the harbor area. Some of these islands, unlike the larger islands, were sheep-free, with overgrown thickets of wildflowers and grasses providing a perfect habitat for wildlife.
At the little island above, we even caught a brief glimpse of an otter, trying to keep his catch away from a black-backed gull. Otters are famously shy, and according to my dissertation adviser (who has advised me on so much more than my dissertation!), in Scotland seeing one is kind of a big deal. Unfortunately, I could only spy his little head for maybe a second before he got away, but Nana got a much better look. Alas, I couldn't manage a photograph.
From there we circled the rest of the way around Bressay and passed through the narrow strait between Bressay and Noss. This strait, called Noss Sound, is a major breeding and feeding ground for sand eels, which are an important source of food for many of the seabird species around Shetland. Here we were lucky enough to see a puffin in flight. They're much smaller than you'd expect--not much bigger than the span of your hand. They love sand eels, so they make their nests in the hills above the strait.
Apart from its wildlife, Noss Sound is also just a beautiful spot. The ruins of an old WWII signal station crown the hill to the west, but otherwise all is green, blue, and gold. Noss itself has been uninhabited since 1939; it's now all pasture and nature reserve.
Noss Sound is also where the "ferry" crosses from Bressay to Noss. You can see the ferry here:
It's the little inflatable outboard tucked away in those rocks.
From Noss Sound we continued around the southern side of Noss. We passed a few small seabird colonies as we rounded the southeastern tip of the island--black guillemots mostly, whose markings make them look kind of like little penguins, though of course these guys can fly!
The coasts of Noss and Bressay are also shot through with sea caves like these.
But the Noup itself was clearly the highlight. After a look at what I thought were some pretty impressive seabird colonies near the southeastern tip of Noss, we passed a small headland and the Noup came into view.
Words fail me here. The cliff is enormous, bleached white by droppings, completely covered with black guillemots and northern gannets.
(Gannets are beautiful birds: white with black wingtips and pale gold around the head and neck.)
(Wikipedia image--I didn't manage to get a good shot.)
Overhead, the gannets circled in numbers so great that the sky was literally darkened by them. They were flying off to find nesting material--we even saw a pair of them fighting over a particularly desirable scrap of netting.
We spent a good long time at the Noup, just watching. (Our guides were kind enough to remind us that, despite the jaw-dropping power of the place, it was probably best for us to keep our mouths closed. Luckily, no one was hit!)
It's hard for me to describe just what made the Noup so awesome. I think it was the complexity and the drama of the place, tucked away only forty minutes out of Lerwick Harbor, a hidden but not-so-secret metropolis where thousands upon thousands of creatures lived out lives so different (and disconnected) from ours. And there are places like this--though not many quite so grand--all around the North Atlantic. It makes the world seem so vast and miraculous.
After we left the Noup, a great skua (a "bonxie" to Shetlanders) chased us in the hopes of nabbing a biscuit. (It would not be disappointed.)
Then we passed under an arch called the Giant's Legs . . .
. . . and moored in a sea cave, where the crew fired up their submersible to give us a look at life under the sea.
It's much more colorful than you'd expect under there--coral, sea anemones, crazy varieties of starfish. You think of the North Sea as a cold, desolate place, but in sheltered areas like this sea cave, life abounds.
We were delayed a bit leaving the sea cave (basically, we lost track of time), but still made it back in plenty of time for our ferry to Aberdeen. I say this because a few potential passengers ditched just before we left port because they were afraid they'd miss their boat back to the Scottish mainland. The crew of the Dunter III guaranteed our connection, so to speak, and even with our delay we got ourselves to the ferry terminal with about an hour to spare.
So the Noup, and the Dunter III? Both musts, both absolutely worth it, both the highlights of our Shetland trip for me!