28th September 2017

Northern Gannet

Over the past month or so there has been more and more gannet activity in the waters around the Blaskets and I've been really enjoying photographing it. I generally don't have favourites - there's too much variety in the world to pick one type of food over another, or prefer one season to the other three, or choose one animal from the vast catalogue of diversity out there, but if I had to pick a favourite bird I think I'd have to go with the gannet.

I remember seeing them in West Cork as a teenager, captivated by their diving off a small beach on a sunny evening. Not having much of a clue about birds I assumed they were seagulls, as they were white and at sea, but most seabirds aren't gulls at all. We're familiar with gulls because they spend so much time on land (where we are) but they're the unusual ones when it comes to seabirds generally. Most species of sea-going birds spend the majority of their time sitting on, diving below, or flying above salt water, and most only ever come to land when they have to lay an egg somewhere. Gannets, though well-known for their huge island breeding colonies, are certainly more suited to the open ocean than hard land, and if they could lay an egg at sea I'm sure they'd rarely ever touch down on solid ground again.

Gannets are the largest Irish seabird, with a wingspan just short of two metres. They are beautiful birds to watch, and what really sets them apart for me is their stunning dives. Ever since I first noticed them that afternoon in West Cork I've been drawn to those white arrows dropping from the sky in pursuit of fish. Diving from as high as forty metres gannets hit can hit the water at 60mph. Any of us would likely die from such an impact but gannets are built to take the hits. They have air sacs in their head and chest that act like airbags in a car, a protective membrane covers the eye before impact and internal nostrils prevent water rushing into the sinuses. For a long time I believed that older gannets eventually went blind from repeatedly crashing into the sea for 30+ years but it seems that's a bit of a myth. It's easy to imagine it could be true when you've watched a big flock of birds diving. On calm days the smack as they hit the water can be heard from quite a distance, despite the fact that they do the bird equivalent of a pencil dive - head first, wings tucked back and straight as an arrow.

The Cornish word for arrow is seth. The Cornish word for gannet is sether.

Depending on how deep the fish are gannets will dive differently. Last Thursday north of the islands the fish seemed deep as the dives were high and hard and the birds stayed down for most of a minute. Facing into a light breeze, the birds hovered like kestrels, head down, neck turning left and right in the search for fish. Then, in a half second, a bird would twist with a half corkscrew and plummet towards the sea. Have a look at this video and you'll see why I could watch and photograph gannets all day long. Sometimes the fish are closer to the surface, often because whales and dolphins are driving them against the top of the water to make catching them that bit easier. When this is the case the gannets will dive from less height, sometimes with the wings spread and the feet splayed out until the last moment, perhaps to slow the dive so they don't go so deep and end up too far below a shoal.

When big flocks get to diving the scene can seem chaotic. It's a wonder more birds don't crash into one another.

A temporary gannet cast, one of nature's loveliest and shortest-lived sculptures.

I've also heard stories of gannets diving on fish-laden naomhógs, the traditional open, wooden frame and skin boats used by seamen off the coast of Kerry. The gannets would sometimes pierce the thin skin of the hull, getting killed in the process and leaving the crew in a bad situation. Another anecdote I've been told is that fishermen would tie a fish to a plank of wood, sink the entire thing in such a way that it would be a few feet below the water and then wait for a hungry gannet to dive for the fish and break its neck on the board. This may be another tall tale but gannets were certainly collected for food and feathers from the Little Skellig up until the mid 1800s, and until much later on some of the Scottish islands where they were a vital source of summer food.

That big bill takes up a lot of area, helpful for catching larger fish.

While it's easy to romanticise these beautiful birds there's a lot more to them than elegance and good looks. Gannets are notoriously aggressive and their colonies are hostile places. Gannet nests are typically about as far apart from one another as a sitting parent can reach with its bill. Space is usually in short supply on colonies but each pair needs to be out of every neighbour's way, as fights (and there are plenty) can lead to serious injury and death. Gannets will even eat unattended chicks that aren't their own. A woman I know was swimming with her sister in Ventry Harbour last summer when they were attacked by a gannet. Her sister had some significant cuts to her arms (gannet bills are serrated on the inside) and had to go straight to hospital after they managed to get ashore again. It's the only incident of a gannet attacking a human I can find. In 'The Seabird's Cry' by Adam Nicolson a story is told of a man who lost an eye to an injured gannet he picked up on a beach. While holding the bird up too close to his face to keep it away from a passing dog the bird took out his eye. While this isn't exactly an unprovoked attack (I'm sure the human was the attacker as far as this gannet was concerned) it does highlight the fact that wild animals, as amazing as we might find them, are just that - wild. No matter how much we adore them and how close we might want to get the greatest respect we can show any wild creature is a minimum of disturbance. This is an idea that's easy to struggle with - getting close enough to an animal to allow clear observation invariably means altering its behaviour - but it's an ideal worth striving for. Most of us in the western world know nothing of the struggle to survive in the wild, and that's another reason why animals are so fascinating. Nearly every wild creature you see is incredibly fit and has overcome a huge list of life-threatening obstacles. They don't need any extra stresses.

Gannet searching for fish. My Granny used to talk about people with keen eyesight as having the gannet's eye.

As they dive gannets often give their gutteral, grating call, one of my favourite sounds. Hear it here.

Gannets are one of the few seabirds whose numbers are increasing in the North Atlantic. In Irish waters the Little Skellig holds approximately 30,000 breeding pairs in the summer months, and there are smaller colonies at the Great Saltee (Wexford), the Bull Rock (Cork) and Ireland's Eye (Dublin). With overfishing, climate change and plastic pollution causing alarming declines in most marine birds the gannet's current status is a rare good news story, but with the inevitable increased human pressure as our species continues to grow it's important not to get complacent. I recently read that some studies suggest the majority of seabirds could be extinct by the end of this century. While that might be a worst case scenario, it's not outside possibility, and is a harrowing thought. I won't make it to 2100 but I hope gannets, and all the rest of the extant seabirds, will still be around for many millions of years beyond that. With humans having such a profound impact on the world these days a lot of that hope rests on decisions we make in the coming years. Nobody is exempt from having an impact and there are plenty of decisions we can make as individuals to help reduce our footprint.

For ideas on how to help the marine environment see the links below:

Clean Coasts

Birdwatch Ireland

For more gannet photos browse my Wild gallery.

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