Ben Porter, a good friend of mine and fellow Zoology student at the University of Exeter just so happens to live on a remote island off of the coast of the Lleyn peninsula in North Wales. Having lived on the Bardsey Island since the age of twelve Ben is well settled into the island life and can be rather modest about where he lives. Yet deep down Ben knows just how blessed he is to call Bardsey his home. He was eager to show me the Island’s charms and I was equally as eager to experience them, being a bit of an island-addict myself. Therefore I was ecstatic when the Porters invited me to stay in their humble farmhouse, which is nestled at the base of Bardsey mountain.
With my last minute travel booked, I took the long and winding train journey up from London to North Wales. The next day we were blessed with calm and sunny weather, seemingly perfect for the boat trip across Bardsey sound. Despite the calm seas, boat crossings were still restricted by large spring tides. By 4pm I was finally able to hop onto the bright-yellow Benlli III. As the boat edged away from the mainland I caught my first tantalising views of the island as it gradually emerged behind the tip of the Lleyn peninsula…
A thin mist shrouded the top of Mynydd Enlli as we approached in the boat, concealing the peak in a dramatic atmosphere that gave the island an imposing first impression. Being just 1.5 miles long and less than ½ a mile across at its widest point, the island certainly punches above its weight landscape wise. The Islands’ mountain – Mynydd Enlli – rises to a height of 167m. It’s no Ben Nevis, but it certainly seems high when looking up from the sea!
It’s only a short climb up and each day I was rewarded with glorious panoramic views of the Irish Sea, the Lleyn Peninsula and Bardseys’ characteristic square lighthouse which stands proudly on the southern tip of the Island. Mynydd Enlli was awash with vibrancy. During the day the lower slopes burst into a swaying sunny-yellow as the flowering hawksbeards opened their petals to the sunshine. Amongst the hawksbeards, a patch of harebells added a subtle hint of delicate purple. Climbing higher the peaks and outcrops were carpeted in a glorious mix of warm western gorse splattered Jackson Pollock-style throughout the ling and bell heather. Underfoot the ground was matted with a mix of lichens and mosses. Bardsey’s resident chough had been hard at work ripping the soft material away from the rocks to feed on whatever morsels might lay beneath. It was delightful to watch the chough on a daily basis – their cheery cheeoww call and elegant aerial acrobatics are so uplifting. On sunny days graylings, meadow browns and gatekeepers emerged in force, flopping and flitting around the slopes. Kestrels hovered on the breeze and peregrines patrolled the cliffs.
The sun was shedding its final rays of light as Ben rowed us into Yr Honllwn one calm evening. As we gazed over the sea back toward the island the water rippled warm pinks and oranges and the lighthouse stood proudly silhouetted against the sky. As we drifted into the bay dozens of grey seals were dozing in the water, heads bobbing on the surface. They appeared to smile contentedly at the tranquillity of evening. Gradually the seals awoke, curious as to the strange visitors floating towards them. The seals swam quietly towards us, slipping underwater and then emerging to get a closer inspection. Some of the bull seals started grunting and blowing ungrateful bubbles towards us – this is our bay, keep out – so we took this as a message to leave them be. The sun had now exhausted its last rays and we returned to shore.
The following morning we traversed the steep east side of the island seeking more grey seal encounters. We followed a narrow path that gradually worked its way down to the rocks and sea. Eventually, we reached a small cavern where there was a human-sized hole between the rocks. This was the entrance to Seal Cave. The cave was small and gloomy inside, aside from a narrow beam of light which illuminated a pool of seawater into an inviting aquamarine-blue. The sea gently lapped at the cave walls and we sat on a platform of rock, watching and listening intently. Occasionally we could hear the echoed splashes of seals elsewhere in the cave. Some even sounded as if they were underneath the rocks on which we sat. Before long we noticed graceful shadows appear out of the darkness. The seals were incredibly elegant underwater, perfectly streamlined. They were mesmerising to observe as their figures emerged from the depths, swimming effortlessly around the pool. Seal cave truly was a wonderful place, somewhere I hope I will never forget.
Creatures of the Night
I’m not usually much of a night owl, but night-time on Bardsey is arguably the most spectacular time to be awake. There’s so much to marvel over. On a clear night, the sky seems vast and endless and the stars are so much more vivid than they are at home. I stare, open-mouthed. Starstruck.
Come midnight, the island comes alive with a cacophony of activity. During the summer Bardsey is a temporary home to around 16,000 pairs of Manx Shearwaters and their fluffy chicks. Each day the chicks wait patiently in their burrows for the adults to return under the cover of darkness and deliver a fishy meal. Walking along the paths it’s difficult not to stumble over these birds, so ill-adapted for life on land. One evening we set up mist nets to catch Manx shearwaters and storm petrels. Although fairly common, storm petrels live rather mysterious lives, and relatively little is known about their breeding ecology. We lure them to the nets by playing their strange purring, clicking call out to sea. If it is not their charming face, delicate legs and white rump that make them so alluring, then it’s their sweet, musky scent. Given the opportunity, I would never turn down a stormie-sniff. Storm petrels have an incredible sense of smell and can recognise their partners by scent alone. They may even choose their partners depending on their perfume. Furthermore, the storm petrels acute sense of smell enables them to detect oils and fats floating on the ocean surface. This may indicate a valuable source of food.
That evening we catch a steady stream of storm petrels and shearwaters. One of the Manx shearwaters we catch is over 30 years old, first ringed in the 1980’s: although that doesn’t beat the Bardsey record over 50 years old! The storm petrels have trouble gaining lift again due to the onshore winds and they climb up our shoulders to use as launch-pads. They flutter – wings trembling like moths – before finally disappearing into the night.