Gannets over Little Skellig
I added another one of Ireland’s islands to my list this week. The Skellig Islands are two precipitous sea stacks composed of old red sandstone, lying 14km off the Kerry coast. They stand out on the horizon like two massive pyramids rising out of the Atlantic ocean. These remote islands are not only physically steep, with Great Skellig rising to 218m and the Little Skellig reaching 134m, they are also steeped in mystery.
Little Skellig with Great Skellig in the distance
On the Great Skellig are the remains of a 6th Century monastic settlement. Of course 6th Century monastic remains are as common as I don’t know what around these parts, but this one is different. I think the pictures describe the scene better than words but really you have to see it to believe it. Why monks would want to live on top of such a tortuously steep remote island is mystifying. I suppose it shows the extreme devotion these men had for their beliefs.
I had hoped to get some pictures of the puffins (1,000 breeding pairs) but as luck would have it they were either out at sea or in their burrows hatching. Hundreds of burrows but only an odd glimpse of a puffin. The puffins return in the evening but the boat trips only give you three hours on the island from 11am to 2pm. In a few weeks time, when the young are bigger, the parents return more frequently, so I might make a return visit in June. The island is also home to over 2,000 pairs of manx shearwater and possibly 10,000 storm petrels. These birds are rarely seen on the island during daylight hours. The remains of quite a few storm petrels were scattered about the enclosures. Interestingly, the petrels nest in the monastic walls and beehive huts. Kittiwake, common guillemot, razorbill and fulmar also nest in significant numbers. However, due to the awkward terrain, getting close enough to get good pictures is near impossible. Islands such as the Great Saltee are much more hospitable for the photographer. Thrift, sea campion and sea spurrey were in full bloom. I also saw quite a few rabbits – I assume the monks brought them with them for food and they have managed to survive ever since.
Little Skellig is no less impressive – it is a massive gannet city, with an estimated 26,000 breeding pairs. You have to see (and hear) it to believe it, thousands of these huge, elegant birds wheeling around the sky. Landing on the island is almost impossible, only in flat calm conditions. The whole vista is just awesome, like something out of a David Attenborough documentary. The mystery of nature!
Little Skellig in the distance
Cut Stone Stairway