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Tales from Bardsey Island

Looking for dolphins from Bardsey IslandTorrential rain, looming fog banks, and grim mountains that appeared only as vast shadows rising from the mists – these were the conditions in which we ventured through northwest Wales en route to the fabled isle of Bardsey in August. While we stuck to the main roads, we made good progress through that craggy and sheep-strewn land, stopping off for a trolley-load of supplies at an exotic roadside emporium that went by the name of Lidl’s, before motoring off into the byways of the Llyn peninsula, in search of the B&B we had booked ourselves into for the night. But then the rain came down ever harder, the fog held us so tight in its clutches that we couldn’t see 20 yards ahead, the roads narrowed, and the signs by the roadside faded away into the dank night. In short, we got lost. Thank god for mobile phones. After a detour down a track into a deserted farmyard, we rang the B&B and got directions and clues on how to track it down, turned back around and headed in the right direction this time for the village of Rhiw, our destination. Now armed with the crucial information that the sign for the B&B had a different name on it from the one on our directions, we scoured the foggy banks of the road until lo and behold, there were the crossroads and there was a sign for a B&B. We headed down the side-road, past silent farms and closed iron gates, around twists and turns, until a mile into a sodden and fog-cloaked wilderness, we turned into the driveway of what turned out to be the most charming B&B you could hope to find. A mere 9 hours after we had set off from Chippenham, we had arrived. Mrs Jones greeted us with a friendly wave and showed us around and after a cup of tea and a natter, we settled into our warm beds and were soon fast asleep. The next day, we were due to catch the boat to Bardsey at 11.30am, so we made our way under a blue sky to the farm where we parked the cars and loaded our mountain of gear and food into a trailer, which was then towed by a landrover down to the small bay where we were to catch the boat to the island. The boat when it arrived looked like a magnified lego boat, a bright yellow carbon fibre vessel with a cabin at the front but open to the elements at the back, where we would be sitting. Together with the land and boat crew, we loaded all our gear onto the boat and took our places, then the boat was launched back into the sea and we were off. When we cleared the headland, Bardsey hoved into sight. The mountain (in truth, shy of 600ft high) on the east side of Bardsey hid the rest of the island from view for now, and you could imagine the first explorers of this part of the planet having little idea of the fertile land they would find once they got past that rocky peak. As the boat surged and dipped its way through the choppy seas, we saw the lowlands of Bardsey emerge from behind the mountain, along with the red and white lighthouse and the ‘harbour’ where we would be landing. It looked so peaceful even from a distance across the waves, and this first impression would be borne out. We landed on the east side of the island, with a beach and rocky cove stretching away to our left, where grey seals swam and basked on the rocks, awaiting the arrival of the first seal pups of the season. Our greeting crew included Farmer Steve, who had turned up with his tractor and trailer, onto which we helped load all of our gear and food. Then we walked up the main track on the island, past Farmer Steve’s house and the old school house, heading north until we reached the Bird Observatory, an old- and sturdy-looking stone building that is hunkered down on the lower slopes of the mountain and acts as the headquarters of the bird watching activities on the island. The Bird Observatory, or ‘the Obs’ for short, is a comfortable place to stay, with a kitchen, dining room, common room, two offices and a washroom with a proper shower. The grounds of the Obs are populated by a few chickens (one of them, Hedwig, likes to be picked up and petted and fed elderberries, but most run away when you try to pick them up), and there is an abundance of flowers, the buzzing of the honeybee colonies over the bushes to the south side, and a large courtyard on the west side where you can find a deserted gift shop and space for hosting talks and a food shop, where you have to choose your purchases with care – we bought some Branston pickle there, only to discover that its Use By date was June 2010! There were three of us from WDCS on the island for my first week there, namely Pine Eisfeld, Kirsty Brookes and myself (James Taylor). We managed to get out looking for cetaceans on about half of the days I was on the island – some days it was rainy but the sea was flat, so we donned our waterproofs and got out to the North End of the island, where we spent up to 8 hours a day scanning the sea within a few miles of the island for cetaceans and logging down data on any cetaceans and boats we saw. Some days the weather was glorious but the sea was too choppy, making watching impossible to carry out with any consistency. Most days we were out observing, the weather was fine and we got lucky and saw some harbour porpoises, which was a first for me – I had seen a whale in the wild before and been on a yacht with bottlenose dolphins riding the bow-wave, but never before had I seen a porpoise. The harbour porpoises we saw were surprisingly diminutive creatures, about the size of an adult man or woman, sleek and black amongst the waves, usually preferring to mill about in the quiet stretches where two currents met and caused an upwelling of food that attracted the fish the porpoises were hunting. When the porpoises raised their arched backs and small, triangular dorsal fins above the waves, it was magical to watch as they surged and dipped past us in the distance. From the North End of the island, we also often saw grey seals bobbing about and cruising through the waves, sometimes pulling themselves up onto a rocky outcrop or onto the foot of the cliffs at the base of the mountain to the east. While there were three of us observing together in a team, as there were in the first week I was on the island, it was fairly relaxed work – one of us would be scanning the sea with binoculars for 10 minutes at a time, one of us would be recording the bearing, location and timing of any sightings the observer made and one of us would be relaxing. For Pine, time off from observing or recording sometimes meant it was time for a few press-ups and crunches, which offered the dual benefit of keeping her warm and keeping her fit! For the other two of us in the trio, and for Pine too, most of the time, time off from observing or note-taking meant it was time to loll in the grass, tell bad jokes and talk about everything and nothing. The time we spent observing in this fashion passed surprisingly quickly, four hours would pass by, the sun would rise or dip in the sky, clouds would gather or dissipate, the wind would redden our cheeks or cool our brows and before you knew it, it was time to head back to the Obs for a well-earned break. On the days when we weren’t observing, due to unsuitable weather, we had to find ways to amuse ourselves. The first choice for passing time was to play a game I had not been introduced to before, but that proved addictive and fun in equal and titanic measure. This game was bananagrams – it’s a bit like scrabble, a bit like boggle, and basically involves the competing players trying to make as many words as they can from the letter tiles they pick at random, as quickly as possible. As well as bananagrams, there were the other pleasurable pastimes of baking bread, going for walks and runs, playing football, going trampolining at Farmer Steve’s farmhouse, playing with the island’s resident dogs and chatting with the diverse mix of people who either lived on the island or who had come to stay for a week or more to see the wildlife and soak up the blissful ambience of the place. On the days when we weren’t out observing, I for one could find perfection in just making a cup of coffee and sitting out front of the Obs and taking in the view across the fields to the Irish Sea (you could see Ireland from there on a particularly clear day). It was simply a beautiful place to find yourself. The football games were great fun – most of the island’s residents turned up on each occasion, meaning that we could field teams of 8 a side or more. Starting at 7.30pm and playing on until nearly 9pm, stopping only when the fading light meant that we could no longer see our teammates in the gloom, the score on the first night we played was 13-13. We would go on to play two more games while I was on Bardsey, and despite injuring myself in the line of duty in the third game I played in, and having to spend the next day with my sore knee up resting, the football games were one of the highlights of my time on that peaceful isle. The second and final week I spent on Bardsey, Kirsty left to prepare for her return to university, and two more WDCS volunteers joined Pine and me, namely Bea Chater and Harriet Alvis. With a now four-strong team, we could divide ourselves into two teams of two when we went out observing, meaning that we could observe from the lookout post at the North End and also from the other land-based lookout post at Pen Cristin on the east side of the island. With just two people in a team, observing was now a bit more intense – you were at any one time either scanning with binoculars or noting down observations. For most of the second week, we had to content ourselves with seeing some more beautiful harbour porpoises, as the main reason for our being there, the Risso’s dolphins, refused to put in an appearance. But on the last full day of my stay on the island, the Risso’s dolphins finally appeared. I was injured and laid up with a bad knee, but Pine, Bea and Harriet were out observing from the North End, when they spotted some harbour porpoises, some bottlenose dolphins and then, last but not least, a pod of six Risso’s dolphins that appeared moving across the sound between the island and the mainland from the east. Risso’s are big animals, with adults coming in about twice the size of your average harbour porpoise, and their fins are so large that they can often be mistaken for orcas by a newcomer to cetacean watching. Pine and the rest of the observing gang high-tailed it back to the Obs in the hope of finding a boatman to take them out to see the Risso’s at close-quarters, and radioed in the news when they got clear of the mountainside. I had my binoculars and scope out ready and started scanning the sea to see if I could spot the Risso’s, as they were apparently heading down the western side of the island towards the patch of sea overlooked by the Obs. Mark, a volunteer who helped out Steve (the warden of the Obs), spotted them first, and when I raised my binoculars back to my eyes, there they were, less than half a mile out to sea, passing by a couple of small fishing boats bobbing in the water. They were so graceful to see, rising above and then dipping back under the waves, and they weren’t in any rush, but after about 10 minutes, the Risso’s decided to make a move for pastures new and headed off towards the horizon and the Irish coast. Overall, I would say that I feel immensely fortunate to have been offered the opportunity by WDCS to take part in this year’s fieldtrip to Bardsey. To have seen harbour porpoises, Risso’s dolphins and grey seals in the wild, to catch glimpses of these graceful, wild creatures living free in the natural world, was an awesome experience. And as well as that, I got the chance to discover the little-known, blissful and beautiful island of Bardsey. I will be returning before too long, of that I am sure.

Nicola Hodgins

About Nicola Hodgins

Policy Manager at WDC