Shetland Isles: Puffins
Updated: Mar 2
Aberdeen to Lerwick: 224 miles, 13 hours, 20 mins via overnight ferry.
On 4th July, 2017 our Puffin Express left the spires of Edinburgh and set off for Aberdeen to catch the overnight ferry to the Shetland Isles. We found the ferry port bristling with armed policewomen and severe warnings about getting out of your vehicle, as if terrorists were lurking. Even though I'd already ripped off our wing mirror, I rejected NorthLink's valet parking. All I had to do was drive our monster motorhome along the yellow line, right? As my five year old said, it was "like driving in a supermarket." And it was that simple, but I still scored approving nods from fellow drivers.
Booking a motorhome on a ferry is not a bargain. Flying is way cheaper, but you don't have the 'house on your back' feeling. As I was traveling solo with three children and a gazillion suitcases, convenience became a priority. Onboard, I met several elderly Americans sporting giant backpacks and studying Scotland's bus schedules. They praised my courage, but I definitively had the better arrangement.
Our family cabin had four bunk beds, which were twice the size our motorhome beds, as well as a private bathroom. Even at this early point in our journey, the kids jumped for joy at our extreme luxury. I didn't point out that our cabin had no window, or room to move, or that the constant shriek of the ship's loud speaker sitting above our beds felt as if we were in communist China.
I discovered I'd accidentally bought access to the VIP Lounge. Oh the glamour! Our dedicated waiter swamped us with attention as we dined on a classic English dinner of fish and chips and mushy peas. Our swivel chairs may have been chained to the floor incase of storms, but we were the only ones presented with a paper replica of the ship. And because all our meals came with alcohol vouchers, even the children's meals, I was entitled to twelve glasses of wine. Twelve! For a second or three, I imagined the fun I could have. But being the ultimate designated driver, I offered the vouchers to our waiter. He had the excellent idea of swapping them for a bottle of wine, which I could consume later. Genius! Meanwhile, the kids drooled over butterscotch cheesecake and sticky toffee pudding drowning in thick canned vanilla custard. VIP Lounges rock!
Once at Lerwick, we headed south towards the famous Sumburgh Head Lighthouse and RSPB Nature Reserve. This was the reason we'd decided to come on this crazy trip. This was why we traveled so far north to the Shetland Isles. Because, for only a few months, Sumburgh Head is home to the iconic but elusive seabird, the Puffins!!! or in Shetlandic, Tammie Norrie.
Puffins are adorable. And tiny. The size of a small parrot or iPad with tiny wings. They flap like buzzing bees as they dive off cliffs or dodge local predators, such as the Great Skua, or Bonxies as the locals call them (because they bonk you on the head). They spend all year on the open ocean, only coming to land to breed. We imagined the winter storms they survived and how their feet must get so cold.
These seabirds are very vocal. They talk in funny squawks and growls. Like swans, they mate for life. Parents nest in cliff colonies so close to the path you can hear them in their burrows and watch them pop out, twisting their orange bills this way and that. They are not frightened of humans and love to pose for photos.
Do you like me like this, or like this, or like this?
The visitor's centre explains that puffin numbers are in sharp decline. Local staff believe that over fishing off the Scottish coast has led to a dramatic reduction of sandeels, which are their main diet. Adults are then forced to feed their young fewer sandeels or other less nutritious fish. Despite the parents' best efforts, chicks often starve to death. Maybe the only good thing to come out of Brexit is the government's decision to leave the London Fisheries Convention. Hopefully, the Atlantic maritime ecosystem now has a chance to return to equilibrium and these beloved birds can survive. Click here to learn about the RSPB's Puffin Project.
The amazing history of Sumburgh Lighthouse, the seabird sanctuary and the foghorn engine room alone is enough of a draw. We spent the entire day cooing over the whirring seabirds, pressing the fog horn button and soaking up the sunshine.
Impressive Lighthouse Fact: the light is an equiangular refractor, which has 26 reflectors instead of the normal 21, flashes every 30 seconds and is visible for up to 23 nautical miles. Click on the picture for a video of the lighthouse's deafening foghorn.
Throughout WW1 and WW2, the Shetland Isles were a strategic military outpost in the North Sea, protecting access to the North Atlantic Ocean. A radar station was positioned at Sumburgh Head and provided early warnings of enemy raids. As my children browsed the war room, with maps, posters, charts and gadgets, the community war effort felt tangible, especially the lighthouse garden which grew vegetables for soldiers. In comparison, our contemporary war against terrorism feels distant and impersonal. Imagine a war room in Brooklyn's Navy Yard: our son would drag us there every weekend.
Our eldest pointing to Fair Isle, about 26 miles away.
After Sumburgh, we went in search of a beach. Ever since my student days at Edinburgh University, I have considered myself brave in cold water. I have swum in the North Sea in February with snow on the sand and taken the New Year's Day Polar Bear Plunge in Coney Island. What was a splash during a Shetland summer?
West Voe beach looked tropical. A sweep of soft white sand, sparkling turquoise water and green marram grass echoed the Caribbean. Even the sunshine brought out instant freckles on my children's cheeks. I was in heaven. But one toe dip crashed my fantasy. The Shetlands lie 60 degrees north of the Equator. That's six degrees south of the Arctic Circle. Unlike in Iceland, there are no thermals here.
The water was so cold my skin screamed on fire. My legs looked like a boiled lobster. After swimming in random zigzags for five minutes, I was warm enough to swim further out. But the water grew colder and darker and mysterious fish nibbled my toes. I fled back to the beach. As I came out I heard applause. Onlookers in coats had been watching. I almost took a bow. My younger daughter then bravely joined me for a dip. The second time was much easier and I really enjoyed myself. Now I understand why Eastern Europeans and Russians love ice swimming and why so many Americans take the polar bear plunge. Wetsuits are for babies!
Here's my younger daughter ready to take the Shetland sea plunge.
Stay tuned for the next chapter, Shetland Isles: stitches #1, in which my five year old starts a brawl.