This story appears in the August 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Fifty feet above the storm-tossed North Sea, a thunderhead of birds has been massing. When the cloudburst comes, it’s quick as lightning. They plunge, a score of white tridents, spearing the waves with a thump and a splash. Moments later they bob to the surface, fish in throat. They shake their heads, rise from the water on six-foot wings, and soar to cliffside homes with a swan’s grace. There they land badly and bicker loudly.
These are northern gannets, far-ranging seafarers tethered seasonally to crowded colonies. Science tells us Morus bassanus is a cousin of the booby, but the eye sees a seagull crossed with an albatross. As elegant in flight as they are hapless on land, they are by turns bumptious and balletic, territorial and tender, dramatic and comical. They are, in the words of the wry Scottish naturalist Kenny Taylor, “birds of contrast.”
So let us count the ways, and let us begin with a cheering score. By 1913, centuries of hunting had thinned their ranks, once unknowably large, to perhaps 100,000 birds, their colonies to fewer than 20. A hundred years of protection later, gannets are one of conservation’s great success stories. Today 40-odd sites around the North Atlantic harbor some 400,000 nesting pairs, plus tens of thousands of juveniles and nonbreeders.
One large colony resides at Hermaness, a national nature reserve at the top of Shetland. This is the northernmost point in Britain—the edge of the world. With 500-foot gneiss cliffs plunging into tidal cauldrons dotted with arched skerries, the site—named for a giant who loved a mermaid—is steeped in myth. When you reach it, the miles of sodden moorland you’ve tramped fall away into a chasm of sea and sky, where wind and wave skirl and roar.
Gannets began nesting here in 1917, and in summer months their molting feathers fill the air like fairy dust. The colony itself is a riot of squawking, flapping, and jabbing. The choicest nest sites are in the center, as valuable and rare as rent-controlled apartments in Manhattan. Once acquired, they’re defended with life and saw-toothed bill. Single birds lurk on the fringes, seeking a partner and a nest of their own.
To get a site, two males will fight, locking bills and stabbing faces, for up to an hour. When the clash ends, one gannet leaves; the other has a home. “The bird is faithful to the site once it occupies it,” says Stuart Murray, a gruff Scotsman who’s been surveying Britain’s seabirds for four decades. “They attract a mate, she lays an egg, and then they think, Bingo! I’ve done it!”
Each season equals one egg, plain and white like a goose’s. Parents take turns incubating it and, after six weeks, feeding what emerges—a shriveled thing, naked and ebony. Over three months it will become a downy, white powder puff, then a slate-plumed juvenile. Two meals a day swell it swiftly; calisthenic wing flapping tones it crucially. When a chick is ready to leave the nest, it splashes into the sea. “At first it just bobs on the waves, bewildered,” says Murray. “But hunger pangs drive it to swim and dive. Then it will learn what to do by watching other gannets.” Growing up will be hard and perilous. Less than half will see a third birthday.
If gannets have a calling card, it is the spectacular feeding behavior called plunge diving. Watching these birds plummet headlong to wrest life from the frigid depths, one thinks of Tennyson’s eagle, of crawling seas and falling thunderbolts. One also sees why fishermen have long relied on them as location scouts. Indeed, the human-gannet relationship stretches back centuries. Beowulf’s liege lord, Hrothgar, called the ocean a “gannet’s bath.” John Daniels, who photographed the Wright brothers’ first flight, said Orville and Wilbur “would watch the gannets and imitate the movements of their wings with their arms and hands.” And melted gannet fat was once used for everything from gout balm to wagon-wheel grease.
Today, with few natural enemies and abundant food sources, the northern gannet seems primed to thrive. Still, as with most seabirds, its life is a daily proving ground of water and weather. Even in these days of protection and plenty, says Murray, “it’s a high-stress business, being a gannet.”