2020VISION Assignment: Gannets and marine tourism

Peter Cairns can think of nothing better than photographing seabird colonies on the Scottish coast - and he's certainly not alone.

A close-up of a gannet on Bass Rock.
iWitness Assignment: Marine tourism and gannets
Location: Bass Rock and Shetland
Photographer: Peter Cairns
We should all know how important Britain’s seas are. They provide us with untold natural riches and they are our most popular playgrounds.
Our seabird colonies – many of global importance – have become must-see attractions, none more so than a great big volcanic plug just off North Berwick in the Firth of Forth: Bass Rock.
The Rock’s summer residents paint it snow white and draw tourists by the thousands. Gannets – 40,000 pairs of them in a cheek-by-jowl cacophonous seabird tenement block – a frenzy of 24/7 activity, not to mention the nostril-splitting smell.
Bass Rock is Gannet Central and these days where there are lots of gannets, there are lots of human visitors.
All around our coastline marine species are becoming celebrities. Gannets, dolphins, sharks, seals and eagles, these are the Beckhams of the wildlife world, turning little-known seaside villages into cash-spinning tourist centres.
My task on this assignment is to convey the value of gannets as an ecological, cultural and economic contributor to the town of North Berwick and the surrounding coastline. If I’m honest, it’s not that difficult for any half-witted photo-journalist (or even me).
The award-winning Scottish Seabird Centre next to North Berwick’s quaint harbour is a real hub, attracting over 100,000 visitors each year. I photograph anything and everything that links healthy seas to healthy seabirds and in turn to healthy, prosperous people – it’s all one big jigsaw.
350 miles north from bustling North Berwick and I’m staring over a stomach-churning cliff. Hermaness at the top end of the Shetlands is the most spectacular gannet colony of all.
Okay - the close-up portraits that are possible on Bass Rock would be suicidal to attempt here, but the swirling flight of thousands of white dots a hundred metres below me is mesmerising.
It’s hard to do justice to this place but I have an idea...
Fitting a polariser to my wide-angle lens, I’m able to secure a slow enough shutter speed to record the flying gannets as blurred lines – almost like an aircraft’s contrails. It might not satisfy the purists, but it works for me.
Peter's top photography tip
  • Let’s face it, seabirds have been well photographed, gannets and puffins in particular. As standards are relentlessly driven up, it’s worth trying something a little different to put your own mark on a place or a species.
  • Getting out early or staying late offers the best chance of unusual light and the opportunity to try slow shutter speeds or silhouettes against a fiery sky. Think out of the box!


To see more of Peter's stunning Scottish photography from his new Caledonia book, click here.


Don't miss the 2020VISION Portfolio – Best of British in the August issue of BBC Wildlife  – on sale now!


2020VISION is a multimedia project that highlights the link between people's well being and the restoration of natural systems.

Uniquely, it pairs the talents of 20 of the UK's most skilled outdoor photographers with writers, editors, videographers, sound artists and scientists to make a compelling case for rewilding landscapes - for wildlife and for people.

To see some of the best images taken on 2020VISION assignments so far, click here.

To find out more about 2020VISION, click here.


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