Puffins and Seals Highlight Trip to Rathlin Island

I never knew that puffins and seals spend part of their lives breeding (or lounging) in Northern Ireland—but they do—on Rathlin Island.

Last weekend was (relatively) warm and not too sunny, a perfect opportunity to visit Rathlin Island, a community of about 120. With our friend Eileen, we took the slow ferry over from Ballycastle, which takes about 45 minutes and provides ample opportunity to take in some beautiful scenery along the way. Rathlin Island is shaped like Italy, only in reverse and much smaller.

We immediately hopped on a bus to the Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre and Nature Reserve, where huge numbers of a variety of birds were nesting on large raised rocks or the cliff face. We smelled the birds before we saw them—something reminiscent of a pub toilet 15 minutes before closing time.

Once we became accustomed (?) to the stench, we grabbed binoculars and started looking for puffins. The rocks were swarming with black-and-white razorbills, auk family cousins to puffins, that from a distance resemble puffins. Only with the help of a docent did we glimpse the orange feet and beaks of the puffin. From our vantage point, they were few and far between, maybe 10 out of the thousands of razorbills, guillemots and two species of gulls (kittiwake and fulmar). The area is similar to the more famous Cliffs of Moher on the other side of the island, yet with far fewer tourists—even in high season.

The seabird centre is located around the Rathlin West Lighthouse, the country’s only “upside down lighthouse.” It took six years and a helluva lot of concrete to stabilize a cliff face and position the red light at precisely the right angle (62 metres above sea level) to warn ships on the horizon yet stay below the fog line.

And then, seals!

Our bus driver to and from the centre was a font of local knowledge and Irish humor. He said that Ireland and Scotland fought over ownership of Rathlin, which was decided by letting a snake out on the island to see if it could survive. It didn’t, which means it belonged to Ireland because it doesn’t have snakes either. He said the population was once as high as 1,200 but, like the rest of Ireland, people remain a big export.

We left the bus before it returned to the harbor and had a picnic lunch among the two dozen or so lounging seals who were soaking up the noonday sun. It was difficult to see them at first, they were so well-camouflaged against the rocks. You could get quite close, although no one wanted to disturb their sun-fueled dreams.

Before we took the fast ferry back, Marilynn and Eileen went for a walk while Declan and I checked out the HMS Drake exhibit at a local church. The Drake was hit by a German mine in the latter stages of World War I and limped along before sinking in the harbor. Although it was later exploded to reduce the chances of snagging other boats, the Drake remains a favorite spot for scuba divers.

On the way back, we went along the coast road through Cushendun to Torr Head, the closest point between Northern Ireland and Scotland. Torr means tall rock, and it was quite stark. We also treated Eileen to a meal before heading home as thanks for another fine road trip.

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