We’re heading to the Saltee Islands on the advice of my mother. I’m home from Australia with my Aussie husband, and she deems it a fitting daytrip for us and my two younger sisters. She’s been there before. Although Great Saltee is Ireland’s largest bird sanctuary, she assures us we won’t need binoculars or an extensive knowledge of ornithology to enjoy it’s many charms.
The Saltee Islands lie about 5 km off the southern coast of County Wexford in Ireland’s Southeast. The islands are uninhabited but have been privately owned by since 1943 when they were bought by the late businessman and farmer Michael Neale. Neale was a colourful character who gave himself the tongue-in-cheek title of ‘Michael the First, Prince of the Saltee Islands.’
Great Saltee covers a distance of 89 hectares, and the Neale’s have kindly made it accessible to birdwatchers and day-trippers. Little Saltee, which is about half the size, is not accessible due to hazardous landing conditions.
Across the Water from Kilmore Quay
The boat to Great Saltee leaves from Kilmore Quay. It’s a charming little village in it’s own right, particularly today, brightly lit with blue skies and August sunshine. We admire the fishing boats and quaint seaside cottages, conjuring up romantic images of an alternate life where we owned one or the other.
We also make a mental note of seafood and fish ‘n’ chip outlets with which we may reward ourselves on our return. It is Ireland of course… the sun shines now, but we’re not naïve. We could be pelted by wind and rain rolling in off the Celtic sea for the next few hours. We may return drenched and miserable. Chips are the best cure for that.
We buy a few final bits and pieces to add to our picnic. We each have a bag; extra clothes and rain gear in case the weather turns, sandwiches, flasks of tea with little plastic cups, swimsuits in case we get brave (or crazy). You need to be prepared heading out to Great Saltee. There are no facilities out there. No shop, café, toilets, shelter. That’s the beauty of it.
It’s best to book your boat trip from Kilmore Quay in advance. The trips are made weather permitting and generally you’ll leave around 10am and they’ll return to collect you at around 4pm. Expect to pay approximately €20 per head for a round trip.
It’s a short and enjoyable boat trip. We watch as the already small Kilmore Quay shrinks in the distance. The sea is blue and sparkling. The salty breeze is refreshing. We smile and nod to our fellow passengers and keep our eyes peeled for the dolphins that are sometimes seen in the area.
A Birdwatcher’s Paradise
We pull into the landing point for the island where steps lead up from a rocky cove to a welcome sign from Michael the First which says that, “All people young and old, are welcome to come, see and enjoy the Islands, and leave them as they found them for the unborn generations to come, see and enjoy.”
We decide the first thing we should do is eat our picnic and find a good spot near one of the island’s large gannet colonies. We watch as hundreds of birds wheel and glide and circle and land and squawk and repeat, as we enjoy our sandwiches and tea.
It’s a birdwatchers paradise with over 220 species of bird recorded on the island including Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills and a range of other seabirds that breed here.
Seals and Other Wildlife
Picnic finished we set off to explore, chatting and admiring the beautiful scenery as we go. Our plan is to follow the route along by the cliffs to ‘The Head’, the highest point of the island.
Along the way, we spot a grey seal in one of the island’s little coves. Then we spot another, and another. There are six altogether, their calm doglike faces bobbing gently in the swell. They bob and stare, seeming as interested in us as we are in them.
We continue on to ‘The Head’ at the south end of the island, home to the biggest bird colony. It’s an amazing sight, and we take our time watching hundreds of birds swirl and soar all around us.
As the afternoon presses on, we make our way around the other side of the island. We take our time and watch out for wildlife, spotting wrens, rabbits, black and red cinnabar moths and blackberry bushes whose fruit is unfortunately not yet ripe.
Eventually, we arrive back at the cove where we were dropped off earlier in the day. We still have time to spare. Some of our fellow passengers are already there. Like us they want to make sure they’re there in good time – there’s only one boat back to the mainland this afternoon. We relax on the warm rocks, pleasantly tired from all our walking. We spot another seal a bit away from shore. The sun sparkling on the water, the happy looking seal and the sun warmed rocks prompt us to consider a swim as the perfect end to the day. Dipping our toes in the water changes our mind. It’s freezing! The bikinis stay in the bags, but it’s nice to cool off our feet with a paddle, until the boat arrives, and we head back to Kilmore Quay for a seafood dinner.
Leah Carri is an Irish freelance writer now living in Australia. You can read her blog at www.leahshome.com. Photos by Elva Carri – all rights reserved by the author and photographer.