Stand on a small rock in the English Channel called Alderney – actually one of the five Channel Islands – and from the right spot you can look out on some even smaller rocks called Les Etacs. From the shore or from the sea, the formation looks like a wedding cake rising miraculously from the water: iced white and covered with beautifully crafted, white decorations. Look more closely and you see that these rocks are alive with gannets: more than 5,000 pairs breed here during the warmer months.
Gannets have a wingspan of six feet – nearly two metres – and are equipped with a beak like a spear. They catch fish by plunging down from a height of 100 feet or more, continuing their pursuit underwater. They are birds of immense distances: they have their being in the open ocean and land is useful to them only as a place to lay an egg and rear a chick.
You can approach the rock by boat and feel as if you are chugging into one of the vaults of heaven, angel-thronged. So try landing. You must time it when the swell is just right. It’s about then you realise that the angelic sight is accompanied by a diabolic smell, but it’s too late to worry about that.
An alarming scramble upwards brings you right in among them: you’re sitting in guano and surrounded by what looks like a sea of pterodactyls. They mostly don’t fly off: they’re too concerned about keeping their nest-space safe, and besides, they don’t have much experience of land-based predators. This is a little beyond their comprehension. Instead they lunge out peevishly at human intruders with their fearsome spears, and quack their irritation and confusion. A few dozen birds take to the air.
But to business. A team from the Alderney Wildlife Trust caught half a dozen gannets on a noose, one by one. I was in charge of holding those enormous wings, tucking them neatly into their snowy sides so they wouldn’t get in the way. Vicky Warwick-Evans, a PhD student from Liverpool University, wrapped the bird up in her arms and placed a black sock overs its head, which has an instant – if sometimes incomplete – calming effect.
Holly Marshall, from the Trust, then mixed glue and attached a tracking device to the tail of each gannet while I held the two central tail feathers. She made them secure with some homely old electrical tape. The gannet was then unhooded and released; some shuffled a few paces and stooped for a moment to think things through, others took to the wing, clearly unencumbered.
These birds are now on e-mail. From the moment they are released they start sending real-time information of their whereabouts – collated from GPS – via the 3G mobile-phone network. Every time a bird comes in range of the network the information is transmitted and collected. That’s fascinating enough in terms of pure science, but there’s more to it than that.
The Channel is a crowded bit of sea that lies between two crowded places, both of them full of immensely demanding humans. There are large-scale power-generation projects under consideration around Alderney, six wind and three tidal. They have been variously proposed by the governments of Britain, France and Alderney. With copious, accurate information about where these birds go fishing, it will be possible – should the governments be willing to listen – to avoid the core foraging areas that are essential to the gannet colony.
The descent from Les Etacs involves a final leap of faith into the boat’s tender, and then a look back upwards at the immense wedding cake you’ve just left. White on white, up towards the sky. Six of them e-mailing their position back to base: information that might – possibly – help to keep them going.