|sea eagles are such impressive birds - c. Mike Read|
|Hurtigruten on the move in Norways' beautiful Lofoten Isles|
Although it had been a widespread breeder in the good old days, egg collecting and persecution had wiped it out and although attitudes to wildlife have improved dramatically in recent years, there was no guarantee that this attempt would be successful.
The plan was to capture young eagles from nests along the Norwegian coast, fly them over to Scotland, grow them on in cages on the remote Hebridian island of Rhum and when fit and strong, release them into the wild.
|scenery to die for - every day|
I was assisted by Sigbjorn, a local Norwegian wildlife enthusiast. It’s a long time ago but I vividly remember his comment as we walked by the harbour and were confronted by two of the most gorgeous girls either of us had ever seen. Sigbjorn shook his head and said “sometimes a young man wishes he was blind”!
Anyway, back to the eagles. The eminent scientist and local eagle expert Harald Misund had located a suitably remote nest on an offshore island cliff edge that provided a safe home for a couple of hungry youngsters. Sigbjorn took me out there in a small boat every day for a week to film the youngsters being fed by mum. It seemed they grew larger by the hour.
|cruising silently past eagle cliffs|
|otters love tucking into lumpsuckers and there's always lots of 'leftovers'|
I quickly re-focused the camera on Mum, just in time to film her leap off the nest and plunge down the cliff with folded wings. Seconds later she swung her impressive talons forward, grabbed the fish from under the surprised otters’ nose and returned to the nest with her stolen prize.
The feast was enjoyed by all three eagles so I had a memorable sequence in the can … and just in time, for it was already midnight and Sigbjorn was due to collect me at one o’clock. One of the great advantages of summer in the arctic is the twenty-four hours of sunshine that allows very long days for filming.
|north of the Arctic Circle it's the land of the midnight sun|
|what a beautiful backdrop to a weeks frost-bitten finger filming|
Unable to dive again, they struggle on the surface and provide a perfect target for hungry eagles. They also provided me with a good opportunity to film some impressive swooping and squabbling but first I had to reach the island in the teeth of the treacherous tide-rip in a small boat - and in the dark - to a driftwood hide before the eagles woke up.
|strike force - c. Mike Read|
|the famous tide rip at Saltstrumen - my hide was near the tip of the island below|
No eagles were visible as our fisherman Yohanis started throwing a few dead fish out but it wasn’t long before these were spotted by far off hungry eyes. Leaving their lofty mountain perches, three eagles were soon circling the boat. They seemed suspicious of these free meals, keeping their distance until the pangs of hunger drew them ever closer to our camera.
|I had to grab the film-camera when it started to swoop so no fishing pics from me|
|a successful catch - c. Mike Read|
This involved going by boat to the beautiful Lofoten Islands in the dead of winter when the eagles were desperate for food. We created a tomb in the mountainside rocks for this freezing cold cameraman to hide, then baited a stone with fish just in front of the camera. The narrow slot was just wide enough for the would be persecutor to thrust his gauntleted hand out and grab the eagle by the legs and having done so, an accomplice would leap out of the hide to control the wild stabbing of the birds axe-like beak.
It sounds unbelievable but the technique worked and many eagles died … and we proved it could still be done by filming an eagles feet just beyond the end of the lens as it feasted on the bait. I didn’t wring the bird’s neck of course though felt like doing so after waiting many hours in my icy tomb. By ‘eck it was cold.
Almost as memorable for a young man … I was one once … we’re the two beautiful girls we met on deck on the ferry back to Bodo. They seemed to be enjoying the blizzard if snow as much as Richard and I so I asked one of them if they’d like to join us for a pizza in the famous SAS bar in Bodo. She looked me straight in the eye and said “what’s your motive!” I obviously gave her the wrong answer as they never showed up … and even after all these years I still wonder what the correct answer was!
|eagle country all around|
Release pens had been built on Rhum, the birds’ development looked after by the dedicated care of John Love. 'Hacking' them to fitness was an intricate process but after several weeks they were fit and strong and familiar with their surroundings. Now they were ready for release and I was there with a high-speed camera to record that magic moment.
The chosen ‘first flight star’ sat relaxed on a large rock before the removal of it’s hood revealed those fierce all seeing yellow eyes. A quick glance around before those great wings unfolded and swept the eagle over my head and off into the freedom of wild Hebridean hills. It was a moving moment and a triumph for all concerned. After a hundred years, history had been created. Sea eagles had returned to Scotland.
Fifty years on, the vision of many has proved a resounding success for as I write, dozens of pairs are raising young in the glens along the west coast and further introductions have created a separate population in the east of Scotland with birds moving back and forth across the Central Highlands. It is always heartening to hear of success stories in wildlife conservation and this is one of the most notable.
|focused on food - c. Mike Read|
Sue and I had always wanted to travel on the famous coastal steamer and we were pleased we did, for the ferry we were on called Nordnorge was really comfortable, with a great crew and excellent food and the beauty of the scenery is stunning. Hurtigruten claim it to be the most beautiful voyage in the world and now we’ve sailed those seas it’s easy to agree.
I’ve had the privilege of travelling the Alaskan coast and it’s mountains and glaciers, the Chilean fjords, even the Antarctic Peninsula and stunning as they all are, Hurtigruten takes the biscuit, a whole packet!
We spent years saving up our pennies because we planned to travel from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes in the far north, tucked in alongside the Russian border, then back again. On the way we would fulfil our long held ambition of visiting my old sea eagle haunts north of the Arctic Circle.
|one of the fastest tide rips in the world|
I only saw one eagle on the way north to Bodo and in spite of the Lofotens looking as beautiful as anywhere in the world, we didn’t see eagles there either. Mind you, our planned eagle safari on the way south was blown out by a gale and rain, so we were unlucky.
|we only had a couple of days of dodgy weather|
|for days on end we glided through sun drenched calm seas - perfect|
|'sunny side up' - the food was excellent - the staff charming|
|friend John Hennli on the left with the skipper on Norways' independence day celebrations|
|greeted by singing school children|
|the greeting by the band at Havoysund was impressive|
|the children could play well too|
|band, crew and passengers joined in the celebrations|
|the island of Hornoya just offshore - the most easterley point in Europe, level with Istanbul|
|towering mountains in the Lofoten Islands|
|barnacle geese on the Hebridian Island of Islay, land of the famous malt whisky|
|the Arctic summer is short so barnacle geese have to lay their eggs before the snow has melted|
Our series was called “Kingdom of the Ice Bear” and my assistant Mike Read and I had arrived before the snow melt so we could film the story of the brief Arctic summer. Barnacle Geese were one of our stars and they’d just arrived to establish their rights to cliff-top nesting ledges, despite still being covered with snow. In the valley below them, a lemming had just emerged from its’ long winter sleep under the deep drifts, blinking at the sudden dazzling light.
|a long-tailed skua ... such a special bird ... but not to a lemming|
So in a few brief moments, wildlife beside the Hurtigruten ferry can transport you to foreign lands and memories of decades past. Perhaps being on the move keeps your mind alive.
|the hole in the rock is purported to have been created by a Viking arrow - nice one|
|it's difficult to imagine a more glorious journey|
|so wonderful to see these great birds back in Scotland - c. Mike Read|
Further reading :
John Love's book is a great read and well worth finding in a library, full of detail about this historic re-introduction and lovely illustrations too.
To join photographer Mike Read on his guided tours of Mull visit :