Is the Bass Rock a wonder of the world? I'm sure it is says Sir David Attenborough

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HE is one of the world's most esteemed naturalists who has explored the world in order to tell the story of our planet and its creatures.

But after a career spanning nearly six decades, Sir David Attenborough has at last fulfilled his ambition of visiting one of Scotland's foremost natural spectacles.

The veteran broadcaster this week set foot on the great, inhospitable crag of Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, the world's largest single island gannet colony.

Despite filming in far-flung locations as diverse as Rwanda and Antarctica, an overjoyed Sir David, speaking exclusively to The Scotsman, described the rocky outcrop near North Berwick as "perfection."

The 84-year-old said he had long admired the Bass and was "thrilled" to have at last experienced it first hand, especially during the height of the birds' breeding season.

A huge trachyte plug of volcanic rock, with three sides of sheer cliff, the Bass is the centrepiece attraction of the award-winning Scottish Seabird Centre.

• Sir David Attenborough among the gannets on Bass Rock. Picture: Helen Pugh

Staff at the charity said Sir David has been unwavering in his support throughout the centre's history, and were "thrilled" to play host to him at a tour of the centre.

A pioneer of natural world broadcasting, Sir David began his career in the era of black and white, joining the quaintly named 'Talks Department' of BBC Television.

His trip the Bass, however, will showcase the most modern technology ever employed in a wildlife feature. Filmed exclusively for Sky's new 3D digital television channel, 'Flying Monsters' will be screened in IMAX cinemas, before being transmitted to homes across the country.

The film, which has been written by Sir David, focuses on pterosaurs, flying vertebrates with a wingspan of up to 45 feet who lived 200 million years ago.

Visiting the precipitous island off the East Lothian coast, the filmmaker hopes to show how some of the traits of those prehistoric creatures can still be found in nature today.

DESPITE having spent his life immersed in the natural world, conditions conspired to make the journey to Bass Rock difficult for Sir David and his crew.

Having set out in a local fishing vessel, the team were forced to spend around two hours at sea on Wednesday afternoon, as choppy waters prevented them from landing at either of the outcrop's two harbours.

Eventually, the conditions eased, and the crew were able to make landfall on the Site of Special Scientific Interest shortly after 5pm. Wearing hard hats to protect them from the diving birds, they set up their equipment in the old lighthouse, before a nimble Sir David made his way to the top of the rock, lay down amongst the huge colony, taking care not to disturb its members, and delivered his piece to camera.

The team then spent around five hours more on the Bass capturing images of the gannets before they were defeated by the light.

Speaking to The Scotsman afterwards, Sir David described how much he enjoyed the experience, and expressed optimism at the considerable number of birds on the Bass.

"Bass Rock is perfection," he said. "It is spectacular and it is very good to see that the population of gannets is increasing.

"It is a wonderful place. I've thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, being among the gannets, observing their behaviour and the way they connect with each other."

Sir David, president of the Royal Society for Nature Conservation, added that a large part of Bass Rock's appeal lay in the fact it is so close to the mainland of Scotland, and can easily be seen by members of the public.

However, he said he had not made the comment he is famed for, that the Bass is one of the "wonders of the natural world", suggesting instead it was Chris Packham. In any case, he did not doubt the remark, adding: "I'm sure it's true anyway."

THERE can be little doubt as to why Bass Rock is a source of fascination.

Approximately 200 million years old, it was first inhabited by Saint Baldred, the founder of a monastery at nearby Tyninghame, who used the island as a retreat for prayer and meditation in the eighth century.

It was also used as a penal colony in the 15th century and was the last part of Scotland held by the Jacobites against the forces of William of Orange in the 1690s

The rock, however, remains best known for its birdlife. While the largest colony of gannets, at St Kilda, is scattered over three sea stacks, the Bass is home to approximately a tenth of the overall world population.

From January onwards, as many as 150,000 of the birds arrive at the rock, returning each year to the same mate and nest. Between February and October, they spend most of their time on the Bass, until the last chicks set out on the long and arduous journey south over the Mediterranean towards the west coast of Africa.

The largest seabirds in the North Atlantic, the adult morus bassanus have a 180cm wingspan, with crisp, elegant cream and white bodies and black wingtips.

The birds, which live for up to 50 years, feed by flying high and circling before plunging into the sea at speeds of up to 100kmph, a spectacle captured on film by Sir David and his crew.

Powerful in the air, gannets from the Bass have been satellite-tracked as far as Norwegian waters on hunting expeditions.

The birds are kitted out with air sacs under the skin of their faces, which work like air-bags when they hit the water at high speeds and they actually dislocate their wings before impact.

The Scottish Seabird Centre has 18 cameras focused on seabirds and marine mammals in the Firth of Forth so visitors can watch the creatures.

The centre, which this year celebrated its tenth anniversary, has exclusive landing rights for the Bass from owner, Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple, whose family has owned the island since 1706.

Tom Brock, the centre's chief executive, said: "Sir David has supported us from afar, during the last 10 years, so we're thrilled he's has been able to see the Scottish Seabird Centre and the Bass Rock for himself."

Mr Brock added that during his tour of the seabird centre, Sir David even had a go at controlling the interactive cameras, zooming in on puffins on neighbouring islands.

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