'Big Brother' seabird centre has visitors flocking

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The Independent Online

A new symbol of Scotland is being promoted to boost tourism, with remarkable success – the country's magnificent seabirds.

The combination of a dazzling natural seabird spectacle with state-of-the-art TV technology is bringing visitors to North Berwick, a Victorian seaside resort on the Firth of Forth 20 miles east of Edinburgh, to visit an attraction thought to be unlike anything else in the world.

Three miles offshore stands the Bass Rock – a great isolated lump of volcanic basalt, 350ft high, which for centuries has hosted one of the largest colonies of Europe's biggest seabird, the gannet.

Onshore, as of last summer, stands the Scottish Seabird Centre, where visitors can view the social behaviour of the 100,000 gannets on the rock – greeting, courting, mating, nesting, fighting – as it happens and in the most intimate detail, on remote-controlled TV cameras.

Such is the picture quality in the £3m visitor attraction that it is hard to say which is the more remarkable experience, a windswept boat visit to The Bass itself (as the rock is known) or the virtual visit the centre supplies.

Certainly the sea trip out is full of unforgettable sights. Gannets, snow white with golden heads and black wingtips, are as big as geese but streamlined, and they plunge vertically into the sea for fish from 100ft up with their wings swept back into their tails. Their sitting forms cover the top and the sides of The Bass, turning the black rock white, and they swarm over its top in their thousands, from a distance like chattering bees over a giant nest. They are joined on the rock faces by thousands of other nesting seabirds, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars, together giving an unforgettable picture of life at its most teeming.

But that's just the big picture. The small picture is equally fascinating.

Inside the Scottish Seabird Centre you can zoom in on an individual gannet – you manipulate the cameras yourself – and then watch how it copes with life in the crowd. The birds engage in a variety of rituals, such as "skypointing" – letting your mate know you are about to leave the nest, so you don't both fly off at once, by pointing your bill at the sky. Pairs greet each other tenderly, but all viciously attack any other birds that stray into their scrap of rock.

Viewing is like using a giant telescope: with the naked eye you can see The Bass in the distance, and on the screen you can see the feathers of a single bird on it. You can even focus the cameras back onshore on the centre, and see yourself watching yourself. Yet another camera is located on Fidra, an island further up the Forth, which is a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reserve with a large population of puffins.

The live aspect of the TV transmissions, the pin-sharp picture quality and the fact that visitors control the cameras themselves – spot a peregrine falcon landing and you can go and focus on that – have all proved so attractive that the centre has far exceeded its target, and more than 200,000 people have visited it since it was opened last year by the Prince of Wales (known as the Duke of Rothesay in these parts).

Tom Brock, the director, said: "As far as we know there's nothing like this anywhere else in the world."

The centre, set up with £1.27m of lottery funding, was the idea of people in the area concerned for the economic future of North Berwick, a once- prosperous seaside resort that had fallen on leaner times: the proposal was to promote the Bass Rock and its seabirds for tourism, but in a sustainable way, because the rock itself can take only a strictly limited number of visitors. Public education is very much part of its mission, as is participation by the community.

Paul Walton, the RSPB's community liaison officer for the south and west of Scotland, said: "The Scottish Seabird Centre is a fantastic thing. The seabird populations of Scotland are just an unbelievable boon to the country, in terms of natural heritage and in terms of resources. It's a wildlife spectacle which I think can compare with anything in the world."