As Lewis Mackenzie gathers his harvest of Sugar Kelp he’s aware of being watched. Sitting high on the cliff-top above him, a pair of white-tailed sea eagles are looking for their next meal.
Sea eagles were once indigenous in Britain and are the country's largest bird of prey, bigger than even golden eagles. But, sadly they were hunted to extinction, the last bird being shot in Shetland in 1918.
Lewis tells us…
“Between 1975 and 1985 sea eagle chicks from Norway were reintroduced to the islands of the Inner Hebrides and since then, they have bred and spread throughout Scotland to around 150 breeding pairs today.”
Some of these beautiful birds eventually made the Outer Hebrides their home and one pair in particular keep a close watch on Lewis as he dives for Sugar kelp to help us make Isle of Harris Gin.
With a wingspan of up to 2.4 meters and standing close to 1 meter tall, the birds make an impressive sight. They are also very distinctive with their white tail and head plumage, bright yellow beak and talons.
“The history, reintroduction, and recent breeding success of the eagles here are not without controversy. But, to have wild birds like these to keep you company at sea is a privilege. They are surprisingly inquisitive, tolerant, and opportunistic which has served their revival well."
The breeding pair that Lewis often sees over the last decade are now well used to his kelp boat and harvesting baskets, and his bright red diving suit and yellow wellies don't seem to bother them.
The male will often circle above the boat as Lewis makes his way out to sea. Flying is effortless on a breezy day, with the huge wingspan catching the updrafts, allowing the bird to glide and soar with little energy.
He is fearless and will often glide down within a few meters of the boat to hunt fish, allowing Lewis the chance to capture some photos of a species that has a chequered past but hopefully a bright future.
The eagles are often the highlight of Lewis’ day at sea and a welcome distraction from the cold and difficult work below the waves.
A mid-air battle erupts between one of these giant birds and a brave black-backed gull competing for food. The noise from the fight fills the air with squawks and screeches which break the silence of an ebbing tide.
Lewis is reflective about catching such a spectacular sight…
"When I get home after a day at sea, my wife often asks 'How was your day?' and encounters with the eagles like this are always the first thing I remember. 'Just a normal day at work!' I tell her with a grin...”
Stories like this have become more commonplace for our kelp diver but the fact that the white-tails are here hunting and fishing in the Outer Hebrides is the most remarkable tale of all...
All images © Lewis Mackenzie www.hebridesfishntrips.co.uk