On Bonaventure Island with over 100,000 Northern Gannets

Bonaventure Island lies in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, just a couple of miles off Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. If you’re not familiar with it, all you need to know is that Bonaventure is arguably the world’s largest colony of Northern Gannets, recording 121,000 individuals! I say arguably as populations rise and fall, year to year, so it’s basically on par with St. Kilda and Bass Rock in Scotland. Together, with various auks, gulls and cormorants, there are over 200,000 seabirds inhabiting Bonaventure Island during summer breeding season, making this the largest migratory bird sanctuary in North America.

Bonaventure gannet colony. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed at Bonaventure Island, Canada with NIKON D3S and 24.0-70.0 mm f/2.8 lens at ¹⁄₅₀₀ sec at ƒ / 10 on ISO 200

Statistics aside, one great advantage of Bonaventure is that although you need a boat to reach the island, you can actually walk to the gannet colony, unlike those in the British Isles. With the exception of the mainland breeding colony at RSPB’s Bempton Cliffs, our island colonies on St Kilda, the Northern Isles and Bass Rock in Scotland and Grassholm in Wales can only be seen from the sea on boat excursions.

To reach the Bonaventure Island National Park, you need to get yourself to Percé, in the Gaspésie region, east of Quebec. Percé is the main gateway for the island and is accessible via Route 132 from the north and south shores of the Gaspé Peninsula. Private ferries provide access to Île-Bonaventure from the Percé wharf. The National Park is usually accessible from May to October.

La Roche

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed at Percé Rock, Canada with NIKON D3S and 200.0-400.0 mm f/4.0 lens at ¹⁄₂₀₀ sec at ƒ / 8.0 on ISO 200

As you leave Percé, the little ferries usually take you to the Percé Rock on route to the island. The Rock is a colossal monolith towering over 80m from the water, with a 15m high natural arch – one of the world’s largest (located in water). The Rock is a major attraction in the Gaspésie region as well as a natural icon of Quebec. Once you pass The Rock, you get your first view of the gannets. Just the odd one here and there. Some skimming the water, others diving. There were quite a few passengers onboard that hadn’t quite realised how large gannets are with their 165–180 cm (65–71 in) wingspan.

Even though my visit was nearing the end of the breeding season, the unseasonably late summer had delayed the gannet exodus – so there were still thousands upon thousands nesting on the guano stained cliffs and level cliff-top areas, many with mature chicks.

Photographing bird colonies in 3 steps

  1. PORTRAITS: In good light, I’ll work on intimate portraits of individuals, preening behaviour, pairs in courtship and bonding displays, or parents feeding their chicks.
  2. CONTEXT: I work the bigger picture, the colony as a whole, using a wide-angle from various points of view. I’ll get as close as I can and try to fill the foreground with birds.
  3. FLIGHT: Having already spent time photographing around the colony, I will have fathomed out the regular approach paths to capture birds in flight

Photographing the gannets

For most photographers, their first experience of these massive seabird colonies is overwhelming. Once you have regained your composure after seeing so much life in one place, where do you start? On Bonaventure Island, the colony’s immense size is oddly magnified because you approach along a very sheltered, narrow woodland path. It’s practically silent.

Then, the trees abruptly stop and your senses are bombarded by the sounds, sights and smells of thousands upon thousands of gannets. I was literally taken aback. It’s so unlike visiting island seabird colonies by sea where you have that very gradual build-up in activity, the raucous babel, and increasingly pungent fishy reek.

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus)

Gannet colony viewed from the blind. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed on Bonaventure Island, Canada with NIKON D3S and 24.0-70.0 mm f/2.8 lens at ¹⁄₈₀₀ sec at ƒ / 11 on ISO 200

As with many of these expedition cruises, time is always a factor. I had less than 5 hours to photograph the colony and that included the 3km hike, so I had to work through my stages quickly. I began with the portraits, looking around for individuals and pairs with space around them and clear backgrounds. It’s not easy. With several thousand birds, some on their nests, some taking flight, others arriving and landing… Finding a solitary bird, or pair performing their ritual display, is a question of time and a test of patience.

I have to admit, I am genuinely disappointed with my portrait shots. I was in two minds about posting these. I focussed on several pairs, but none of them really gave me the iconic pose that I was looking for. Or if they did, the background was cluttered and messy or the light too harsh. Unfortunately, there was only a brief window where the light was soft with lightly overcast skies.

The clouds soon evaporated, leaving me with glaring afternoon sunlight – not great for white plumage. I relied on my old exposure cheat for high-contrast scenes: Take several test shots in Aperture Priority on my preferred f/number, review the histograms, then set the best exposure settings in Manual Mode. I selected an exposure that was just clipping the whites. I needed to overexpose in order to capture as much detail in the shadows as possible. I then recover any highlights and carefully modify the contrast and tone in Lightroom.

Viewing and photography from behind rope cordons and timber blinds. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed on Bonaventure Island, Canada with NIKON D3S and 24.0-70.0 mm f/2.8 lens at ¹⁄₆₄₀ sec at ƒ / 10 on ISO 200

The areas from where you can photograph are quite restrictive. Obviously, you can’t go wandering through. Thankfully, the barrier is only a thin rope cordon, like at The Wick at Skomer Island. You can get right up to the rope and the lens goes over/under. I usually shoot low down, either kneeling or laying prone. However, this colony is mostly on the outer edge of the island, so the terrain falls away sharply. If you’re shoot too low down, you can only see a few gannet heads.

There was a timber blind open to the public and you can get very close to the gannets. The main problem here was the acute downward angle from the narrow head-height letterbox openings. The only solution was to use the 24-70mm f/2.8 wide-angle and shoot context shots of the colony.

Realising the light was not going to improve, I moved on from portraits and context images to the flight shots. There was a steady breeze, so practically all the gannets were arriving from the same direction, stalling and beating their wings, facing the camera. I did setup my tripod with my 600mm f/4, but quickly discarded it in favour of handholding my 200-400mm f/4 VR. The 600mm was simply overkill as the gannets were landing so close and they’re not exactly small.

In fact, gannets are so large, the fly-by shots were remarkably easy. I have my technique nailed down for soaring birds like this. However, from the outset, I really wanted a great head-on stalling shot where they beat their expansive wings and hang in the air before landing. I photographed dozens of landing gannets, but one in particular stood out, as it hung in the air for so long. As soon as I checked the preview, I just knew I’d bagged the image. It was razor-sharp. There was no need to keep clicking away, so I packed up my gear and set-off on the 3km hike back over the island to meet the awaiting zodiacs.

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus)

Juvenile gannet falling prey to a great black-backed gull. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed near Bonaventure Island, Canada with NIKON D3S and 200.0-400.0 mm f/4.0 lens at ¹⁄₁₂₅₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 200

When I reached the far shore, we took off for a quick tour along the cliffs toward the gannet colony. As we neared the cliffs, I spotted a great black-backed gull feeding on something floating in the water. Sadly, it was a juvenile gannet. Bummer. About  200m out to sea, thousands of gannets were gathering in the sky. It was a stunning sight. Your jaw literally drops as you look skyward and see so many gannets circling above. Quite unforgettable!

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus)

Thousands of gannets circling above. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed near Bonaventure Island, Canada with NIKON D3S and 24.0-70.0 mm f/2.8 lens at ¹⁄₈₀₀ sec at ƒ / 10 on ISO 200

My time was running out, so we headed back to Percé to catch up with the ship. I would have dearly loved to have stayed longer on Bonaventure Island. I highly recommend a visit. Although, like so many of these ‘day visiting’ seabird colonies, you want to be able to stay late, after hours when the day visitors have left. Overnight would be even better! Then you could photograph the seabirds in that magical golden light. I missed out on the gannet portraits, this time, but as least I can try again a little closer to home at Bempton or Bass Rock.

EndThank you for reading

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Photographic career began in 2002, freelancing as a commercial photographer. In 2005, I turned full-time 'wildlife pro', winning my first award and gaining agency contracts. Since then, I've travelled the world, photographing in the greatest wildlife hotspots.

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