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Showcases / Celebrations mark 30th birthday of award-winning wildlife cruise operator Seabirds-and-Seals

Business founder Jonathan Wills with Brian and Marie Leask at the small boats harbour on Saturday. Photo: Malcolm Younger/Millgaet Media

Showcases / Celebrations mark 30th birthday of award-winning wildlife cruise operator Seabirds-and-Seals

THE SUN, it seems, was shining just for Brian and Marie this Saturday morning. It is one of those early days in May, still cold, but the light makes you almost feel dizzy, and it brings with it the promise of those never-ending summer days we all long for.

It is the perfect day to celebrate the 30th birthday of wildlife cruise operator Seabirds-and-Seals, which Brian and Marie Leask took over five years ago.

As passengers disembark at Lerwick’s small boat harbour after a three-hour trip to see the tens of thousands of breeding gannets, puffins, guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes clinging to the spectacular cliffs of Noss, the seals as well as the underwater secret forests and coral reefs, the verdict is unanimous: “Brilliant, just brilliant.”

Twelve happy customers arriving back at Victoria Pier ready to disembark. Photo: Malcolm Younger/Millgeat Media

To make their special day even more poignant, it turned out that one of their 12 guests, IT specialist Justin Rhodes, originally from Oxford, had been on the same trip five times over recent years before eventually moving to Shetland in 2020.

When the couple bought the business from its founder Jonathan Wills back in 2017, Brian had a good idea what changes he wanted to implement and how he intended to run the cruises in the future.

And having been involved in fixing and maintaining Jonathan’s boats for almost 25 years, including spells as second crew and even at the helm of the tour boat, Brian – a marine engineer – was clear that he wanted the business but a different type of boat.

It all began in 1992 with ‘The Noss Boat’ Dunter I,  a small eight-meter boat, when then journalist Jonathan Wills, a former warden of the Noss National Nature Reserve, realised Lerwick had a world class asset right at its doorstep, taking tourists to see the spectacular seabird colonies.

In that first summer 580 passengers were carried on the Dunter I that could carry eight paying customers. In 1997 Dunter II also an open aluminium alloy boat built by the Malakoff in Shetland was introduced, as numbers had doubled in just five years. In 25 seasons to 2017 almost 40,000 passengers were carried.

Guillemots at Noss. Photo: Shetland News

Jonathan is open about having made a bad investment decision when he brought in Dunter III in 2003, a custom-built vessel that caused him a lot of hassle, sleepless nights and financial headaches.

The Noss Boat ‘Seabird’ going through the magnificent Giant’s Leg archway located at the Bard, South of Bressay.

Looking back at 25 years of tour guiding, he says: “I spent a third of my life taking people to see places and creatures that fascinated me. I was extremely fortunate that I had a job which I loved. Most of the hassle wasn’t at sea, it was dealing with the finances back ashore.

“Brian and Marie bought the business as a going concern, but they didn’t buy my boat, which was very sensible.

“You couldn’t teach either of them much about sailing because they both had done a lot more distant water sailing than I had – I hardly have ever been out of sight of land.”

However, Marie, previously worked as a school librarian, followed by the care sector after having spent two years sailing the Mediterranean, was initially unsure but also excited about the prospect of trying to run a successful award-winning wildlife tour business.

It took her a while to come on board, she admits, but then she loved it. “I am not looking back,” she says smiling at Brian. And he just knew that she would be very good at it, knowing that her enthusiasm and knowledge would be infectious.

Brian located the boat he wanted in Medway, and brought the former dive support vessel – a very stable 13.5 metre catamaran with twin 370 hp engines – to Shetland. He fixed her up, renamed her Seabird, and was ready for their first season in 2018.

“We have altered the tour structure slightly, ‘Seabird’ has a large open viewing platform allowing everyone to sit or move around freely or the option of the indoor heated cabin”, Brian says.

“We are a local couple with a lifetime experience/knowledge of boats, wildlife above and below the sea, plus our local heritage around us – absolutely loving what we are doing”.

Friends, family and former crew were invited to a buffet at the Shetland Hotel on Saturday to celebrate 30 years of Seabirds-and-Seals. Photo: Malcolm Younger/Millgaet Media

With the introduction of an online booking system, regular Instagram, Facebook and Twitter updates, very positive reviews on TripAdvisor and a four star award from the Scottish Tourist Board the business took off until Covid stopped them in their tracks.

2020 became the season that wasn’t, when only a few trips late in the summer were possible. Last year saw the return of UK visitors as well as many local people keen to get to know Shetland’s hidden treasures.

“The number of locals we had last year is just phenomenal,” Marie explains. “They have been coming with us from the start, but even more so since Covid, and their reaction usually is: ‘Wow, what an amazing experience – Shetland has so much to offer’.”

Seabirds and Seals run daily tours from Victoria Pier. The morning two-hour long cruise around Bressay and Noss departs at 9.30am, while the afternoon cruise – departure time 12.30pm – takes an hour longer as it includes underwater viewing and spends longer at some locations – both tours include refreshments. If there is demand, they will take a third tour leaving at 4.15pm.

Bookings can be made via Seabirds and Seals website at https://www.seabirds-and-seals.com or phone 07595 540224.

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