The Seafarers

The Seafarers

Stephen Rutt has written a devotional tribute to two liminal tribes, seabirds and the ornithologists who have sought to unearth some of their secrets. In this illuminating book, you will discover fascinating details about the life of the birds that live on the edge of our horizon and some of the researchers who have become seafarers themselves by pursuing them to their temporary island homes. We hear how Ronald Lockley, who as a sickly child discovered the fictional islands of Daniel Defoe and R M Ballantine and the actual travel tales of earlier scientists were drawn to the island of Skokholm, and how James Fisher, the hugely influential writer of the Shell Bird Book, was captivated by the birds of Orkney. Towards the end of The Seafarers, the author reflects on the motivation of Fisher in particular and quotes from his 500-page long study of fulmars, wherein reserved manner he writes ‘I have myself written this book not because I have thought it ‘useful’ to do so but because I like fulmars and everything to do with them.’ Rutt, in his own words, argues that Fisher is driven by ‘absolute love’.

That seems to me to best describe the impulse behind Stephen Rutt’s book, and it is the seabirds that fascinate him most of all… Reading it you will not only learn about the character of each bird, you will also share the author’s reaction to his own unfolding encounter with them. If like me, you have been on more modest journeys seeking seabirds you will find your own delight and awe re-ignited at the same time as profiting from his own sharp personal vision and greater knowledge.

I came across some familiar but no less resonant details, such as the call of the Stormy Petrel sounding like ‘a fairy being sick’ and the astounding southwards sweep of the fulmar. Only arriving in the Orkney island of Copinsay in 1911 it is now fairly abundant on the South Coast of England.

Whenever I am in Dorset, I rush to the Durlston Park Nature Reserve to watch out for the bird’s repetitive circling off the Purbeck Cliffs!

But for me, the greatest thing about the book is being able to witness Steven Rutt’s ‘absolute love’ for the birds he describes. Each meeting is introduced with just the right amount of scene-setting, combining information about the bird with a deftly drawn sense of place. Sometimes writers on nature are criticised for too much concentration on the visual and neglect of smell and sound, or of over romanticising their role in the narrative.

That is not the case with Steven Rutt’s writing, where the love is transparent but never overwrought. I will finish with a short passage about gannets.

‘From the main mass of the colony, a guttural cackling wafts upwards. They have a distinctive voice but not a pleasant one. One for being heard over the breaking waves. Another gannet, pointing at the sky, brings its head down, unfolds its origami wings and takes off into the blue sea air.’

The Seafarers: A Journey Among Birds by Stephen Rutt is published by Elliott and Thompson Books (£14.99). To order a copy go to

Ian Tattum
Staff Writer | + posts

Ian Tattum is a priest in the Church of England who writes occasional pieces about the people who shaped the history of science and human and animal travel-real and fictional.


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