98 sailings.  4312 nautical miles.  The equivalent of sailing from Cornwall to Brazil; 1.64 trips to Canada; or travelling to France 32 times over…all aboard a 68m shallow draught vessel.  That’s how I spent my summer.

There are plenty of reactions I receive when telling people I work for the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust aboard Scillonian III on the notorious Penzance, Cornwall to St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly crossing (AKA ‘The Great White Stomach Pump’ or even more delicately nicknamed ‘The Vomit Comet’).  The most common responses tend to be, “Are you mad?”, “You must spend a fortune on seasickness tablets” and “I couldn’t think of anything worse”.  Well on the contrary, I couldn’t think of anything better.

When the position of Marine Ranger for the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust arose I leapt at the opportunity, my imagination filled with the promise of witnessing countless wildlife spectacles and the chance to meet like-minded nature nuts.  All things considered, I wasn’t too far wrong…bar the addition of my new-found and rather unfortunate knowledge of the sheer spectrum of shades of vomit that the human body can produce, the majority of which I didn’t even know existed.

Besides the aforementioned unwelcome physiological insight which I could have quite happily lived without, my summer as Marine Ranger proved to be even more enjoyable, rewarding and awe-inspiring than I could possibly have hoped.

Of course, true to Her reputation it wasn’t always smooth sailing and my first trip of the season certainly saw to it that I was inducted into the family in true Scillonian style.  It was a rather fresh day in early April and filled with excitement and enthusiasm at my new role I stood stubbornly at the bow, my hair backcombed into a rather pitiful attempt at an Amy Winehouse beehive by the relentless oncoming wind, as I inwardly wished that a) windscreen wipers on glasses were a standard feature for new seafarers, and b) I wouldn’t look like an utter moron if they were. 

The ship was pitching and rolling with each wave that threw itself against Her bow, sending those resilient last few passengers who refuse to go inside for fear of vomiting (regardless of how soggy the outer deck becomes) sliding down the sodden wooden benches like some sad excuse for a seesaw.  I was chattering away to a lovely gentleman about how invigorating it is to feel the breeze (gale force winds) whipping through your hair and the salty sea spray (ice-cold tidal waves) on your skin when I felt that horrible dry-mouth claggy sensation and the wooziness of the colour draining from your body that only comes with the onset of seasickness.  In a rather rookie error I excused myself and made the trip below deck to refill my water bottle.  On entering the upper deck café I rapidly realised that had I been smarter I would have restricted my breathing to solely through my mouth, yet perhaps what hit me harder was the deathly quiet and stony expression of every single passenger in the room.  It was all I could do to gip loudly in front of my new colleagues and rush back upstairs to the outer deck, hurling my upper body over the railings in a fashion rather reminiscent of myself on Saturday night after a few too many pints of Rattler.

Safe to say I wised up rather swiftly on what not to do when wanting to appear like a professional sailor and how best to avoid emptying one's sorry stomach contents over the side of a ship in the middle of the North Atlantic for some poor hardy crew member to hose down on arrival.  Thankfully, that was the one and only time to this day the Old Girl has gotten me and I can say with sheer confidence that if you listen to the wonderful crew you will be absolutely fine.  It’s all just part of the experience.

Following that eventful first sailing is where the real fun began.  I was placed aboard Scillonian III to answer any questions passengers may have about the islands and the work of the Trust; chat to them about their wildlife experiences; gather feedback and just generally enthuse people about the natural world, which for a glorified motormouth like myself proved to be the perfect career choice!  The steep learning curve came in being expected to act as a human encyclopaedia on what species the miniscule black dot flying three miles off on the horizon was.  With just one fully-functional eye I might hasten to add. You might question why I made this career choice given my visual challenges, and quite frankly I don’t blame you!  Courtesy of my previous health issues being a one-eyed wildlife spotter certainly does pose its challenges, and I’ll admit at times made me question if this was the best career choice for me after all.

In the very early days I’d come to work sick with anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to tell Maureen what the flouncy little dot hovering above the sea surface was…but you know what?!  That’s on me!  Did Maureen really mind if I didn’t know?  Of course she didn’t!  She asked because she was curious, and that’s exactly what I was there for – to get people asking questions about nature.  I’ve always been rather notorious in selling myself short and despite my I’d like to think (perhaps mildly deludedly) rather extensive nature knowledge base, I certainly did let my desire to do well and know absolutely everything within five minutes of starting the job overwhelm me on those first few journeys.  No, I’m not Chris Packham or any other world-famous wildlife-whizz, but one thing I’m not is short of random animal trivia (helpful in the local pub quiz) and a passion to make a difference.

I learnt so much this summer aboard that beautiful ship, just by watching, listening and questioning the sightings and events I witnessed along that 44 mile stretch of sea, with a lot of my newfound knowledge thanks to the amazing crew and true sense of community proffered by the wildlife-lovers with whom I shared passage aboard Scillonian III.  There’s something undeniably special about sharing a wildlife experience with a total stranger that binds you together in sheer excitement and a common passion.

My favourite encounter occurred on a murky May afternoon whilst stood on the portside of the ship as we cruised along the foggy Cornish coast.  It had been a frightfully uneventful trip – a real pea-souper – and with the cliffs shrouded in mist I’d lost almost all hope of seeing any wildlife that day.  Having declared the day a total write-off for being blessed with any maritime miracles both myself and another wildlife enthusiast were gassing away when out of the mist rose a definite dorsal fin.  In stunned silence myself and my companion turned to each other utterly flabbergasted, and before I could gather exactly the same words he said, “You can see that right?!”.  Fearful of the delirium which often sets in following the deflated hopes of that most-wanted sighting on your geeky little species tick-list, we both genuinely believed we were going mad and needed for our own sanity to check with the other that the rather Jaws-like fin slicing through the surface really was just that.  Why he’d trust my eyesight I have to question, but I suppose it could just have been that deeply ingrained English politeness through which we’d rather jump off a cliff on the request of someone else, rather than engage in any mild disagreement.  “Wouldn’t you like to jump over the edge Natalie?  Doesn’t the water look inviting?”…”Why yes, now you mention it David it certainly does.  I might just go for a dip over the edge of this 200ft sheer drop.”  Nonetheless, on this occasion my eyes did not deceive me, and right on cue came into view the full expanse of the jaw of a basking shark leisurely drifting along a mere 10ft from the ship.

My summer spent aboard Scillonian III gifted me with many such incredible experiences, but from watching playful bow-riding common dolphins, breaching minke whales and headslapping Risso’s to counting our inquisitive grey seal populations and listening to the return call of tiny storm petrel chicks in their burrow, my time thus far as Marine Ranger for the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust has been amazing from start to finish!

I’ve travelled aboard Scillonian III in both brilliant sunshine and raging storms, but whether I’m marvelling at the mirror flat calm watching barrel jellyfish float past or in awe at the power of the waves Mother Nature sends crashing over the bow, I feel incredibly lucky to have been afforded such a fantastic opportunity courtesy of the new partnership between the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust and the Steamship Group, which truly embodies enjoying nature; making small changes to our everyday lives to make a big difference; and to ensure that Scilly stays special for future generations.