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Wildlife boat tours a sailaway success for nature-loving Shetlanders

Marie Leask and her husband, Brian, swapped life at sea in the Med for Lerwick.

Marie and Brian Leask, of Seabirds & Seals: The Original Noss Boat Tours, in Lerwick.
Marie and Brian Leask, of Seabirds & Seals: The Original Noss Boat Tours, in Lerwick. Image: DCT Media/Malcolm Younger

Every Monday we ask small businesses key questions. Here we speak to Marie Leask, who runs Seabirds & Seals: The Original Noss Boat Tours in Shetland, alongside her husband, Brian.

How and why did you start in business?

Both Shetlanders, Brian started out as a car mechanic in Lerwick before moving on to repair and operate hire plant machinery. He went on to set up his own company, Marine Autos, as a marine engineer.

I left school at 16 and worked in Lerwick’s public library for seven years, gaining qualifications through Edinburgh Napier University. In 1999 I left to become school librarian at Sandwick Junior High School.

But adventure beckoned and I left my job to help Brian, his brother, Dennis, and sister-in-law, Tess, get their 52ft yacht Enjah ready for a big voyage. Leaving in November 2007, the four of us sailed south to spend two very happy years touring the Mediterranean.

Marie and Brian during their sailing days in the Med.
Marie and Brian during their sailing days in the Med. Image: Marie and Brian Leask

Dennis and Tess eventually decided to return home, but Brian and I continued our voyage of discovery. It was fun, challenging and life-enhancing.

Leaving the boat in Greece (they sailed it home the following year), we returned home in late 2009. Brian continued with his boat and car repairs, while I went into care work.

Gaining lots of experience and qualifications, I now work at a senior level in the care sector during the winter months when the boat is laid up.

Fast forward to 2017 and naturalist Jonathan Wills started speaking to us about selling Seabirds-and-Seals, which he’d established in 1992. We bought the business without any borrowing and have never looked back.

How did you get to where you are today?

Sheer commitment, dedication and a passion for boats, the sea, nature, our local heritage and all things Shetland. We make a great team, do what we do best and are living the dream. Meanwhile, the business is growing from strength-to-strength.

Our driving ambition is to provide trips for as many abilities as possible, and we constantly tweak what we do  to make our tours accessible and inclusive for all. One of the many adaptions was adding a flat, obstruction-free boarding platform to accommodate all levels and abilities, including wheelchairs – the only boat tour in Lerwick to do so.

Helping a wheelchair passenger at Seabird/Seabirds & Seals: The Original Noss Boat Tours.
Helping a wheelchair passenger at Seabird/Seabirds & Seals: The Original Noss Boat Tours. Image: Marie and Brian Leask.

We also have an accessibility guide on our website that explains exactly what customers can expect.

Brian and I believe passionately in the principles and practice of responsible, sustainable tourism, and this year we were delighted to achieve a Green Tourism Gold award.

We have all the licences, qualifications and experience we need.

I’m trained in disability inclusion in hospitality, travel and tourism, and also destination development and leadership through Edinburgh Napier University.

Greedy gannets
Image: Marie and Brian Leask

Who helped you?

Family, friends, the Shetland community and others have been amazing, especially Jonathon Wills, who passed on his knowledge – including joining us on trips for the first few months. He is a constant source of advice and encouragement. We can’t thank him enough.

We’re also very grateful for the advice and support we receive from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).

We won FSB Scotland’s 2024 Celebration Small Business Awards’ service excellence category. This award recognises how we go above and beyond for our customers. We’re looking forward to going to the UK final in Blackpool in May.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever had?

Never give up on your dreams and believe in yourself.

Bird of prey.
There’s usually lots of wildlife to see on one of the Leasks’ boat tours. Image: Marie and Brian Leask

What is your biggest mistake?

Not starting wildlife boat tours sooner.

What is your greatest achievement?

Sailing from Shetland to the Mediterranean and back again counts for a lot. But nowadays it’s bringing a smile to so many customers’ faces, receiving fabulous feedback/reviews at the end of tours, and having it all reflected in the many awards that we win.

Amazing scenery.
There’s amazing scenery to see on the boat tours. Image: Marie Leask and Brian Leask

How is your business managing rapidly rising costs and what should government do to help?

Fuel price increases have forced us to increase tour charges for adults, but we’ve kept them the same for under 16s. Our policy is to keep them as low and inclusive as possible. Government should tackle rising fuel prices by cutting VAT or fuel duty.

What do you still hope to achieve?

Win more awards and continue working on our sustainability practices to retain our Green Tourism Gold status.

What do you do to relax?

Walking and other regular exercise. Also exploring beaches and our natural environment, and entertaining friends with drams, food and chat.

Shetland seals.
The Leasks’ boat tour passengers can get up close to nature. Image: Marie and Brian Leask

What are you currently reading, listening to or glued to on TV?

Brian is hooked on Judge Judy, so I escape to the bedroom to read Shetland history books and add to the interesting facts I weave into our daily tours.

What do you waste your money on?

Brian insists it’s clothes for me and it’s definitely machinery for him – but, clearly, both are essential.

Seabirds & Seals: The Original Noss Boat Tours.
Seabirds & Seals: The Original Noss Boat Tours. Image: Marie and Brian Leask

What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?

Check the other is breathing, wish each other a very good morning and decide on our plans for the day.

What do you drive and dream of driving?

We have a Jaguar XF and Tesla Model 3, but we’re going to sell the Jaguar and stick with electric – we love the Tesla.


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