By CHANTAL COOKE
It all started with an invitation to tea. And although the tea itself was quite ordinary – the location, and situation, was far from normal.
When Tom Rossi of Benbecula Freedive and Fitness offered to take me snorkelling in one of the lochs on the Uists, I was far from keen… it would be freezing cold, surely?! But then he uttered the fatal words; ‘we’ll stop off, sit on a rock in the middle of the loch, and have a nice hot cup of tea’ – well, I was in. I have always been a sucker for a cuppa.
And so it was that I found myself snorkelling at Loch Skipport on South Uist. The Western Isles of Scotland can be a tad chilly, even in the middle of summer, so Tom spent plenty of time getting me kitted out in a couple of wetsuits to make sure I would be warm. And, I can confirm, I was toasty warm. I was worried that as I lowered myself into the kelp by the ruined pier I would feel the icy water engulf me. Not so. As I pushed my face into the depths I got a quick sense of just how cold the water actually was – my lips felt as though they’d freeze – but within seconds the feeling dispersed.
Snorkelling in the Western Isles isn’t that ‘in a fish tank with colourful fish’ type snorkelling – this is proper adventure snorkelling, with thick kelp to push through, and ephemeral jelly fish swimming past. You feel as though you are in an extreme environment as you tackle abandoned fishing lines and lobster pots. Swimming round the ruined pier is especially fascinating as there is plenty of wildlife to see; velvet crabs, starfish (from tiny to huge!), small fish glinting silver in the light, and prickly pink sea urchins. At one point an otter rushed past us as we disturbed him feeding on shellfish.
The water appears greeny-yellow as you let the current carry you along the rocky shoreline. Large strands of seaweed loom into view like an enchanted forest, and occasional shafts of sunlight beam down into the depths. Periodically Tom would dive down and reappear with an interesting object – some natural, some manmade – to show me.
Eventually we pushed or way through the forest of seaweed and scrambled ashore, looking completely ridiculous in our thick wetsuits and huge fins – perfectly suited for the water, not so ideal for the land. But the struggle was worth it; it was time for tea.
From his backpack (yes, he snorkels and freedives with a backpack!) Tom pulled a flask and some Twix fingers ‘In my experience Twix are the most waterproof’ he explained. Not something I had ever considered before! We sat on the rock, looking out across the water as cormorants and a lone heron flew by, and sipped our hot tea and munched on (perfectly dry) Twix bars. This was certainly one of the more unusual locations for a cup of tea – and believe me, I have drunk tea in many strange places!
Then we shuffled across the rock and slipped, mermaid-like, back into the water as we headed back past the pier, round a small headland and to our final stop – a small slipway used by local fisherman today, and the kelp industry over a century ago.
We’d been in the water over three hours, I was still warm, but will admit to being very tired. I swam up the slipway and crashed out in a heap in the shallows, exhausted but grinning from ear to ear. We pulled off our fins and masks, and started the short walk back to Tom’s van, where another cup of hot tea and some sandwiches were waiting.
And to round off a great day – Tom had brought a few carrots so we could feed the wild ponies on our way back – they are short, rugged and very cute, and with a little encouragement will poke their heads through the car window to munch on the offered carrots.
Whether you’re a seasoned freediver, or a beginner snorkeller, the Uists offer an experience very different from almost anywhere else. And as the islands are so full of lochs – big and small – ignoring what they have to offer would be like visiting Vienna and ignoring the coffee houses and delicious cakes. Daft.
So if you’re holidaying in the Outer Hebrides, make sure you spend a day with Tom snorkelling in one of the lochs or along the coast.
This blog was posted using www.tepwireless.com – portable WiFi for smartphones, tablets and laptops.
About the Author:
Chantal Cooke is an award winning journalist and broadcaster with a passion for the planet. In 2002 she co-founded the award winning radio station PASSION for the PLANET and in 2009 Chantal was awarded London Leader in Sustainability status. Chantal also runs a successful communications agency – Panpathic Communications.