“Rather you than me” was a phrase I heard quite a lot when I mentioned adventure snorkelling in the Western Isles of Scotland. The words were uttered by locals as well as friends at the other end of the country.
The Western Isles, or the Outer Hebrides, are known for their cold, wet weather and strong, chilly winds – so snorkelling isn’t the first activity you may think of. However, it offers something very different from the usual warm waters and coloured fish experience of other destinations.
The first task is to get fitted for a wet suit – or two. The key here is warmth, so Tom Rossi of Benbecula Freedive and Fitness spent quite a bit of time making sure my wetsuit was tight fitting and then helping me squeeze another, thicker suit over the top. It may sound overkill but the waters and the winds really are cold, so plenty of insulation is needed.
Once ready, we headed to Peters Port on the island of Benbecula. Our plan; take Tom’s tiny boat across to Wiay, a small island not far away, and then snorkel in the sheltered bays.
Peters Port offers a slip way and relatively easy access to the water, so it wasn’t long before we were motoring around the headland to look at the local seals – who, on this occasion, had decided to hang out elsewhere! Although disappointing not to see them, the scenery was so beautiful, the lack of charismatic mammals hardly mattered.
As the tide continued in its relentless movement away from the shore, it revealed the metal skeleton of a sunken ship. The FV Arran ran aground here on the 23rd March 1923 whilst on route from Glasgow to the Western Isles, and has lain on the seabed, slowly disintegrating, ever since. Now all that can be seen are the sharp spines of the hull and rounded surface of its colossal boiler – hanging in the water like the sad carcass of a speared whale.
To our left an adult male Hen Harrier flew back and forth over the island, performing impossible-seeming aerial manoeuvres in its pursuit of prey.
After a few minutes we reached a sheltered bay on Wiay, threw down the anchor, and slipped into the cold, clear water. This is when you are grateful for the effort you put in wriggling into two wetsuits – the water feels cool, but soon warms up, and as you move around following the path of crabs or shoals of shiny fish, your body begins to heat up.
As we swam around tiny translucent fish darted past us weaving in out of the weed. Long strands of Boot-lace weed floated in the water like streamers at a party. Kelp clung to the floor mimicking giant brown cabbages in an overgrown allotment, and where the sun reached the sandy seabed bright green Gut-weed grew in rolling meadows.
Green Shore Crabs scurried below me hiding in clumps of weed, while the larger Edible Crabs simply stood and glared, waving their huge claws at my fins. Sea urchins and starfish clung to the rocks, hermit crabs hunkered down in their borrowed shells, and sea slugs… well, they just sat there looking like a rather nasty case of fungal rot!
Long, straight sunbeams pierced the water lighting up the tiny algae floating by and making the sand glitter like long lost treasure – tempting you down into the depths, where a large flat fish sat silently camouflaged in the sand, hoping I wouldn’t spot it.
If you are a beginner snorkeller then this is ideal; the water is calm and clear and if you prefer you can stay in shallower areas that allow you to stand up should you feel the need to get your bearings, take a rest, or just soak up the incredible experience of being in the water in such a wild, remote place.
So, to all those who smiled and said “rather you than me” – I agree. Rather me than you; snorkelling around Wiay is an experience not to be missed.
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.