Top 5 Snorkel / Swimming Experiences in Scotland
This is our top 5 list of snorkelling / swimming experiences from our season around the Hebrides!
The top of our pile is the enigmatic basking shark (of course)! The sharks arrive back from their winter migration during spring and are most predictable during the height of the summer when the water is at its warmest and the sea is full of zooplankton. They are heavily protected as a species and are recovering from exploitation over the last century where it is estimated that over 100,000 sharks have been hunted. We have an active science programme to study them and a strict code of practice on how we enter the water to swim/snorkel with them with a maximum of four people (& guide) in the water at once. We use a lot of techniques to have great encounters and doing the right things means they come very close to you, uninterested in your presence next to them! It's an amazing experience to see that huge mouth come towards and past you!
Another iconic animal of the Hebrides! We have two main species, harbour/common seals and also the grey seal. Of the two species, many people find the harbour/common to be the cuter looking of the two however it's the larger grey seal that can be the more inquisitive with us humans! Seals are a protected species and where they haul out onto land is also protected, so we must be very careful when we are trying to interact with them. We approach using special techniques to make sure they are not disturbed and feel comfortable by our presence. Like humans, they do have different individual personalities and some are more playful than others, so interactions can vary from day to day. In the Hebrides the seals are truly wild, with few human visitors to habituate them to our presence, so you must have good fieldcraft to have good encounters. However if you meet a curious individual and do all the right things, then having a wild animal interact with you is a really special experience!
One of the under appreciated environments in Scotland are Kelp Forests. Many people talk about the great land forests, or coral reefs being super productive areas, however Kelp Forests are absolutely full of life! The canopy area of the kelp fronds mesmorisingly sway in the current and provide easy shelter for many species of fish. Growing on the frond itself you can find organisms called bryozoans, which the colourful nudibranch feed on. Underneath on the stipes and holdfasts there can be lots of sponges soft corals, sea urchins, crabs and starfish. Being an algae that photosynthesises, they create oxygen along with absorbing nutrients from the water (i.e filtering the water). In addition to these super qualities they provide habitat and shelter for many species. They are an ecosystem in themselves and exploring around them is spectacular. Sometimes it takes a little while to get your eye in whilst snorkelling, as they can grow into dense forests, so spotting all the life around them needs a little more attention. Kelp grows all round the coast, but the best places to experience it are around rocky reefs with good visibility at low water to enable you to see as much of the different levels of the forest as possible.
Situated on the south east corner of Staffa island lies Fingal's Cave, made famous by Mendelssohn’s music and Ossian's legends. These days it's a big visitor attraction in the area with hundreds of tourists visiting it each day! It's a very exposed place, subject to the full powers of the Atlantic however during calm weather, the ocean laps gently against the basalt columns enabling people to view the depths of the cavern from the water. Gazing up at the huge chasm is an awe inspiring experience with the cave going back around 70m into the island. For those with good swimming skills, then the nearby boat and MacKinnon's cave provides a further playground to explore! Underwater, carved out rock, tunnels, boulders and gullies are all smoothed out from the power of the waves and it's a huge privilege to visit here in calm weather. Due to the exposure you need to have some experience to visit, or a few days to practice your skills beforehand. It can be hard to find that tricky mix of low winds and low swells to enable you to explore from the water, however when it all comes together it makes the pay off that much better.
Hebridean Shell Sand
This is something very unique to the Hebrides! Lying on the Atlantic coast means there is an endless supply of open ocean power to grind down shells into tiny parts. Many of the local shells are white in colour once the outer parts have ground off, and as such are then broken down to make very white sands. Coupled together with the clear water, the shallow lagoons where the sunlight is reflected up makes some very special snorkelling and swimming conditions. Of course the Hebrides are bathed with a lot of sunlight during summer with long days and low lying islands which escape a lot of rainfall. However on those calm and sunny days, the lagoons look more like the Caribbean than Scotland! Just need to remember a thick wetsuit to keep warm, however with the right gear then you can quite happy swimming around for at least a few hours!