The Life MacAquatic
In Scotland's Northwest Highlands, a superbly weird new snorkelling project is changing people's attitudes toward the harsh realities of the ice-cold northern seas. Mike MacEacheran takes the plunge to find out why
From across Achmelvich Beach, the stark beauty of the seashore sparkles a ludicrous silver and gold, enhanced by a whisky-coloured sky. Pulling down my bug-eyed mask and waddling from the sand line to the surf, I gaze down at the near-freezing shallows in front of me. What in hell was I thinking when I agreed to come snorkelling this far north?
The Northwest Highlands of Scotland is a wild place to get into a wetsuit. Don't doubt it. Where the sandstone crags of the Assynt mountains meet the Atlantic front, the coastline is pounded by almost suffocating gales and relentless rains. Storms play peek-a-boo like a Machiavellian bogeyman, shaking the very bones of the peninsulas and giving the headlands a brooding, mysterious personality.
In summer, locals say, the smell on the air is less factor-40 sun lotion, more industrial-strength midge insect repellent.
It may be hard to fathom, then, why a new snorkel trail has been launched along a 150-kilometre stretch of this coastline. Devoid of Caribbean razzmatazz or Australian hyperbole, the Highlands isn't your classic snorkelling destination, missing several of the prerequisite elements taken as given. There are no board shorts, bikinis or beach shacks here. No tropical fish and little in the way of credible coral reef. It's even harder to grasp if you consider that the ice-bucket-cold waters can shrivel delicate body parts should you so much as think about dipping your toe in.
But what the nine-location snorkel trail does have is stunning, centrefold beaches that – on their day – can rival anywhere else in the world. Its quaint fishing villages, such as Gairloch, Lochinver and Ullapool, where I spent three nights, also have enough charm that they little need this extra carrot to lure people to the coast. So that raises a key question: Who's behind all this inspired, if slightly insane madness?
The answer lies with Noel Hawkins, Living Seas communities officer for the Scottish Wildlife Trust, a man with a shock of cropped white hair, whom I meet soon after arrival.
"When I suggested the idea, my boss thought I was mad," Hawkins says, in a lilting Scots brogue that rolls like a wave. "I'm sure it was only to humour me that he told me to bugger off and do it."
What Hawkins discovered was that the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area hid a series of stand-out snorkelling sites worth braving the cold for. At Mellon Charles, an old Second World War pier, he spotted urchins, velvet crab and wrasse. While at Gruinard Bay, where low tides flush out to leave a series of infant-friendly rock pools, he discovered spectacular flame shells and fragile maerl, a rare red alga that weaves a psychedelic-pink underwater carpet. Not only did the shallows promise different species, kelp forests and lunar-like geological formations, he says, but he always found himself snorkelling alone, often bathed in soft, variegated light. At times, even in the company of passing porpoise or basking shark.
But Hawkins's vision was and still is about more than just spotting a few pretty fish. The trail has been set up to encourage schools to re-evaluate their approach to marine education, while a dozen local instructors have been trained to lead groups. So committed is the Scottish Wildlife Trust to the new venture, it's now helping the Isle of Harris, the jigsaw-shaped puzzle in the nearby Outer Hebrides, to blueprint Hawkins's oddball idea. That trail, with six stops along an equally beguiling sliver of coast, launches in July.
Today, we're driving north to Clachtoll Bay, the most northerly of the snorkelling sites and a stunning curve of white sand, to test the waters.
We pass thatched crofters' cottages, ancient Celtic brochs (stone towers) and fields of puffy sheep, and it strikes me that all the melancholic romance of Highland life can be found here.
In the middle distance are fishermen on salt-lashed skiffs who scoop up lobsters using creel, traditional hand-woven baskets. And across Loch Broom, toward the whaleback humps of the blissful Summer Isles, a destination for dolphin-watching tours, are white-tailed eagles, guillemots and gannets swooping for fish.
By the time we reach Clachtoll, the breeze has become a violent gust, dashing our plans before we've even reached the tideline. Cresting waves would make an attempt not only dangerous but downright idiotic, says Hawkins. And I'm inclined to agree.
My outfit (borrowed from a friend, leaky and ill-fitting) would quickly turn from life preserver to DIY body bag.
Plan B, as the light begins to soften, is to head 10 kilometres south to Achmelvich, the second stop on the trail. Considered one of the finest beaches in Britain, it's a fabled strip of sheltered, fudge-coloured sand lapped by unbelievably clear, powder-blue water. "Nice, huh?" says Hawkins, giving the thumbs-up. His mood shifts, and we're on for our first plunge of the day.
Soon after, at the turning of the tide, we breathe deeply and dunk ourselves in, the cold rushing down my neckline like wire piercing skin. But beneath the surface my thoughts wander elsewhere. I spy a bounty of anemones and writhing juvenile fish, then float suspended, astonished at the clarity of the water. Spindly sea grasses scissor-kick in the current, the light cast upon the seabed like an orange cone. Next, unexpected rock formations, haunted by millions of years of change, begin to stretch into the distance. Under a crisp halo of light they are astonishing.
By the time we re-emerge onto the empty beach – two surreal James Bond frogmen lumbering out of the surf – I'm buzzing, left wanting to swim farther out, despite Hawkins's warning of developing "ice-cream head." I expected porridge-thick waters, I reply, but the visibility is cut-glass clear, better than I've experienced in the Maldives.
The sky darkens and we return to the car like dripping dogs. What makes this part of the Northwest Highlands so special, I think, has less to do with the snorkel trail itself than how unbound the area is. It feels paused, almost at a standstill. Places like Ullapool don't act like seaside resorts elsewhere, and neither should they. People just get on with it here – regardless of how cold the water is.
If you go
Air Canada, Air Transat and WestJet all fly to Glasgow, from where a short one-hour flight with easyJet or British Airways connects to Inverness, the capital of the Highlands.
The Ceilidh Place in Ullapool is a hotel, café, seafood restaurant, bookshop and arts venue rolled into one. Opt for one of the front-facing rooms, which have sweeping views out across Loch Broom and the harbour. Starting rates are £64 ($111) a person, or £128 per double, including breakfast. For the neighbouring bunkhouse, it's £30 a person. theceilidhplace.com.
For more information on the North West Highlands Snorkel Trail and to download a free guide, visit scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk.
The writer paid a media rate at the Ceilidh Place hotel. It did not review or approve this article.