Sure, you have to wear thickA wetsuits to take a dip here, but below the surface of Scotlanda s new snorkel traila is a surprisingly rich marine life. Graeme Green takes the plunge to see what lurks beneath these ice-cold waters.
People might think this is a crazy idea a admits Daryll Brown, a ranger with theA North Harris Trust, a community regeneration initiative. Thata s always an ominous-sounding start to any venture.
Wea re driving out from the village of Tarbert, the tiny capital of Harrisa an island in Scotlanda s Outer Hebridesa heading towards Hushinish beach, one of the key sites along a new snorkeling trail. A lot of people dona t understand why wea d want to snorkel in this water, says Daryll. They think ita s going to be too cold and therea ll be nothing to see.
Harrisa underwater landscapes and creatures are as interesting as those on land and in the skya but snorkeling isna t exactly common on the island.
This is the best place in Harris to see both kinds of eagles, he tells me, studying the misty hills for movement. Harris has 13 pairs of breeding golden eagles; the largest population in the UK.
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But Harrisa underwater landscapes and creatures are as interesting as those on land and in the skya but snorkeling isna t exactly common on the island. Those who do go underwater tend to go for food, as the waters are rich with crabs, scallops, lobster and more. People dona t associate the local waters with such colorful marine life, Daryll explains.
As we change into 6mm wetsuits and hoods, lashed by a strong wind and the waves crashing white off Hushinish, it does feel slightly crazy to be going for a swim. Average water temperatures for the sites range from 8.5 degrees Celsius (43 degrees Fahrenheit) in February and March, to 15 degrees (60 degrees) between August and October.
Long golden leaves of kelp moved below us, waving with the movement of the ocean, almost alien-like, as if in a sci-fi forest.
Weather plays a big role in any outdoor activity on Harris, so when designing the trail, Daryll selected six spots in safer, often warmer, sheltered bays. With slightly stormy conditions on our day, we try two sites that he judged as safe and reasonably easy to explore.
Geared up in snorkels, masks and fins, we walk backwards into the water. Submerging myself for the first time was jolting, the cold water punching the air from my lungs. But my body quickly adjusts, the wetsuit keeping me warm (ish), and I begin to enjoy the bracing swim around the bay.
Daryll points out the sugar kelp, the same one used in the gin made at the islanda s newly opened Harris Distillery. Therea s plenty underwater thata s edible too, he explains, presenting us with plants such as sea lettuce to nibble on and try. Having Daryll as guide and interpretera helped bring each place to life, and while the trail is largely designed for self-guided trips, guided snorkel tours are expected to start in the next year. For now, guided tours of the snorkel sites are open to school and youth groups.
The water is greener, murkier and a little colder, but ita s another fun, colorful swim. Daryll carefully carries a giant edible giant crab up to the surface for us to take a closer look. It woulda ve made a fine feasta but we let him go on his way. Scallops moved about beneath too; Daryll points to the outline of their shells on the sandy floor far below.
That wasna t all. As we swim over a kelp forest and explore from one side of the bay to another, four different varieties of starfish add to our bounty, including a bright purple specimen that clings onto the palm of my hand, along with pollock and a school of small silvery sand eels.
Thata s a goldie, he says, confidently. Thata s a beauty. 2.2-meter wingspan, an adult.
Ita s quite a sight, and as it glides along the coast, ita s easy to see why the iconic goldiesa , sea eagles and deer get so much attention from nature lovers. But, as the snorkel trail shows, therea s plenty more life on Harris, if you look beneath the surface.