By Kay Henry
Photos by Rob Center
"Wow, that seal is fat!" commented a young paddler, as our pod of colorful sea kayaks approached a large group of harbor seals resting on the ledges surrounding Arisaig Harbor on the west coast of Scotland. My husband Rob and I were touring the Scottish Highlands and jumped at the chance for a day on the water before catching our ferry to the Isle of Skye. Rockhopper Kayaks offers single and multi-day adventures in this protected corner of the Scottish mainland, known for its many hiding places. Evidently in 1746 Bonnie Prince Charlie hid in Arisaig after he had lost the Battle of Culloden and was trying to flee to France. More recently, in World War II, commando units trained here for daring raids into occupied Europe. The seaside town is very picturesque with several hotels and restaurants and a wonderful small museum to highlight its fascinating history. Surrounded by ledges, the harbor is small, in summer filled with pleasure boats.
We signed on for a day trip and were met in the morning by our guides and taken 10 minutes around the bay to a launch site where we began our paddle in total sunshine--a rare treat on the often gray and drizzly Scottish coast. We were using plastic Venture Kayaks, made by Eskay, a British manufacturer, and the group was a mixture of beginners and more experienced kayakers.
We set off to investigate a mussel farm several hundred feet offshore where the mussels are grown on vertical ropes suspended from a line between floats approximately 8 feet apart. We pulled several ropes up just far enough to inspect and found strings of very small mussels and some that were almost large enough for harvest.
We then headed out for our day's explorations to the skerries, low tidal islands that surround the harbor and protect the coastline. The skerries are home to a huge variety of seabirds as well as a healthy colony of over 400 seals, both harbor seals and the larger grey seals. The protection from wind and waves that the islands afford makes for an easy and very interesting wildlife paddle. Unlike on our home ledges off the coast of Maine, these seals were unafraid of kayakers and we were able to observe them from a close, but respectful distance. We also saw a huge variety of seabirds. Guillemots, razorbills, red and black throated divers, mergansers and many other birds fished in the outer harbor as we passed by while oystercatchers, gulls and plovers waded in the shallows of the islands. We spotted porpoises roaming the deeper water of the sound with their rhythmic up and down swimming pattern.
The ocean is very clear and with white sand underneath. The visibility of underwater seaweeds waving in the tidal current is delightful. Terns and an osprey entertained us from the air. Our guides told us that deer live on one of the larger islands, although we didn't see any. The only real disappointment of the day was that although there is a thriving population of otters in the area, they managed to elude our binoculars.
The surrounding scenery of islands forming the Inner Hebrides creates a stunning background to the paddling. Seven miles across the water directly west of Arisaig is the Isle of Eigg, topped by an odd shaped rock outcrop known as the Squrr of Eigg, which overlooks the entire region. The Isle of Skye is also in view to the north, with the Cullen Hills (hardly hills, as they are actually sharp, 3,000-foot peaks) dominating that direction. In late May we could see small patches of snow near the summits.
The paddling itself was not demanding, but currents caused by the tide flowing around the skerries were strong enough to demand attention and we stayed close to shore for protection from the wind and waves. Each paddling trip here is a different exploration depending on wind direction and weather. Secluded pocket beaches gave us ample opportunities to drag our boats up onto shore, enjoy a snack or picnic lunch and explore the rocky outcrops. Beaches were not composed of our normal white silica sand but rather made of mearl, a biogenic sand material made from fine grained fragments of coralline red algae. Colorful wild flowers were in abundance in every nook of the ledges and my shell collection was duly enhanced.
By the end of the afternoon when we headed back towards the vehicles, both Rob and I felt we had enjoyed a special day, slowing down to experience this western shore of Scotland in a very personal, relaxed way from the unique vantage point of a kayak on water-and a great addition to any road trip.