When I started working at Lifescape Project and learnt about our Wildside leave policy, I was pretty excited. Two days extra holiday per year to spend time in nature and engage with wildlife to make sure I never forget why it is so important to protect it. I knew I’d joined the right organisation!
Having got the train from Shropshire, we met our fellow kayakers and guide in Banavie, near Fort William. From there, we got into the minibus amidst excited chatter for the final part of the journey to Arisaig.
The first challenge to overcome was squeezing in everything we needed for the next five days. Food, stoves, pots and pans, camping kit, warm clothes, safety equipment – it all had to find a place. We would be wild camping for the duration of the trip and needed to be self-sufficient for that time.
Over the next five days, we circumnavigated the Sound of Arisaig, spending a lot of our time hugging the coastline above shallow, crystal-clear waters, allowing us to observe the richness of undersea life. We learnt about the different types of seaweed. Apparently, dulse seaweed is the best option if you’re looking for a tasty and nutritious seaweed to supplement your meals. Even just nibbling it raw was surprisingly pleasant!
I became mildly obsessed with the amazing kelp forests that we paddled over. I’m not sure what about them I found so intriguing – their broad tagliatelle-like appearance or their graceful wavy movement? Or perhaps it was knowing of their powerful and yet invisible ability to sequester carbon? Either way, each time we paddled over them, I became mesmerised. And by the time I looked up, the rest of the group would already be round the corner.
It wasn’t just the kelp that kept our eyes looking downwards. Jellyfish floated serenely beside us, with the most impressive being the lion’s mane jellyfish with their long tentacles which can stretch for metres. I was glad not to see any of them during my morning swims! Along the rocky sections there were starfish nestled amongst the seaweed, along with sea urchins, sea anemones, and sea snails. On our second day, we sat and watched a gull stood proudly on a rock clumsily dissecting a starfish. It seemed quite undeterred by its audience.
Seals and Eagles
Seal spotting was a favourite daily activity. Looking out for their distinctive shape hauled out on a rock, or their labrador-like heads bobbing in the water. The majority of the seals in the Sound are harbour seals (also known as common seals), which are smaller than grey seals and despite their name, are far less common. On the rocks, they often adopt a ‘banana’ shape which looks rather strenuous but they seem to enjoy it.
We were also treated to daily sightings of white-tailed eagles, a real privilege given their low numbers in the UK. The white-tailed eagle is the UK’s largest bird with a wingspan of up to 2.4 m. After becoming extinct in the UK due to over-hunting, they were reintroduced on the Isle of Rum in the 1970s.
Our most memorable sighting occurred on the second day of paddling on the southern coast of Loch Nan Uamh. I first noticed a large bird stood with great stature on a rocky promontory. At such a distance, I couldn’t see it clearly even through binoculars. However, as we paddled nearer I could see that it was an eagle. It stayed in the same position until we were perhaps 50 metres away. It then took flight, showing us its powerful silhouette, fingered wings, and prominent white tail feathers.
Dolphins and porpoises
Shortly after the eagle took flight, our attention was drawn to the horizon where there was movement above water. A pair of harbour porpoises, identifiable by their triangular-shaped dorsal fins, were travelling up the Loch towards the open sea. They lived up to their nickname of ‘puffing pigs’ – their noisy breathing clearly audible even from a distance.
I thought our wildlife watching luck must have reached its limit for the day. But as we got closer to our camp at Port an t-Sluichd we saw a small group of dolphins up ahead. They were much more playful in the water than the porpoises and we think they were common dolphins.
The dolphins didn’t hang round for long but from our campsite we saw further disturbance on the water and there was a much larger group of dolphins, perhaps up to 20, out in the bay. They were having a great time jumping out of the water and it was a true joy to watch, with a particularly great view through the binoculars.
Understanding the People of the area
Port an t-Sluichd on the Ardnish peninsula is home to the abandoned township of Slochd, which is thought to have been populated until the late 19th century. The stonewalled remains of the black houses allow visitors to imagine what life must have been like for the inhabitants, relying on a mixture of fishing and farming to sustain them.
The limited records available suggest that the population of the Ardnish increased during the 18th century Highland clearances when landowners moved tenants off higher quality grazing land, with the marginal land of the Ardnish offering an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ relocation option. The marginal land of the peninsula, however, could not support the increased population and numbers decreased gradually until the very last inhabitant left the peninsula in the 1970s. There are other abandoned townships on the Ardnish, including Peanmenach, where we stayed on our third night. The townships are well worth an explore for any budding historians – a detailed account of the history of the peninsula is available in this detailed research paper.
Our final days
Moving back to the area’s amazing wildlife, our fourth day of paddling was particularly memorable as we saw otters. The first sighting was during breakfast and the otter was far out in the bay, only distinguishable by the flick of its tail as it dived beneath the water. Our second sighting, however, was exceptional.
As we were paddling just east of Camas Drollaman, we saw an otter swimming close to the rocky shoreline. Having hung back to see if we could catch another glimpse of it, it raised itself onto a rocky shelf, with a squirming eel in its mouth. By this time, we were within 10 metres of the otter and sitting still, it didn’t seem to notice us as it attacked its wriggling lunch for the next two minutes or so, before it slipped back into the water.
So all in all, it was a fantastic trip both from a kayaking and wildlife watching perspective. For anyone interested in doing something similar, I’d recommend looking at the Arisaig Sea Kayaking Centre website for details of upcoming trips. You don’t need to be an experienced sea kayaker to sign up. We’re already planning how we can improve our sea kayaking skills over the winter to allow us to join a more advanced trip next year involving longer sea crossings with the hope of seeing some minke whales!
You can find out more about the Sound of Arisaig here.
Elsie Blackshaw-Crosby, Managing Lawyer, The Lifescape Project