With staycations very much on everyone’s agenda for 2021, you couldn’t go wrong choosing the award-winning North West Highlands snorkel trail as one of this summer’s activities. You might be fooled into thinking you were somewhere more tropical than Scotland with such clear water, white sandy beaches and colourful marine life.
Noel Hawkins is a volunteer with British Divers Marine Life Rescue and formerly worked as the Living Seas Community Officer at the Scottish Wildlife Trust. He was the brains behind the 9-location snorkel trail. Created in 2015 with families and new users in mind, his wish was to get people to engage with local marine life and encourage them to protect Scottish seas. In 2017 his team received the Nature of Scotland Award for Nature Tourism.
The locations along the coast of Wester Ross and Sutherland are all in protected bays with very little boat traffic. This means that anyone can have a go regardless of ability. All sites are easily accessible with somewhere safe to leave your car. A downloadable brochure for the self-led trail provides informative maps, suggests species to look out for and outlines safety tips.
Important seascapes like kelp beds and seagrass provide crucial habitats for diverse marine life including Ballan wrasse, crabs and fragile maerl (a red coralline algae), while rocky outcrops, lagoons and even an old pier shelter juvenile fish, starfish, sea anemones and urchins. In the right season you may even be in the path of passing basking sharks! Noel says that the colours and even the rocks themselves (the trail is in a GeoPark area of interesting geological features) are as varied and dramatic as he has seen anywhere.
The trail will take a good portion of a week to complete comfortably. It is designed for visitors interested in the wildlife and environment of the area rather than those on a fleeting visit. As with much of the Highlands, the scenery is out of this world, and you can enjoy picnics on secluded beaches and coastal path walks, spotting seabirds and seals on the shoreline.
Spread over 100 miles, it starts (or ends) in Achmelvich, going south through Ullapool, Dundonnel, culminating in the Gairloch area. Highlights include Achmelvich Bay – a stunning sandy beach with rocky outcrops on both sides - and Mellon Charles which is an old pier part of a former Second World War naval base.
Ullapool – on the east shore of Loch Broom - was founded in 1788 as a herring port by the British Fisheries Society. A 2-hour drive from Inverness airport, it was voted one of the UK’s top 10 outdoor destinations by Outdoor Fitness magazine. There are B&Bs aplenty, camp sites and some great fish restaurants. It is also on the Hebridean Whale Trail where you might spot Risso’s dolphin, white-beaked dolphin, Minke whales and orca (among others). The Hebrides have among the highest numbers of harbour porpoise in Europe and is a Special Area of Conservation for them. It was the first plastic straw free village in the UK and has a beach clean station to encourage people to contribute to keep the area a beauty spot and give something back while visiting.
Noel’s Living Seas team was involved in getting over 60 local youngsters in Ullapool trained in the BSAC Dolphin Snorkeller course – first in the local swimming pool followed by the open water. This has increased their marine awareness, and in turn awareness of the environment and issues such as climate change. He hopes it will be an interest for them for life. Some have even gone on to complete their PADI Open Water course. With such a close community spirit you are sure to feel welcome visiting Ullapool.
Best time to visit: Summer from June onwards going into Autumn when the sky is clearer and there are fewer midges! Noel says “when the sun does come out the vibrant colours and gleaming seas sparkling off some white sandy beaches (often called coral beaches but actually made often made up of maerl) would have most people believing they were in the Mediterranean or Caribbean – visually at least”.
Water temperature: 10 -14 degrees. Wetsuit essential! (5mm minimum)
Visibility: Up to 30 metres
Caution: Be wary of tides and currents whenever you visit. It is recommended not to snorkel in rough weather or alone. Lion’s Mane Jellyfish can sting, so it is recommended you wear a full-length wetsuit, hood, boots and gloves. Always tell someone where you are going and when you will be back as phone signal in the Highlands can be iffy in the unlikely event of an emergency.