A Springtime Snorkel in the Sunshine around Gairloch
Sunday 19th April just two of us set off for the An Dun headland at the far end of the Gairloch golf course beach to go snorkelling, clad in warm winter wetsuits. The headland is named after the ‘Dun’ or stone fort which dates from the megalithic period. This Iron Age fort is vitrified: some of the stones have been subject to very high temperatures and partially melted. ‘An Dun’ was probably destroyed then rebuilt during the early centuries AD by the Vikings and later became the seat of local Macleod and Mackenzie chiefs. Not much of the fort can now be seen above ground, but excavation has found sections of fire-fused stone walling.
The seas around the headland provide opportunities for viewing marine wildlife by snorkelling. As the tide goes out, a sandy-bottomed lagoon formed by large waves breaking over the rocky reef appears. Small fish are crowded together as the area of the lagoon becomes smaller and the depth becomes shallower. Seagulls often patrol the outflow, taking fish that make a break for deeper water as the tide recedes. From when the tide level goes below about 1.1m, the lagoon provides a sheltered place to paddle. At very low spring tides (0.6m or less; these are usually around the middle of the day or early in the afternoon), the depth is only about 50cm or even less. On this occasion, conditions were ideal: bright sunshine and one of the lowest tides of the year.
After floating in the sheltered shallow water of the lagoon, we swam to the side of the headland to explore beneath the kelp. The water was very clear: 10m+ underwater visibility. There were more animals than I’d anticipated: dozens of small hermit crabs, several netted-dog whelks, a large whelk, shore crabs of various sizes, assorted starfish, a? purple heart urchin; and perhaps most intriguing, 10+ ‘sea hares’. Of fish, a shoal of small sandeels had become trapped in the lagoon (and a larger sandeel); we saw many wee plaice (mostly ~20mm long, and one larger one of about 8cm); a goby; and Jean saw an orange-brown coloured fish attached to the kelp which may have been a sea scorpion. Fish diversity is highest toward the end of the summer when common (?or sand) goby, ?painted goby; juvenile grey gurnard, juvenile pollack, juvenile cod, sea scorpion, 15-spined stickleback and sandeels can often be seen. In some years the lagoon tends to fill up with sea weed debris in which many animals are able to hide. Snorkellers who search through the debris may get an interesting surprise! For those who do not wish to venture into deeper water on the other side of the rocky headland, many of the animals of the kelp forest can be found here in and around the lagoon if you look carefully.
The tide kept going out; a small stream formed as water flowed out of the lagoon. I’ve never seen the tide so low here: many of the anemones and colourful encrusting sponges were briefly exposed to the air (they look much better under the water!).There were several razor clams protruding from the sand as we walked back along the beach; I pulled two of them out and thought about taking them home to eat; then decided against it . . . A little later we sat in the sunshine outside the ‘Links’ café at the Golf Club enjoying a wonderful bowl of lentil and vegetable soup with a piece of quiche.
People in Gairloch are lucky to have somewhere as accessible as the An Dun headland to explore underwater wildlife. Could the area around the headland become a small marine reserve of the sort that schoolchildren in New Zealand learn to explore and are taught to look after? Are there other areas around Wester Ross where small voluntary marine reserves could be developed with guidance to enable snorkelers to enjoy the underwater wildlife?
Peter Cunningham email@example.com