A freezing paddle around Great Cumbrae

cumbrae kayak preparation It seems I have a bit of catching up to do, so let’s begin with the small Ice Age recently endured by the UK, when “Arctic deep freeze” conditions were making daily headlines. That now famous satellite photo of a white and frozen Blighty was actually more than a little disturbing. It looked awfully like Greenland. I suppose this might explain why it seemed to have no negative impact upon the aspirations of my paddling pals, and may actually have served to encourage them. Indeed, I did try to keep in mind that using temperature (of -3°C that day) as an excuse for not going kayaking would not fly in Inuit circles. Not that I’m an Inuit, as I later confirmed.

And so, the put-in point was set for Largs with a view to a circumnavigation of at least one of the Cumbrae Islands. There was certainly a nip in the air as we exited the coffee shop at the Largs Marina and organised our gear on the shore. Enveloped in a drysuit, 3 interior layers, 2 pairs of socks, mukluks, pogies, a neck gaiter and fleece-lined cap, I felt sure I had (literally) covered all bases when it came to maximising my chances of staying warm.

Hungry robin

Hungry robin

A robin was quite gallusly hopping about our launch area and we concluded that, along with all the other birds and wildlife, he must have been hungry, being that a large portion of his regular food supply was presently frozen. I selflessly scattered a corner of my energy bar in his direction.

There wasn’t much in the way of wind as we headed over to Great Cumbrae. Heading southwards, we passed Millport and then the mountains of Arran came into view which, although a little clouded over, were nonetheless snowy and beautiful. Agreeing that we would not encompass Little Cumbrae in our journey this time around, we turned right at the Tan, at which point a friendly seal showed some moderate interest in Barrie’s and my whistling efforts.

Arran mountains

Arran mountains

I was feeling fairly happy in the awareness that, indeed, I was not experiencing much in the way of cold when we pulled in at Bell Bay on the west side of Great Cumbrae to enjoy lunch. I use the term “enjoy” loosely. To my surprise, another robin appeared to investigate our foodstuffs … or perhaps that energy bar had really worked wonders?! After imbibing various concoctions from our respective (thermos) flasks, it became apparent that there would be no further hanging about as a chill was descending rapidly. Sadly, footering about with flasks and snacks involves the removal of one’s pogies. I had brought neoprene gloves with me, but couldn’t even get them on as my hands were damp and numb with cold. I would have given my right arm for a pair of mittens! (Or, I suppose then I’d only need one mitten …). Not only that, I could feel the cold starting to seep through my various layers. So, with visions of hypothermia setting in, I began to PLF (Paddle Like – er, Fury) in order to generate some heat. I know that my companions wondered what it was that they’d said, or why I’d suddenly developed an inappropriately competitive streak, as I paddled off ahead of them without the merest thought towards group cohesion. This was a matter of survival! Alas, they could not see the tears of pain that I was shedding over my frostbitten fingers. Fortunately, my efforts worked and feeling and warmth gradually returned to my person.

Bell Bay, Cumbrae

Bell Bay, Cumbrae

We re-grouped before paddling eastwards back to Largs. It was a long slog back against the wind and there were moments when I could have sworn we were getting no closer to our destination. Upon arrival, the cold torture was not over, of course, as we then set about unpacking our kit, loading cars up etc. Once again, I cursed the absence of mittens, however, ever-thoughtful Julia produced a gel hand warmer for me to clutch in order to aid my hopeless efforts at knot-tying and general fumbling. This is the best invention ever! You can guess which section of the outdoor store I made a beeline for at the first opportunity.

It’s no surprise that during our excursions in the colder months, we are frequently interrogated by passersby, with comments ranging from the observant “Is it not cold out there?”, to the more judgemental “You must be insane” variety. I fear that our attempts to reassure everyone that we have a firm grasp of our sanity are not very effective – but they just don’t know what they’re missing!

Astronomical view of our tripUpon returning to the shores of Cowal, we discovered that (still injured, but now healing) Alan had been busy in our absence. Left to his own devices, the thought had occurred to him that the inventive use of one astronomical telescope and a camera might produce results. Indeed, he managed to locate us at the northern end of Great Cumbrae from a distance of 7 miles! This is quite a technological breakthrough, I feel and just goes to prove that, even when you think you’re not being watched, quite possibly you are!

Big Brother is watching you.
1984, George Orwell

A bit of a guilt trip

What some people will do to get out of housework

What some people will do to get out of housework

My principal paddling partner, Alan, is out of commission at the moment, having undergone hand surgery. Any notions we had that he might be swiftly back in action were dispelled upon his emergence from the operating theatre with a dirty great bandage on his right hand (well actually, it was clean) and a fistful of stitches. The bandage means serious business, announcing to the world that paddling excursions, along with working for a living, are presently on hold and that normal service won’t be resumed for a while. It was with a sense of despondency that I collected him from the hospital, a feeling that was not alleviated by the unnecessary (I felt) lecturing of the (male) nurse that Alan was on no account to be allowed to do housework.

And so I wondered what we would do instead of jumping in our kayaks at the weekend. Long hours of emptiness stretched ahead, until I received an invitation from Julia to ditch Alan and go paddling with some new friends. To be fair, the invitation had been extended to both of us, but obviously Alan was not in a position to accept. It was with some remorse that I therefore left him at home while I went kayaking without him for the first time ever. It seemed strange to only take one set of gear and one kayak and I stressed over the many opportunities that existed to forget something. Sometimes a second brain is handy.

Autumn day on Loch Long

Autumn day on Loch Long

But what a day! Departing from Ardentinny with various members of the Greenock club (or the Royal West of Scotland Amateur Boat Club, to give it its rather regal Sunday name), we were all in awe of the beautiful autumn hues that coloured the landscape. The sun was shining and the wind was absent, so a relaxed, scenic paddle was the order of the day.

As we progressed northwards on Loch Long, we continuously caught up with a small flock of nervous oystercatchers who repeatedly flew ahead of us, not having figured out that they could save energy by flying behind us. We then encountered some Heron Trees. These are evergreen trees that seem to sprout exotic Heron flowers at this time of year.

Exotic Heron Tree

Exotic Heron Trees

We took a left at Loch Goil and headed towards Carrick Castle where a lunch stop was enjoyed. It was especially enjoyed by the local goose who volunteered to consume some blueberry muffins that were going spare. We decided to continue on to Lochgoilhead. Upon its approach, 2 mutually attracting things happened. Firstly, a friendly seal popped up and decided to hang out with me for a little while at excellent photographic proximity. Secondly, my camera battery died. Of course, I was then in full anticipation of entire pods of dolphins and possibly the odd whale putting in an appearance thereafter. Not that I would have been disappointed per se. Instead, we found ourselves floating into the backdrop of a most picturesque and inviting venue, The Lodge, where a wedding was about to ensue. You will just have to visit the Website to see how nice it is.

Friendly seal, Loch Goil

Friendly seal, Loch Goil

A piper was up in the hugely impressive treehouse practising some tunes ahead of the big event, so it was all rather atmospheric. We engaged in some banter with the groom-to-be who came down to the shoreside to chat. (Or maybe he was just trying to ensure his wedding pics weren’t going to be spoiled by a motley collection of kayakers in the background!).

After this pleasant interlude, we decided to turn around and head back to Ardentinny. The occupants of a Police launch gave us a cheery wave as they passed us and it was nice to realise that there was no chance of being pulled over for speeding. There was a slight chop to the water on the last leg of the journey when a bit of wind emerged as if from nowhere (certainly not the forecast).

A great day out

A great day out

After a quick tea stop at Julia’s, I wended my way homewards, resolving to display some sensitivity upon returning and not to gush about the excellent day I’d just had. I fear that I may have failed. Fortunately, this has only served to make Alan all the more determined to heal quickly. Already, he’s making cups of tea, a sure sign of improvement.

Deja vu all over again at Loch Striven

Friday night’s pool training took on a new and interesting twist last week. Alan and I had been busying ourselves with our usual rolling drills when I became aware of something resembling “shenanigans” going on at the deep end. I tried to ignore this and look busy, but was spotted by coach Richard who bullied invited me to participate. I then found myself in a kayak with a rope tied to each end, a bit like some sort of mediaeval torture device really. Richard and Euan then pulled the kayak up and down the pool, encouraging me to brace to prevent capsize. I have to admit, I was starting to enjoy it. Upon inevitably capsizing, I then had the opportunity to roll in the “moving” water. It definitely simulated the sensation of battling opposing forces under the water and I got a lot out of it. Alan’s turn was next and I think that there’s the tiniest of chances that Richard and Euan set the bar slightly higher for him (this could be a guy thing).

Duly trained up, we were keen to get out on the real water at the weekend. The forecast made Saturday a complete non-starter as, despite Richard and Euan’s best efforts, our training hadn’t quite extended to simulations of 65 mph gusts (maybe just 35 mph), so we pinned our hopes on getting out on Sunday when conditions were predicted to be calmer. And indeed they were, so off we popped for an afternoon jaunt.

Those great big ships again - and tiny kayak

Those great big ships again - and tiny kayak

More often than not we find ourselves putting in at Toward shoreline and seeing where the fancy takes us. More often than not, it takes us to Bute. And then maybe back over to Loch Striven. Being creatures of habit, that’s exactly what happened on Sunday. Well, to be honest, I wasn’t entirely finished inspecting the Maersk ships anchored in the loch, especially as another one had been added to the “raft” since we were last there. I suppose I am slightly fascinated by ships. It must have something to do with growing up on the banks of the Clyde.

After a pleasant paddle over to Bute and then northwards up Loch Striven, we managed to get a little more up close and personal this time (with the ships, that is). There were no signs of life aboard the behemoth vessels as we paddled around them, although I believe they are still being “powered down”. It’s astonishing to think that there is no work for them (or hundreds of others like them around the world) for the foreseeable future. What were all those ships transporting previously that we are somehow managing to live without now?

Stars and Stripes on Loch Striven

Stars and Stripes on Loch Striven

We noted that one of them (the Sealand Performance) was registered in New York and was flying the Stars and Stripes, which seemed a little incongruous in wee, backwater Loch Striven. But I’m forgetting how recently nearby Holy Loch played host to those very colours.

Having satisfied ourselves that we’d seen enough, we were escorted off the premises by a friendly seal as we turned to head home. We noticed that the sea state was changing a little at this point. It was no longer calm, for a start. The tide was going out and meeting the incoming wind. There were no 65 mph gusts or anything, but it was definitely lively. Something very similar happened the last time we made this self same trip, so it was all getting a bit Groundhog Day-ish. By the time we reached the NATO refuelling depot, I declared to Alan that I wanted to head in for a short break. Alan appeared to be unfazed by the conditions, but I threw a small wobbly. I’m not sure why this is. I think I am naturally predisposed towards thinking the worst. Alan pointed out that the worst that could actually happen was:

  • I might capsize
  • My roll might fail
  • I’d simply be blown over to the nearby shore

Processed through the “Pam’s even worse, worst case scenario filter” however, this reads as:

  • I might capsize
  • I might become entangled in something (seaweed? fish farm paraphernalia? NATO pipelines?) and be unable to free myself
  • I might hit my head off a rock
  • My roll might indeed therefore fail
  • Conditions might deteriorate to gale force
  • That squall moving to the north of us might contain south-bound tornadoes*
  • I (and my kayak) might get smashed to little pieces along the shoreline

(*Before you ask, I have seen a tornado forming above a car park in Greenock).

Where does all of that come from? It does get tedious.

Sensing my discomfort, Alan swapped kayaks with me. He had been paddling his new Avocet, while I was in my Nordkapp LV. I must say that I’d rather liked this arrangement as it levelled the playing field in terms of our respective speeds. Alan, therefore, got a big dollop of his own medicine feel for paddling at a reduced pace. After the wind had made its presence known, however, I was inclined to jump into the Avocet to see how it compared. And yes, I did feel a little more “in control” in the smaller kayak. It was also interesting to note that, whilst the Nordkapp had tended to rear up and then slap down on the waves, the Avocet delivered several face-fulls of saltwater instead (no, I wasn’t crying!).

We chugged our way back, rounding the fish farm, where it became especially bouncy and confused. I summoned up my learnings from Lewis, Islay, Skye and the pool, all of which had involved considerably worse conditions (ok, except for the pool). In my mind, I can honestly say, I was mentally prepared to try rolling upon capsize, especially as most of the sea activity was on my “good” side. I no longer think that my only instinct would be to pull the deck’s grab loop, but it remains to be seen as, on this occasion, I (and Alan) did manage to stay upright.

I am leaning towards adopting another indispensable tip from coach Richard in the meantime, proven to help many a kayaker get through rough waters and also to engage their roll. So where can I order a smiley face sticker for my deck? 🙂

I want to be you – whenever I see you smilin’
Cause it’s easily one of the hardest things to do
Your worries and fears become your friends
And they end up smilin’ at you
Put on a smilin’ face

Smiley Faces, Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere

A week with Gordon Brown of Skyak Adventures

Out on the water with Gordon Brown

Out on the water with Gordon Brown

Mention the name Gordon Brown to the average person and they will instantly think of the besuited chap who resides at No 10 Downing Street. Do likewise to the avid sea kayaker and their thoughts will turn to Skyak Adventures and one of the best-known and most revered coaches in the sea kayaking business, also author of the hugely successful Sea Kayak: A Manual for Intermediate and Advanced Sea Kayakers. Such are his reputation and credentials that I used to think that someone of my lowly paddling status would not “qualify” for a course with him. A conversation with a certain well-known Spanish paddler some time ago, however, convinced me otherwise. It is the case that Skyak Adventures can accommodate everyone from beginners to advanced.

Introductions

And so it came to pass that Alan and I signed up for a 5 day course which took place last week. As our little group of fellow trainees gathered in Gordon’s converted bothy office at Isle Ornsay on Skye on Monday morning, some modest introductions were made. I recall mentions of paddling for wildlife photography purposes, and of a recent conversion from “couch potato” status, all very benign and it seemed that these were my people. As Gordon sought to learn what skills we wished to focus on, however, I tried not to become alarmed at the frequency of mention of “rough water”, or the size of the lettering of those very words on his white board. I deny all accusations that I participated in this madness. I was assuaged only by the appearance of the word “FUN” in even bigger letters. Gordon then asked what was the one skill that we would like to take home and, for fear of appearing a bit silly, I suppressed the desire to blurt out, “roll my sea kayak dammit”, and mumbled something about kayak handling instead.

Certainly, I was pleased to note that, rather than being some sort of kayaking boot camp, fun had indeed been included on our itinerary. It became very apparent from Gordon’s affable and jocular style and his many witty anecdotes that a light-hearted mood would prevail, although he did warn us that we would know when he was being serious. I fervently hoped that I would not be the one to provoke any “seriousness”.

Out on the water

At Armadale Pier

At Armadale Pier

Soon we were out in Armadale Bay practising sweep strokes and turning in and out of wind. Using these skills, we negotiated our way under the pier and I confess to the odd misjudgement which perhaps added a couple of deeply ingrained scores minor scratches to the Valley Avocet in which I found myself. This brought us out into choppier waters as someone (I remain blameless here) had suggested that self rescuing in calm waters was a scoosh and that they wished to try it in rougher conditions. All eyes fell on Alan as he wrestled his kayak into near submission only to capsize at the last moment. Gordon steered us back to less choppy waters and taught us the finer points of self and assisted rescues. The day wrapped up with a rolling clinic. I had secretly looked forward to this and duly paddled over to Gordon as he stood in the water and motioned for me to approach in the manner of Morpheus in the fight scene of The Matrix. But I was no Neo and my roll failed. It seemed that not even Gordon could work miracles. (Or perhaps they would just take a little longer?).

Tuesday at Kylerhea – off to the races

Breaking out of the tide race

Breaking out of the tide race

Tuesday introduced me to a new concept – entering and exiting tidal races. As most of our paddling is done in the Clyde Estuary, Alan and I do not have a whole lot of experience in this field. Our group had timed our visit to coincide with maximum tidal flow, however, the absence of strong winds made the conditions – I am told – less than perfect in terms of challenge and general scariness. I was OK with this as I have not spent sufficient time practising extravagant low braces to cope well with the entry and exit process for a start. Alan has frequently chastised me for my lackadaisical attitude to this particular skill and indeed I did manage to show myself up. I think I got away with it in our morning session, but the afternoon gave the game away. Let’s just say I was getting to know Gordon quite well during our various rendezvous across an upturned kayak and upon the long paddle back from whence the tide had cast me.

In between tides, a small miracle did occur. Gordon commenced another rolling clinic and I once again signed up. Some precision critiquing from him and – up I came! In a sea kayak! Of course, that was not quite sufficient and soon he had me dispensing with my nose clip (not as terrible as I had imagined) and skull cap, trying out rolling on the move, in moving water etc.

After my various tidal dunkings, Gordon made me end the day with a successful roll and it had the desired effect. I went back to the hotel that night smiling to myself.

Wednesday – the lows and the highs

The wind obliged by getting up a little on Wednesday, to F4-5. We were back at Armadale and once again made our way under the pier to what definitely qualified in my book as rough water. We paddled over to 2 nearby skerries. Gordon instructed us to paddle between them, out into the fray and anti-clockwise around the first one, returning to its lee.

It was like a wild, bucking bronco rodeo ride on an unbroken colt all the way around! Amongst confused waves of up to 6 feet, I knew that at any moment I was about to capsize and only pure luck was keeping me upright. I was so far away from my comfort zone, I was sending it postcards. Back in the lee, to my despair, Gordon sent us around again and my luck finally ran out as I completely misread the water and got trashed by one of the many thousands of waves that were jostling for position to unhinge me. Like a smiling, neoprene clad guardian angel, Gordon materialised at my side and we resumed our acquaintance across my upturned vessel. Once back in, I was given a class in reading the black and the white water and we commenced a clockwise circumnavigation of the island. Next up, an enormous wave loomed over my bow and, to the sound of Gordon shouting “Paddle!” resounding in my ears, I did what came naturally – I completely froze and was once again trashed.

Sorry, no photos from Wednesday - this is Thursday!

Sorry, no photos from Wednesday - this is Thursday!

I’m not going to lie to you, I was not a happy bunny at this point. My mind started spinning to thoughts of giving up completely, to my neglected bike in the garage, to my book and a cosy fireside, and so on. I started to doubt I was cut out for this sea kayaking business – it felt like my ego had been writing cheques that my ability couldn’t cash. I couldn’t help but hate observe my fellow trainees. They seemed to be coping admirably with the conditions, more than is strictly necessary for a spot of wildlife photography if you ask me. So what was my problem? As I sat in the shelter of the island where Gordon had awarded me a rest, I could feel tears welling. But something interesting happened at this point. I paused and took a breath – and somehow I knew I was OK. Underneath the spinning mind, the strangled ego, the envy, I was actually perfectly OK. They were only thoughts, after all. I started watching the manx shearwaters, the terns and the seals, and that very moment felt pretty good in fact. I even started feeling happy that everyone else was doing well – what purpose would it serve if everyone was having a bad time?

As we all met up and pulled in for lunch, Alan confessed to just having had a bit of a swim himself (the omnipresent guardian angel had appeared at his side too). But I’m sure he only did this to try to make me feel better.

Gordon suggested we swap around kayaks and I relinquished the Avocet LV to a willing taker (God bless Nick, who seemed to relish its “liveliness”). We were then informed that we were going out to do some rough water rolling practice and I contemplated what I would do during this time, apart from watch the seals. On the way out, I started to become pleasantly aware that I was doing a little better in my new kayak. Next, 2 more advanced trainees in our party were rolling in the middle of the turbulent conditions. I could only hang back, agog with admiration. Imagine my shock when Gordon turned to me and yelled, “Your turn, Pamela!”. I whimpered back that I had only just learned to roll a sea kayak the day before, and that he could not be serious, but he reminded me that I’d been effectively learning for 2 years. There’s no arguing with the man. And so I capsized. And I rolled up. And stayed up. He made me do it again, and again – and I kept coming up. After about half a dozen rolls in the rough water, I eventually failed – but came up on the second attempt, which proved that my brain could operate without air. Who knew?

Finally, a last couple of trips around the island allowed Alan and me to gain confidence by demonstrating that it was indeed possible to stay upright.

I won’t ever forget that day. I won’t forget the despair or the elation. I had been pushed to a certain limit and had come out the better. It is quite something for someone to believe in you more than you believe in yourself. I won’t forget the encouragement of Gordon, Alan and my fellow trainees. Or the little audience of seals who seemed to approve. Or the terns squawking overhead. It is captured in my memory, and feels a lot like being given a gift.

Thursday – a ring of bright water

Sandaig

Sandaig

As most of our group had travelled quite some distance to get to Skye, including from southernmost England, there was a general desire to do a little exploring. It had been hoped (by some) that the tide race at Kylerhea might be running at savage proportions at some point later in the week, but alas the forecast had changed and this seemed unlikely. So now was a good opportunity to do some sightseeing. We agreed to set out from Camuscross for Sandaig.

The crossing was a little choppy, but I felt good in the Avocet (non LV version) which seemed to handle it with ease. Tips previously provided by Gordon on how to improve forward paddling efficiency helped enormously.

Edal's grave

Edal's grave

Sandaig is the former home of Gavin Maxwell who wrote one of my (and millions of others’) favourite books, “Ring of Bright Water”. It was absolutely magical to visit the scene of “Camusfearna” and I could easily envisage the otters playing about in the bay and the waterfall. After all, not much has changed in that beautiful place over the years. The house is gone now, of course, but a monument to Gavin Maxwell is there in its place, as well as the grave of Edal the otter, poignantly decorated with stones and shells. Some tears were shed as I read the inscription on the latter, written by Maxwell himself:

“Whatever joy she gave to you, give back to Nature.”

On leaving Sandaig, we paddled south-east and then west to Knoydart, stopping briefly for afternoon tea before heading “home” to Camuscross.

Friday – towing the line

The weather had established itself as definitely “settled”, so Friday morning was spent at Skyak Adventures’ international headquarters, aka the bothy, working on tidal planning. During the course of our lesson, Gordon advised Alan and me of a location not far from Cowal to which we will shortly be making a beeline to play with the tide. More later!

Towing Alan to the Cuillins

Towing Alan to the Cuillins

We took the Skyak minibus down to Ord where, against a magnificent backdrop of the Cuillins, we commenced practice with the many different kinds of towing that one can do, including improvised methods. It was amusing to note that all the females of our party had chosen to be towees first, followed by the the males who relished their turn a bit too enthusiastically. This was succeeded by some sort of kayak display team stunt that I haven’t quite fathomed, but looked like fun. Rolling clinic came after that and, before we knew it, it was all over and time to go home.

Having taken leave of Gordon and our other new friends, our minds were filled with the sea and kayaks as we headed down the road to Cowal. We came away from our week in Skye so completely encouraged and enthused that it was actually difficult to imagine going for more than a couple of days without being back out on the water. We were greatly looking forward to continuing to work on our skills. So it’s no surprise that on Sunday, we were out on Loch Eck and – notching up another day of achievement – I rolled my very own Nordkapp LV.

When I’m at the pearly gates
This’ll be on my videotape
My videotape


No matter what happens now
I won’t be afraid
Because I know
Today has been the most perfect day I have ever seen

Videotape, In Rainbows, Radiohead

A friend indeed

Erin (not in a kayak)

Erin

This blog post is dedicated to a very special friend – our first and original kayaking teacher, Erin. Erin is a woman of many talents – a paramedic, firefighting, marine biologist, Web developing, surfing, mountain biking, nature-loving kayaker (I’m sure I’ve missed something). She used to work as a guide for Monterey Bay Kayaks so we press-ganged her into telling us everything she knew about paddling during her first visit to Scotland. That was 2 years ago, when she braved the icy temperatures of Loch Eck (and, as it turned out, a bout of bronchitis) to get us up and running in our Capellas. We really didn’t know much at all back then, so it was a hugely appreciated head start.

A couple of weeks ago, Erin returned for a second visit and it was a real pleasure to go paddling with her on our home turf (so to speak). We’d already kayaked with her in Monterey Bay, where the wildlife frightened delighted us with their enthusiastic leaping and frolicking in the waves, so now it was our chance to let her see their more shy Scottish counterparts.

Erin

Out on the Clyde

During the first half of Erin’s stay, we started to fear that we wouldn’t actually get out on the water, so dismal were the conditions. It seemed that Erin would finally learn why her ancestors had left Scotland. It was proving a quite different experience from her first trip here when it appeared that she had brought the California weather with her. Happily this time, however, the weather had just been delayed by security at the border (sunny, warm conditions – very suspicious) but did arrive in time for us to take advantage.

The seals start to circle

The seals start to circle

Our first outing produced a most unexpected outcome – the first known case of a Californian overheating on Scottish waters. Poor Erin was sensibly wearing her surfer’s thick neoprene wetsuit but, with temperatures climbing, she was cooking by the end of the day. In fact, we all were! But not before we had experienced another unexpected event. As we approached the Perch off of Innellan on our way to Bute, we suddenly became aware of a sense of being watched. It started with one seal, then we counted 2, then 3, all popping up to check us out. Before we knew it, we had been encircled by 7 seals. What a thing! Whilst some might have viewed this as a little sinister, it was clear that the seals were not closing in on us, but were simply inspecting us before allowing us to continue on our journey. It really was a special moment. That day, we also saw gannets, eider ducks, cormorants, terns, guillemots and – for the first time out on the Clyde from our kayaks, porpoises!

Porpoise

Porpoise

Undeterred by her near-melting experience, Erin requested to go out paddling again, so this time – more airily attired in a rash guard – she braved the unusual Scottish conditions once more. Yet again, we saw porpoises, as well as a little troupe of baby eider ducks. Unable to launch into their usual flapping-away frenzy at the merest sight of humans, the accompanying adults had to make do with guiding their little ones into giving us an extremely wide berth. More seals made their presence known with several snorts and plops from behind us.

Two of my favourite people

Two of my favourite people

Erin has gone back to California now, leaving us with a great sense of sadness that she is so far away. It seemed that the Scottish critters put in a special showing for her visit – perhaps, like us, they recognised and appreciated a true and special friend.

They shoot seals, don’t they?

In my ongoing attempts to save the seals/seabirds/whales/dolphins/trees/planet one blog entry at a time, I want to highlight this latest piece of information, recently exposed in the news.

“”We believe there is a mass slaughter of seals in Scotland, up to 5,000 each year.”

Mark Carter, of the Hebridean Trust, said the general decline in seal numbers was particularly noticeable around fish farms.”

Following on from my earlier blog post about the massive decline in seal numbers around Scotland, this is obviously a source of grave concern. Whilst fish farms might not be the sole cause, and without getting into a discussion on all of the environmental issues surrounding the growing number of fish farms in Scotland, it’s clear that there is no room for any additional, unnecessary losses in the seal population.

I have written to my MSP to encourage him to pay heed to this, particularly in relation to discussions on the forthcoming Marine Bill which, it is hoped, will be geared towards protecting all marine wildlife. A few appropriate letters to supermarket chains wouldn’t go amiss either. I’m sure that economic concerns will be cited in defence of the fish farms, but recent events (environmental and otherwise) must surely demonstrate where a standpoint that favours economic and profit-related considerations at all costs, including the survival of a species, can lead.

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Mahatma Gandhi

Massive decline in seal numbers around Scotland

Common seals, Kyles of Bute

Common seals, Kyles of Bute

Reading this news was not the best way to start the week. It’s disturbing in any number of ways, but especially for sea kayakers who have enjoyed the company of these gentle creatures on our travels.

Lately, it’s been feeling like awaiting a storm to hit. Between the global economic crisis, and the equally/more ominous environmental crisis that are both building, it’s hard not to get depressed. I remember what it was like to live somewhere that was frequented by hurricanes. During the days preceding the storm’s arrival, we were warned of its approach and we avidly listened to the forecasts and analysed the indicators (heightened surf, evacuation of ships from the main port etc). There was a sense of unreality, and something like disbelief that anything bad would actually happen. I’m reminded of that feeling now. Perhaps that’s why, when news like this occurs, there is still a sense of shock. At some level, we’ve all been hoping that the storm doesn’t actually exist, or will somehow miss us, or at least our lifetimes.

I still find it hard to accept that there seems to be insufficient room on this planet for both humanity and our fellow creatures. At times it seems hopeless. Yet, we can still all do our own little bit.