Put aside that skimpy bathing suit and grab a wetsuit instead—there’s a new snorkel spot on the must-see list. The chilly waters of northwest Scotland are now home to the North West Highlands Snorkel Trail that spans a nearly 100-mile stretch of coastline from Stoer to Gairloch. Launched in July of last year, the trail has a focus on tourism and coastal planning.
Snorkelers of all skill levels can enjoy the spots on the trail; they were picked with their beauty, diversity, and colorful sea life in mind rather than advanced technical knowledge. The breadth of marine wildlife snorkelers are likely see is vast, including everything from the more common sea squirts, starfish, snails, crabs, and fish, to the less frequently seen sharks, dolphins, seals and whales.
“The coast of Wester Ross and Sutherland [where the trail is] features some fantastic sheltered headlands and beaches that are great places for snorkeling,” Noel Hawkins, Living Seas Communities Officer with the Scottish Wildlife Trust, told The Scotsman. “The new trail is self-led, but we are hoping to establish a training program for local people to become qualified snorkel instructors, and also a snorkel club at the local leisure center to introduce younger members of the community to snorkeling and their local marine environment.”
Because the water is generally cold, swimmers will wish to make some necessary arrangements first. Tides, water temperature, currents, and the weather can change unexpectedly in Scotland, so check the reports before you go, and keep an eye on weather patterns. Wear a wetsuit to avoid freezing, and also to guard against jellyfish stings—snorkelers along the trail are likely to see four types of them, but the Lion’s Mane jellyfish has the most painful sting of the bunch. In addition, observe general snorkeling safety guidelines: don’t go alone, and don’t touch or take anything.
The route itself has nine stops, starting at the Bay of Clachtoll and heading south to An Dun. To drive from one end of the route to the other takes about two hours, but if you have a boat, you can make a day out of several stops. Each spot on the trail has something unique for snorkelers to see.
“Lots of people might think it's too cold to snorkel in Scotland, but the colors and life under the surface in places like the northwest coast are up there with the coral reefs you can find abroad,” Lizzie Bird from the British Sub Aqua Club told the BBC.
Novice snorkelers will find calm waters and easy swimming at the Bay of Clachtoll, Achmelvich Bay and the beach at Big Sand Carn Dearg. Further off the beach at Big Sand, more advanced snorkelers will find a robust view of a reef, kelp forests and colorful fish. For those seeking something a little more unusual, Mellon Charles is one of the more unique stops—it was home to a WWII naval base that’s now a sheltered beach and pier. And for those with the means, one stop—Tanera Mòr—is accessible only by boat; it’s the last inhabited island of the Summer Isles archipelago.