Some men when they hit their midlife crisis buy a sports car or a motorbike. Me? Well, I’ve just acquired a wetsuit to go snorkelling in Scottish waters and get right up close to our amazing marine life.
When younger, I snorkelled a lot in Scotland, but for the last 25 years or so I have confined this underwater passion to the much warmer Mediterranean. But with a holiday trip to Lochinver in the far north-west looming, I knew this would be the perfect time to face our chilly seas once again like a true Braveheart.
So, with underwater camera in hand, I took the plunge in Loch Kirkaig last week, a small coastal inlet south of Lochinver. Splash, gurgle, and in I went, and wow, it was so good to be back in Scotland’s underwater world once again. There was life everywhere, most notably numerous green shore crabs.
Shore crabs are a fundamental keystone of our inshore marine environment, a double act of vital scavengers while also being food for so many other creatures. Larger fish such as cod will feast upon these crabs when they have moulted and are in their temporary soft-shelled stage – peelers as they are known. Juvenile crabs, as planktonic larvae, are avidly devoured by small fish.
There was a fair bit of squabbling going on among these crabs, and as I glided over the seabed, several squared up to each other. I’m no crab expert, but I suspect this was their breeding season.
Then, a peculiar small elongated and camouflaged eel-like fish drifted into view, with a snout just like a seahorse. I could so easily have missed it and only by chance did I pick up its subtle movements. It was a Nillson’s pipefish, which uses vibrations of its top fin to gently move over the seabed.
Over the rockier areas, small groups of young pollack darted through the waving fronds of kelp. This was just wonderful, and there were surprises at every turn, including a small bib or pout, its sides flecked with vertical stripes. I have only ever seen this fish, a member of the cod family, when diving in Cornwall before and never realised they occurred so far north.
Eventually I tired and slowly drifted towards a remote sandy beach where in the shallow waters I came across numerous tiny semi-transparent crustaceans with long proboscises and hump-back bodies. They were mysid shrimps, sometimes known as opossum shrimps.
Like the crab larvae, they are eaten by so many other creatures. In effect, I was swimming through an underwater food factory; a nursery area for fish and other animals, and the reason why our inshore waters are so important to our wider marine ecology.
If I snorkelled this sea loch every day of the year, I would surely see something new each time, such was its biological diversity. But more than that, I was a Scottish snorkelling addict again; hook, line and sinker.
Other fish to look out for in Scottish west coast sea lochs are goldsinny and rock cook wrasse. Both are colourful fish and are frequently found over kelp beds.