The underwater trails – Snorkelling in Scotland

Route: Achmelvich Beach and Alltan'abradhan

Date walked: 30/06/2018

Before anyone complains, I know this is not a traditional walk report. So I hope you forgive me for posting it here. The sea as much as the mountains have always been high on my list of favorite places and I think it deserves a mention. Maybe you've thought about the idea of snorkeling in Scotland, or simply fancy a day where you could ditch the boots and enter the unexplored underwater world to discover a trail, only a few have set foot/ fin in. If this sounds intriguing read on…

The underwater trails – snorkeling in Scotland
When I first read about a snorkel trail in Scotland, I was surprised. Scotland doesn’t really come to mind when you first think about snorkeling. All you have to do is step into the water to be convinced that any time longer than a few minutes would lead to the loss of feeling in your feet and frostbite. :lol: Saying that, the crystal clear waters in the far north have always looked rather inviting, so during one wet Saturday I was standing in a dive shop trying on wetsuits, getting ready for a new adventure.
On top of a mask and snorkel, a wetsuit, neoprene hat, gloves and socks are an absolute must when you want to go snorkeling in Scotland, but the experience in trying them on is something else. After trying on 3 pairs you will drenched in sweat, have stomach cramps from pulling your stomach in and in general feel like a sausage which have been stuffed into a skin 3 sizes too small. Don’t even think you will get something which looks flattering. The combination of wetsuit and looking good simply doesn’t exist with normal size humans and don’t even bother with mirrors, you will be disturbed for life. 8)
With the gear purchased, my first step into the north Atlantic was on the beautiful Balnakiel beach in Durness. The water was a turquoise mirror and tiny waves were gently lapping onto the sand. Walking fully clad in neoprene down to the water, sun beating down from the sky, an inch of sweat had gathered already in my neoprene socks. I was close to throwing myself into the sea, but decided that a belly flop in 10 inches of water would not be a good idea. Marching into the sea I came to an abrupt halt when the water, with a temperature of 50F/10C reached thigh level and started seeping into my wetsuit. Holy Moly! The initial shock of freezing water entering the sauna of my wetsuit could not have been healthy. Needless to say composure needed to be kept, as we had a small group of onlookers from the beach and screaming like little girls would not reflect the rufty tufty look we were after. I inched myself deeper into the water until acclimatized enough, I was ready to explore the underwater world.
The coldness was forgotten about in an instant, when the greenish blue underwater world of the crystal clear water spread out in front of me. If you have never snorkeled or scuba dived before, you have literally only seen 30% of our planet and the 70% you have been missing will blow your socks off.
The Scottish waters are a heaven for kelp and unsightly broken up bits which can be encountered on a beach walk, are nothing in comparison when you see your first underwater kelp forest. With strong stems anchored into the sandy floor, the huge kelp leaves are mesmerizing to watch when they swing in the currents and swimming through the shallow parts, or diving into them you will never know what you will encounter. They are a haven for a numbers of animals like craps, sea urchins, coral, starfish and hundreds of fish amongst them.


The North West Snorkel trail

The Scottish North West Snorkel trail was established in 2016 and has 9 locations across Wester Ross and Sutherland. If you have been to the far north you will know that ‘Gods country’, as it is often called, is stunning and the amazing countryside does not stop when you enter the water. But don’t dismay when you live hundreds of miles away (as most of us do) there are plenty of other locations around Britain to set foot into the water and explore the underwater world with mask and snorkel.
The snorkel trail starts at the Bay of Clachtol and during our May holiday we explored the first two- Achmelvich Bay and the Bay of Clachtoll. During our stay we explored 5 snorkel locations which I have named based on the main feature and which are described below. All distances covered are approximately. Time spend in the water depends on what you see and the speed distance covered, but were usually between 60-90 minutes.
What did we see:
Jellyfish (Red lion’s, moon, blue, barrel) large and juvenile fish, anemones, Spider craps, kelp, numerous type of kelp and seaweed, seals, sea otter, seven armed starfish, plan starfish, shells, prawn, sea urchins, dead mans finger coral.

Lion's mane jellyfish


Achmelvich beach has always been one of my top 3 favorite beaches and the location is so beautiful, that in my opinion you don’t need any excuses to visit the area. The area is simply made for long walks along the cliffs and the discovery of small beaches and I was excited to explore the underwater world.

Jellyfish cave and the island
Return Distance: 830 meters
It’s a sandy bottom start directly from the beach and the first few hundred meters out gave us a chance to get used to the water which was not any warmer than we had experiences in Durness. We snorkeled along the coast until a gap in the rocks on the left appeared. Snorkeling from the sunny seas into the shadow of the ‘cave’ as I called it, it took a while for my eyes to get used to the darker sea. Once my eyes had gotten used to the darkness I saw at least 50 jellyfish which either had been pushed in from the sea, or were seeking shelter. They were beautiful to watch, pulsing their delicate bodies through the water like a dance. I was mesmerized and instantly found a new love for jellyfish. Without the fear of getting hurt by their long tentacles, the wetsuit proved priceless and carefully swimming through them I reached the rocks at the end. Looking down I noticed hundreds of coral on the steep cliff below. Diving down to inspect the wall, I encountered my first view of dead man’s finger coral. Stumpy, pretty finger like corals in their hundreds covered the wall below me. I never thought that I would have encountered so many stunning coral on such a shallow snorkel. Leaving the cave, we continued along the rocks until we had to swim the short distance towards the little island. The island , a collection of rocks which are uncovered in the low tide are 700 meters away from the beach. We swam around it and came across a huge barrel jellyfish. Completely harmless, they are beautiful in their medicine ball size and I swam around it a few times to watch it bobbing up and down the water. From the depths of the sea a beautiful kelp forest could be seen and in the midst we watched an edible crap which inspected a lobster cage which was hidden inside the kelp.

Inside jellyfish cave

Lions mane jellyfish

Snorkeling through kelp

Barrel jellyfish

Dead man's finger coral and sea urchins

Secret beach and cove garden
Return Distance: 2000 meters
We started from the beach and snorkeled along the rocks on the right hand site. Kelp was predominately all what we were able to see including a few small fish. We covered the first few 700 meters at speed until we saw a small hidden beach which was surrounded by high cliffs and seemed impassable from the rock above. We swam towards it and close to the white sand beach I spotted a huge seven armed starfish. I picked it up for a closer inspection and a photo then released it back to the water where I found it. The beach was magical and gave us the feeling that we were the first people who had set foot on it. Barnacles, shells and limpets cover the rocks during low tide and a small sea cave (you will have to crawl at some point) is hidden deep inside the cliff. We stayed for quite some time to explore the area. Once we had warmed up again, we continued and swam towards a cove which looked promising. The cove was magical! During low tide a variety of underwater plants could be seen and we spend a long time exploring every nook and cranny, coming across jellyfish, crabs and lots of fish all in relatively shallow water.

Approaching secret beach

Out for a swim at secret beach

Sea spagetti or thongweed

Huge kelp

Kayaking and snorkeling is a great combination

Loch Roe – meet the seals
Return Distance: 7000 km (by kayak)
We discovered the loch during a paddle with our kayak. It’s a 3km paddle away from the beach, but could also be reached from a short walk from the road. On our approach with the kayak we spotted 3 seals, which seemed to follow out boat. We stopped paddling and slowly drifted deeper into the loch. The seals were curious and getting closer and closer and we held our breath when one actually sniffed out our kayak. We hardly dared to talk and watched in amazement. When it had dived under we spotted a small beach and paddled towards it. Very close to the shore we spotted another seal which seemed to stand upright in the shallow kelp. It did not seem to be bothered in the slightest by our approach and seemed to be snoozing. Not wanting to disturb it, we paddled toward the beach and got ready to swim in the water. I have never had a close encounter with a seal before and decided that I would find a spot, not too far away from the shore and see what the seals would do. I did not have long to wait. The seals had spotted me and I could count 10 of different sizes and ages. XXX They seemed curious, and then from the initial 10-15 meter distance they came closer and closer. One of the adults was the bravest and was getting so close that I was able to see it underwater. It moved closer and closer until we looked eye to eye about an arm’s length away. It was an incredible experience watching its black eyes and nostrils flaring as it seemed to be sniffing me out. We looked at each other and I would have loved to read its mind. With a splash the seal suddenly dived under and doing the exact same, I looked at it swimming around me a few times, until its curiosity was satisfied; or maybe it decided that I was no threat and disappeared further back into the loch.

The first seal inspecting our kayak

From the side

Waiting for the seals

Seal is inspecting me

Looking pretty

Doing a turn

Looking at me from a distance again

Far away off the beaten track Clachtoll lays a few miles north of Achmelvich. It is possible to walk or even paddle, but we decided to drive which gave us the opportunity to visit Lochinver and stock up on food. When I first visited Clachtoll the main attraction is of course the white sandy beach, which even on a hot summers afternoon was nearly empty, but also the view south from the cliffs is pretty stunning and provides a great photo opportunity.

Bay of Clachtoll
Distance: 1000 meters
We entered the water from the main beach and swam towards the South/West. Sea kelp forests covered most of the area and we spotted a lot more juvenile fish than we had encountered in Achmelvich. Swimming along the cliffs towards the small beach across from Clachtoll beach, the sea was deep and visibility down into the depths was poorer than we had encountered before. All in all we were not that impressed and decided to swim to the second beach which would allow a walk back towards Clachtoll over the grassy cliffs.
Dead man's finger coral

Kelp forest

Labyrinth rocks
Return Distance: 830 meters
Back into the water, we swam towards the north/west. The area was far more interesting than the south side and once we snorkelled around the cliffs lots of deep crags in the cliffs could be explored. It was the first time that we came across beadlet anemones which apart from their usual red blobs above the water looked beautiful below the surface. Hidden in the labyrinths of the rocks a wide variety of anemones, kelp and some larger fish could be spotted, as well as a huge number of jellyfish including my first large red lion’s mane jellyfish. Caution is needed on the approach, as their long tentacle can hurt, but they are also exceptionally beautiful and wish a bit of caution lovely to watch.

Snorkeling at the labyrinth rocks

Some larger fish

Sand eels


Beadlet anemones

Small fish seeking shelter

Sea potato


Equipment used
Wetsuits: We have used a 3mm Farmer John’s wetsuit and 3mm jacket and a 5mm full wetsuit. The Farmer John’s [/u]combination was more comfortable than the full wetsuit, but the full wetsuit proved warmer during longer periods in the water.
Masks: A mask for scuba diving and a mask bought as part of a snorkeling kit. Both masks worked, but the mask for scuba diving is one I would recommend as it is far more comfortable.
Snorkel: Any snorkel will work
Fins: We used a pair of slip in fins and a pair of fins which need to be used with boots.
Socks: 3mm neoprene socks used with the step in snorkeling fins
Hat: 5mm neoprene hat
Extras: Dive signal float

What are the health benefits?
Snorkeling especially in cold water will easily burn 600 calories in an hour. The secret lies in the body’s process of thermoregulation. The body seeks to maintain a core temperature of 36.5C/98 F. When we are exposed to temperatures significantly lower than this, we put greater demands on the body’s thermoregulation, and the body burns more calories.

Things to consider:
Snorkelling with another person is saver than going out alone
Leave seashells in the water. Even if they are empty, they will be used as homes by hermit craps and other small animals
Don’t stand on coral and avoid touching them; some underwater creatures are very delicate
Don’t take small animal like starfish/crabs away with you. Return them to the place you have found them

Where to find further information:


Jellyfish cave and the island

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Secret beach and cove garden

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Loch Roe-meet the seals

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Bay of Clachtol

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Labyrinth rocks

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Location: North Ayrshire
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Ideal day out: Finding new routes up mountains, which involves a good scramble
Ambition: See the world

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