Wild Swimming

I posted a couple of weeks ago about the double wild swim I’d done in a day and have mentioned a few times that Scarlett and I have been out swimming quite regularly.

Regular readers will know that during our last year on Rum I walked part-way up one of the hills there on a very regular basis right up until we left. I’ve also gotten back up that hill on a couple of our visits back. I wrote about me and my hill back in January when I marked 100 times up the hill.

When we moved here I was very keen initially to find a replacement for my hill. A walk of a similar distance / challenge to do regularly. Despite searching I never really found one.

But the loch was calling me instead. Literally at the end of our driveway (although the driveway is over half a mile long) lies Loch Sunart. We drive alongside it every single time we leave the house, to go to work, to the shops, to go anywhere. At times it is flat and calm as a mirror, at others as churned up and choppy as a washing machine on full spin. Sometimes it reflects blue skies and fluffy white clouds, sometimes it appears menacing grey with murky depths. Herons, gulls and eagles soar above and land around the shores, seals are regularly spotted basking on the rocks and small islands exposed at low tides or peeking curiously out of the water.

I’ve blogged before about my first few dips and the lead up to the two epic swims (neither of which were in Loch Sunart actually, they were Loch Linhe and Loch Leven) but over the past few weeks I think I have found my new hill – and it turns out it is a loch!

My hill offered me various things – exercise being one obviously, and loch swimming is certainly offering me that. A connection with the natural world was a huge one though – encounters with wildlife, being in tune with the changing seasons, weather, temperature, light levels and sights, sounds and smells of walking the same path every day. It also offered me headspace – a meditative experience of being alone with my thoughts and feelings in a different atmosphere where I was not working, or at home, not parenting, crofting or crafting – I was just being. Finally it offered me a creative opportunity to mark what I was doing, the changes and the staying the same from the same walk each time as I took photographs in the same place – of myself and of the view.

The loch is ticking a whole load of the same boxes for me – I have improved my swimming and in a very slow but certain way I am improving my breathing and fitness. There are also a whole host of reported benefits to cold water swimming for both physical and mental well-being and certainly there is a real high during and post-swim, which seems to be increasing as the temperature decreases.

In just a few weeks I have seen the colours on the hills and woodlands surrounding the loch change from summer to autumn. The loch just now has floating fallen leaves in it too. I’ve seen rainbows above the loch, the first snowfalls atop the highest peaks and been in the loch when it’s been pouring with rain. I’ve shared swims with Scarlett where we chat, laugh and point things out to each other and swims all alone. I’ve talked to people in the car park and on the shore walking their dogs, heading back from their own swims, photographing or just enjoying the wildlife and landscapes.

I was planning to save this post until I’d seen the passing of more seasons, had more memories to share and no doubt I will be back with more tales of my swims in the future but in the last 10 days I have had two magical encounters with wildlife that have felt worthy of a blog post.

The first was a sea eagle, the UK’s largest bird and a regular spot in the skies above us here. It was actually on Rum that the sea eagles were reintroduced back into the wild so I feel a connection with them anyway and often spotted them over the croft or on my walks up the hill. It was here in the loch that I had my closest encounter yet though. It was a choppy tide and I was battling to swim against it so gave up on getting too far before I got too cold and was having my mid-swim float on my back where I look at the sky, listen to the sounds and ponder what is different and the same to the last time I was in the water. A pair of ravens had already been overheard making their distinctive croaking sound and the eagle had flown over much higher earlier but while I was floating it returned. I was enjoying the experience of watching it circle above, dipping it’s wings and tilting it’s head as the circles grew smaller and lower. Until I realised that actually it was getting rather closer than I was entirely comfortable with.

When I swim alone I use a tow float – a small inflatable attached by a tie to my waist. It means Ady (who spots me from the shore, I am never entirely alone) can see me all the time and it gives me something to hold on to should I get a cramp or get into trouble in the water. My float is bright pink and possibly looks not unlike a dead thing in the water. I was also lying fairly still and it is only my face which is not clad in neoprene wetsuit or hat. As I mentioned before there are lots of leaves floating in the water which may look like fish from above to an eagle. Whatever it was interested in was certainly in very close proximity to me if it was not actually me and so I splashed around a fair bit to show my size, hatched an emergency plan to put my face into the water should it actually dive at me and sure enough the eagle stopped circling me and headed away.

Me and the eagle…

marked incase you didn’t spot us above.

That was thrilling enough but yesterday Scarlett and I had an even closer in-the-water encounter with a seal.

I’d been reading on various online wild swimming groups about wildlife encounters and seals are quite a common one. Accounts range from the magical with tales of interacting with seals and feeling as though you have communicated with them, young pups getting really close and curious; to the slightly scary with a few folk telling tales of rather over zealous curious seals scratching or biting. None sound aggressive and I suspect if a seal was actually intent on harm they could so a bit of damage – they are very well armed with their teeth and claw-like ends to their flippers. I have heard a tale of a couple suddenly finding themselves surrounded in a circle by a group of seals which they found quite intimidating. In the main the advice and stories I have read have suggested that as long as you read the body language of the seal and take your lead from them you should consider yourself super lucky to be sharing your swim with them and as with all wildlife encounters you should allow the animal to be in charge of how long and how close your experience lasts.

I have also heard seals most frequently described as like dogs – mostly friendly, mostly curious and mostly wanting to get a closer look at you. Unfortunately as someone who is really quite frightened of dogs this is not really that reassuring to me!

I’ve been half expecting a seal encounter as I know they are abundant in Loch Sunart, we often see them basking on the island in the middle only a few metres down the shore from where I swim. I have also heard lots of other local swimmers talk about and seen pictures of them coming close to swimmers. So I guess it was more a matter of when than if and sure enough yesterday it happened.

Scarlett was in swimming with me, as she does once or twice a week and possibly our more noisy and splashy duo swim rather than my quieter and more direct solo swims attracted the attention of a seal. Ady watching from the shore watched it pop up quite some distance from us and then head speedily closer, popping up several times nearer and nearer to us before we noticed it.

no circles required!

The most surprising thing to note was how HUGE it seemed. A big head atop a strong body, so clearly designed for swimming, able to dive and power through the water in a way I could only dream of made my usual feeling of grace and buoyancy quite laughable in comparison. The seal more or less escorted us to the shore – we were mindful of it being pupping time of year and so keen to not be missing a message that we may have gotten close to somewhere it was steering us away from. Then it took a big dive and didn’t resurface again, obviously heading away under the water.

I’m sure I’ll be back with further tales of wildlife encounters and of course there is a whole season of winter swims ahead of me, but I’ll leave with a small montage of my before and after pictures which is my current creative endeavour alongside my swims. And a quote from a rather famous fellow wild swimmer, Rev. Kate Bottley who says ‘I’ve never yet got out of the water and wished I hadn’t got in.’