Just off the north end of Iona lies a forbidding looking skerry of black rock; Eilean Chalbha, or Calf Island in the English. From where I am sitting, hunched down on the beach to keep out of the wind, the crossing must be three or four hundred yards and, right now, there is a woman swimming steadily through the choppy water towards the little island. Further along the shore the distance is much less – at low tide (and on tiptoes) you might even be able to wade over. Our swimmer, however, has taken the long route.
It’s tough going too. She swims with a strong purposeful breast stroke but it still takes her fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. The closer she gets to her goal, the harder she is to spot – her head frequently disappearing behind the waves. I can see the man she came with, pacing, peering out to sea, shielding his eyes from the sun. He seems to have lost sight of her and he is anxious. For good reason – the swirling currents can be unpredictable here. Then I too lose sight of her and begin to feel that first faint flicker of horror, for what could we possibly do! But all is well – tiny against the distant rocks, two triumphant arms are held aloft, waving like mad. The sea, on this occasion, has been conquered.
The previous day it had been my turn. I was kayaking, in charge of a double, with my nine-year-old in the front. This was not a relaxing experience. Not least because I am something of a novice, and a landlubber to boot. The sea was calm, but there was a swell and the wind was up. Steering was tricky and I had to work hard at times, just to stay still. It was fortunate then, that we were in the company of an expert (he had reassuringly big hands), whose calm presence eased any fears and concerns I may have had. Oddly, there is something almost comforting about being in a tiny boat, held up by the enormity of the ocean and, most of the time, I was sploshing along quite happily. But when the wind or the current took hold of the boat, it became quickly apparent that I had limited agency in this relationship. It wouldn’t take much to flip this thing over. A gust of wind, a breaking wave or an ill judged paddle; I was acutely aware of how much we were at the mercy of the capricious waters.
It is, of course, a terrific thing, paddling in and out of lonely coves on the south side of Mull, the boat sitting low in the crystal clear waters, eyes level with the horizon. The sun is hot. The gentle paddling, rhythmic, and the glitter and sparkle of light playing on the surface; it has a soporific effect, adding to the illusion that we are at one with the elements, with nature and with our maker. But an illusion is what it is and the potential for catastrophe is never far away. For, as much as I love it, I am, ironically enough, a fish out of water.
What a contrast then to that extraordinary moment later the same day when, back on the island, sitting out and looking over the Sound towards Mull, there is a cry of “dolphins!” and there, barely 100 yards away, we see a small pod of maybe a dozen, twisting, leaping and breaching. It’s thrilling, and a first for me – spectacular animals, entirely at home in their element. They are mythical beasts and there is a sense of being blessed, honoured even, to be granted the privilege of witnessing them in the wild like this.
But it is the gannets who have my heart. On the ferries you’ll find me on the outside decks, drawn like a moth to a flame, scanning the horizon in the hope of seeing them wheeling around lazily, before gathering themselves in, wings tucked as they dive on some fish with that small but ever so satisfactory explosion of sea. And here, at the north end of the island, just beyond Eilean Chalbha, I can see a pair fishing. On the east coast of Britain, and on Shetland too, avian flu has laid waste, decimating the population; it will presumably do the same here. But for now these birds, having flown up from the colony on Ailsa Craig some 100 miles away, are patrolling the waters, impervious to the grim spectre that looms. They look magnificent and, as Kathleen Jamie put it recently, “What use the summer sunlight, if it can’t gleam on a gannet’s back?”
The gorgeous kayak and gannet photos are published with the kind permission of Kirsty Bloom.
The Kathleen Jamie quote was taken from an excellent piece published in the London Review of Books.