In Too Deep

Highly commended in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2024.

The following piece was highly commended in our 2024 New Travel Writer of the Year Competition. You can find the full list of long and short listed entries – including the winner – here.

Being in freezing North Atlantic sea water changes everything. My body isn’t my own, encased as it is in eight millimetre thick neoprene and buoyant as never before. I’m struggling to orientate myself. My senses haven’t gone completely, but they’ve been diluted by the water, the cold, my tight-fitting face mask and wetsuit. I’m hypervigilant, and intoxicated by a heady mix of excitement, curiosity and fear.

There’s good reason to be fearful. I’ve inherited an allergy to the cold which means conditions like these are high risk: my hands, feet and face will swell, and the rest of my body get locked in a taxing battle to stay warm. Without the wetsuit, I dare not think how little time I would have before hypothermia sets in. Swimming in the waters around the Cairns of Coll, a group of three wild and uninhabited islets off the west coast of Scotland, is one of the last places I should be.

I follow my fellow snorkelers around a headland as if in a trance, preoccupied by my body’s reactions as well as the ever changing colours of the water – turquoise, jade, citrine, granite grey – and how the clarity varies. Translucent one minute, dense and murky the next.

Moment by moment my movements become more awkward: what were my hands and feet are now like stiff wooden planks, my shoulders and neck ache, and the surface of my skin tingles then starts to sting. And time is slowing to the gentle, repetitive rhythm of waves lapping against salt spattered rocks. All tell-tale signs my core temperature is tumbling.

Swimming into a sheltered bay, I find myself caught in a shoal of sand eels, their bodies forming a waving curtain of flashing silver in refracted sunlight. Schools of juvenile pollack congregate close to the rocks, the golden brown shine of their bodies easy to see against the jet blackness of stone. A shag dives for its dinner and I watch it chase the eels in soaring arcs and curves. I’m entranced.

The water’s coldness seeps in my bones. It feels like it’s swallowing me whole. Looking around for help, I see heads bobbing in the water. They don’t belong to my fellow snorkelers – the lack of a snorkel gives that away. Instead, two grey seals are watching me, fascinated by what they see. Their presence does what I knew it would: distracts me.

We float together in the swell. I stay still, and the seals do too. They are in their element in this environment, insulated by their thick fur coats and layers of subcutaneous fat. Their steady, laser-like gaze is unnerving. As if they know something I don’t.

A presence makes itself felt beneath me. A slight movement in the water, not too close yet not that far. Placid not harmful. Another seal is checking me out from below. She is a female from her size and keeps a mindful distance. She is so at home in the water: agile yet relaxed. The very opposite of me.

We swim together in the deep channel between two skerries. As we make our way through, we reach exposed open water where the wind whips, the current strengthens, and the sea pulls and tugs. There is a drop in water temperature as the tide turns. The rocky shoreline seems a long way away through the thick plastic lens of my snorkelling mask.

The last swim has stretched me more than I realise. I’m stiff and cold, my arms and legs are numb. Every facial muscle frozen. This is my danger zone.

The seal draws closer, swims in a slow soothing circle around me. I envy her agility and find myself wishing I were her and she was me. It may be my weary brain, but I sense her nudging me ashore. Exhausted, I claw my way over tangled heaps of sea kelp to the beach. I am as cumbersome and ungainly as a seal is hauling out.

Hardly able to stand, aching from the pain of hundreds of red welts, and with a massive swollen face, I drag myself over to the boat. I’m too tired to worry about the sight that I must be. I hadn’t told the group leader of my allergy. Now I have no choice.

In tears, I tell him that swimming with the seals has given me such joy but came at a price. That it will take a week for my body to recover. Three or four days in bed thawing out. Two more for the swelling to fully subside. My only defence is my determination to not let this condition limit my life. Wrapping me in a thermal blanket, he says we all have our limits. We both know I’ve finally reached mine.

More information

For more information about our New Travel Writer of the Year Competition, head to our competitions page.