Want to get a first-hand glimpse of Scotland’s dazzling underwater world? Scotland’s coast bursts with biodiversity. Seabirds and marine mammals often steal the show, but it’s worth taking a look at what’s below the surface. Here is everything you need to know about snorkelling in Scotland – why to try it, where to go, what to wear and tips to stay safe.
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Few things are equally as intimidating and addictive as cold water swimming. Believe me, it took me a while to get used to the idea of cold water immersion – but now I love it!
Add a snorkel and mask to the equation and you’ve got yourself a real winner.
Snorkelling opens up a whole new world for you – literally – as you get to explore the landscapes and wildlife that lie beneath the water’s surface. You’ll be dazzled by unexpected bursts of colours, encounter otherworldly species and discover your place in all of this.
I took to snorkelling in Scotland when I first tried sea trekking, an outdoor activity that is all about exploring the coastline in whatever way possible and combines swimming, walking and snorkelling. I had snorkelled before, but only ever in warm water.
My snorkelling guide Lyndsay from Seatrek Scotland handed me a snorkel and a mask, and the rest, as they say, is history. I’ve always been a little scared of the ocean, the great unknown, but with a mask and snorkel I feel much more confident in the water. You’ll find more reasons that make snorkelling in Scotland so special below.
After participating in a snorkelling artist residency at the Argyll Hope Spot, Wild About Argyll invited me to check out a few sites on their newly launched Above & Below Snorkel Trail, one of five themed trails that help you discover Scotland’s beautiful coastline in an immersive and responsible way. More on that below!
In this guide I will share some of the lessons I’ve learnt as a beginner snorkeler. Read on for:
- Reasons to snorkel in Scotland,
- More about the Above & Below trails in Argyll,
- Where to snorkel in Scotland, especially on the Argyll coastline,
- And some tips for cold-water snorkelling in Scotland,
Credit where credit is due: I’ve learnt a lot about swimming and snorkelling from open water coach Dan the Merman and snorkelling artist Lottie Goodlet – their guidance and advice during the artist residency have been invaluable to my snorkelling journey and a key contributor to the information compiled in this guide.
Above & Below Trails in Argyll
“Above & Below” is a sustainable travel initiative in Argyll, one of my favourite regions in Scotland and a perfect place to try swimming and snorkelling. It has one of the longest coastlines in Scotland – well over 2,000 miles!
This part of the Scottish west coast has an internationally significant biodiverse ecosystem, some of the darkest skies in Europe and – facing west – prime conditions for dazzling sunsets. It’s even home to the first Mission Blue Hope Spot in Scotland!
Wild About Argyll has created five nature-based trails to help you immerse your senses in the beautiful landscapes of Argyll and explore the coast from the Sound of Jura to the Firth of Lorn and Loch Linnhe. The themes are:
- Wild swimming: Take to the water and discover what the trend for outdoor swimming is all about.
- Snorkelling: Go one step further and explore the wildlife beneath the surface.
- Beach hunting: Find a pebbly beach or rock pool to see what wildlife comes out at low tide.
- Watching sunsets: Witness the next level spectacle of a west coast sunset.
- Observing dark skies: See the stars without light pollution – and maybe even the northern lights!
Overall, the Above & Below trails point you to over 30 locations for memorable experiences and fun adventures.
All trails have been developed in consultation with local experts and local communities, to make sure all sites that are promoted have sufficient infrastructure to welcome visitors – so you know your visit won’t have a negative impact.
Download the Above & Below Trails Map & Guide or use the interactive map here!
You can also pick up a paper version of the Map & Guide at businesses local to the trail locations on mainland Argyll..
Why should you snorkel in Scotland?
Immersing yourself in cold water might take a little convincing – why exactly should you put your body through that? Here are four reasons to try snorkelling in Scotland.
1. It’s good for your health
Immersing your body in cold water has many health benefits. With regards to physical health, cold swimming can boost your immune system, reduce inflammation and help with pain relief. But swimming in cold water is also great for your mental health. It reduces stress, increases focus and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which improves your overall sense of well-being.
You might also like: 7 water sports to try for water wellness
2. It improves your awareness for the ocean’s importance
It’s easy to forget about the ocean when you’re not immersed in it, especially if you live far away. But even if you don’t always see it, the sea actually has a massive impact on your life – and vice versa. Snorkelling gives you the opportunity to experience the sea first hand and close up. You see not just the dark surface, but what’s below. The creatures that live there, the plants that protect them, and sadly also the pollution and destruction caused by humans.
All of this will give you a greater sense of what the ocean looks like and why it’s important to protect it.
3. It’s a learning experience
Snorkelling forces you to really look at the environment as you slowly float on the surface. You move slowly, you’re not looking through the lens of your camera phone all the time, and you’re cut off from many of your other senses (like hearing or smelling). You’ll spot species of animals and plants, observe their behaviour and learn about their lives underwater.
With the right ID guide, you can learn their names and more about their conservation status. Here are some ID books I recommend for snorkelling in Scotland:
- British Coastal Wildlife (Collins Complete Guide) by Paul Sterry, and
- Seaweeds of Britain and Ireland by Frances Bunker, Juliet A Brodie, Christine A Maggs and Anne R Bunker
You might also like: 11 Scientific Tourism Experiences in Scotland
4. It allows you to deeper connect with the places you visit
Believe me when I say that snorkelling in Scotland will make you feel more connected to the coastal places you visit – that’s definitely what it did to me! Beaches and coastlines that I’ve seen many times before really came to life when I looked beneath the surface. I feel even stronger about protecting them now and hope to encourage you all to visit them responsibly.
Where to snorkel in Scotland
Above & Below Snorkel Trail
The coast of Argyll is an exceptional place for snorkelling in Scotland. It is covered by multiple international designations, including marine protected areas, special conservation areas and national scenic areas. It’s also the first Mission Blue Hope Spot in Scotland and on the UK mainland.
One of the greatest things about the Argyll coast is the sheer diversity of marine environments you can explore by snorkelling – each location mentioned below has something different to offer. The rewards of snorkelling in Argyll are great. The trail sites are geared towards beginners, but even more experienced snorkelers and divers will get their fill of hidden gems and unique discovery.
The Above & Below Snorkel Trail was developed in partnership with the Scottish Wildlife Trust and is one of their seven snorkel trails across Scotland – it’s the ‘North Argyll’ trail. You’ll find more info about the other snorkel trails below.
- Arduaine: Asknish Bay at Loch Melfort Hotel is a rocky bay with some sand, so you get a choice of different habitats to explore. One of my highlights was to spot deep-red beadlet anemones. You can also snorkel at nearby Arduaine Jetty, but you need to be a bit more aware of boat traffic there.
And may I say – Loch Melfort Hotel would make for a stunning home base for a nature-based trip to Scotland. The location is on all five “Above & Below” trails and the hotel is just stunning!
- Ardfern: The Ardfern village bay at Loch Craignish is part of Seawidling’s seagrass restoration project. Seagrass is a keystone species that sequesters carbon and provides shelter for many marine species. Here in Ardfern you can see a beautiful meadow just off the shore. If you’re lucky you might see it while the seagrass is in flower!
- Loch Creran: The snorkel sites at Loch Creran (Queenie Reef and Creagan) are great places to see reefs formed by serpulid worms – they are the largest such reefs in the world! The fan-shaped serpulid worms come in all shades of pink, red and orange, and their reefs support many other marine species.
- Isle of Jura: Corran Sands is a long sandy bay on the Isle of Jura, just a few miles north of Craighouse. It’s actually on the wild swimming trail, but I found that the smaller bays along the way to the main beach are just as amazing for snorkelling if you want to explore the thicket of a kelp forest!
You might also like: The best places to see wildlife in Scotland
- Ganavan Sands & Camas Bán (Wee Ganavan): These beaches just north of Oban are really popular wild swimming spots, but also great for snorkelers. Ganavan Sands has lush seagrass meadows and rocky outcrops; Camas Bán is a fascinating place to explore during high tide.
- Camas Rubha na Liathaig (SAMS Beach): This sheltered beach and bay at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) has interesting rock formations to explore underwater and also a stunning kelp forest.
- Isle of Gigha: Port Na Chinn Mhoir, or Johnny’s Shore, is a sandy beach in the main village on Gigha. It’s a great place to spot green shore crabs, pipefish, hermit crabs, otters and even seals in the water.
Where else to snorkel in Scotland
Of course, Argyll is not the only region where you can snorkel in Scotland. The Scottish Wildlife Trust have developed a series of snorkel trails. These trails include snorkel spots on the Isle of Arran, the Berwickshire coast southeast of Edinburgh, the East Lothian coast around North Berwick and Dunbar, the Lochaber region around Fort William, the north of the Isle of Harris and the northwest Highlands between Gairloch and Lochinver.
If you spend a few days in Fort William, reach out to Seatrek Scotland who can take you snorkelling or sea trekking on the coast.
Cold Water Snorkelling Tips
Snorkel tips or beginners
- If you’re new to snorkelling or snorkelling in cold water, consider taking lessons with a coach. My swim and snorkel lessons with Dan the Merman made all the difference as he taught me breathing techniques, how to self-rescue and efficient swim strokes for snorkelling.
You might also like: Great places for wild swimming in Scotland
- Don’t snorkel alone. Always snorkel with a friend and ideally make someone on the beach aware of your plans.
- Learn the most important hand signals for open water swimmers, including how to signal that you’re OK or that you’re in distress.
- Educate yourself about the risks of cold water immersion, hypothermia and how to warm up after your swim/snorkel session. The Outdoor Swim Society is a useful resource about these topics.
- Be aware of the forecast for weather, water temperatures, tides and currents, and learn how to deal with adverse situations (or avoid going in the water at all).
- Choose a landmark on the shore to help you track your position, and look up regularly to make sure you know where you are.
- Stay within your depth. You’ll see more in shallow waters anyways, when wildlife is closer to you.
- Always check for jellyfish in the water – especially lion’s mane jellyfish whose sting can be very painful (or worse). Local wild swimming groups usually post when the jellyfish situation gets bad in a certain spot.
- Prepare what you need to warm up afterwards. Your body temperature will continue to fall after you’ve left the water – that’s called “the afterdrop”. Sip on a hot drink, dry yourself off, put on several layers of warm clothes and eat something sweet to raise your body temperature. If you feel ok, move your body to warm up. Here are some more tips.
What to wear & equipment
- For snorkelling in Scotland you really just need a snorkel and a mask. Both should easily fit in your luggage no matter how far you’ve travelled. Those two items are snorkelling essentials and non-negotiable.
- Fins are optional and in some cases undesirable as they can damage underwater habitats.
- Wearing a wetsuit has many benefits. It will keep you warmer for longer and protects your skin from potential jellyfish stings. However, it’s not essential if you are used to cold water swimming, limit the time you’re in the water and check diligently for jellyfish.
- Neoprene gloves and socks are brilliant – I often wear them for swimming or snorkelling in Scotland even if I don’t put on my wetsuit. Keeping your hands and feet warm will help you stay in the water for longer.
- The first time I wore a neoprene hood for snorkelling was a game changer. It covers most of your face which means your head isn’t as exposed to the cold water. Again, this will help you stay in for longer and protect your face better.
- Ideally, you should wear something that makes it easy for others to spot you from shore or from a boat. Wear a bright swim cap on your head. Use a snorkel with a brightly coloured tip. Or swim with a colourful float attached to your waist. This is important for boats to be able to see you, or in case of an emergency.
Taking care of the environment & local communities
- It should go without saying that when you snorkel in Scotland, you should not disturb any wildlife you spot or encourage it to come closer.
- Don’t touch, take or tease anything underwater, whether it’s animals or plants.
- Avoid wearing fins in fragile marine environments.
- Don’t snorkel in fragile environments, such as nature reserves, without permission.
- Be considerate to local communities when swimming and parking. Only choose swim or snorkel sites with sufficient parking facilities and visitor infrastructure.
- Take a look at the Outdoor Access Code for swimming.
Snorkelling in Scotland might sound a little out of your comfort zone, but with very little equipment needed and great rewards waiting below the surface, it’s really a no-brainer to give it a try!
I hope that on your next trip to the west coast, you’ll use the Above & Below trails for snorkelling, swimming, beach hunting, sunset watching and dark sky observing to learn about Scotland’s unique marine ecosystems and forge a deeper connection to the sea.
Got a snorkelling story from Scotland? Share it in the comments!
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