Sea swimming is a growing trend here with more and more people taking to the water and uploading their shivering selfies on social media. This year saw more people than ever embark on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day swims throughout Shetland, both with and without wetsuits for protection.
Sea swimming has many benefits and, for the hardy, the thrill of swimming in no more than a swimsuit is hard to beat. Immersion in cold water boosts the immune system, makes you feel euphoric – a natural high if you like. It is also said to improve circulation, reduce stress and improve mental health, so what’s not to like (other than the initial shock of cold water!).
Growing up in Shetland, we were in the sea all the time in the summer and we never had wetsuits, they weren’t readily available and were certainly not affordable. It was cold, and we were never in very long before we came, teeth chattering, up the beach in search of a warm towel and sandy sandwiches.
One question I’m asked on every single tour is “What’s the sea temperature in Shetland” – we are at 60°North after all. Yet, relatively speaking, the sea is quite mild, warmed by the currents of the North Atlantic Drift that brings warmer water from the south. The sea temperature in Shetland varies from about 6℃ (42℉) in the winter to about 13℃ (55℉) in late summer.
As I grew up I still challenged myself to swim at least once a year, and I always felt the better of it, but it definitely got harder to dive in as I got older. Last January I was challenged by a friend to try snorkelling. I’d never worn a wetsuit and certainly had never owned one – we were brought up to believe that, to wear a wetsuit, was a cop-out and was, in some way, cheating – you couldn’t call yourself a ‘hardy Shetlander’ if you wore a wetsuit.
I wanted to try a wetsuit and explore the underwater world a little more closely. Still, I had not anticipated that my friends would turn up at my door, armed with wetsuits, snorkels and a challenge to swim in the North Sea on a frosty January morning. A quick check of sea temperature records confirmed my suspicions (and fears) – it was cold: 6℃ (42℉).
Yet despite my protestations, I found myself standing at the Sletts, an area of coastline in Lerwick, on that particularly cold Saturday morning in January. Finally suited and with teeth chattering and toes tingling, I gingerly made my way towards the sea.
As the initial shock of the suit filling with icy water subsided and warmth returned to my body, I looked below the surface and WOW – the world below the waves honestly took my breath away. I’d seen photos, I’d read descriptions, but no picture and no explanation could ever do justice to this watery world I was now gazing down on.
Quickly forgetting previous inhibitions, I explored this hidden world. A world of kelp swaying idly in the currents, a world of colour and texture. There were fish, just a few feet from shore, a harbour seal came in to check us out, and the seabed was alive with crustaceans, starfish and sea anemones. I was blown away. It was a magical awe-inspiring place.
Surfacing to make sure I wasn’t on a killer whale’s radar, I saw a flock of birds take off over the horizon and a lone great northern diver out at sea. As I looked across the bay at Tesco, I felt like the luckiest person on the planet – where else would you rather be on a Saturday morning?
The experience was incredible. I felt connected, grounded and at one with the world around me – any stresses lifted as I was encapsulated in the moment. It was spellbinding, the visibility indescribable. I had no idea that the sea could be so clear with prisms of light dancing on the seabed, colours amplified and alive in this shimmering light show.
The best time to see the world under the waves is in the colder days of winter. The sea is clearer, there is less plankton and better visibility so everything is sharper and brighter. The water in summer can be murkier and with the low winter light, it really is an unmissable experience.
Other than a few friction burns on my fingers from trying to pull the suit on, I came away from this experience relatively unscathed. The worst part of the experience was the January cold when we took the suits off and stood shivering on the pavement. But, that was nothing that a long shower and some hot sweet tea couldn’t fix.
I got home and ordered myself a wetsuit. I’ve used it quite a few times over this past summer because it allows you to stay in the water longer and really explore the seabed.
If you are visiting Shetland, you can buy a wetsuit here. Cee & Jays, a local sports shop on Lerwick’s Commercial Street, sells a wide range of wetsuits, gloves, boots, snorkels and masks and they are competitively priced.
Of course, safety is always an issue and you should always be sure that you tell someone where you are going and when you plan to be back. Take someone with you and never head into the water alone. You should be aware of tides, currents and changing weather conditions and, if you’re new to the sea, perhaps the best place to start is right in the centre of Lerwick, at Bain’s Beach.
If you would like to try snorkelling in Shetland you can book a trip with trained guide Pete Richardson. Adventure days or weekends can be arranged and you will be provided with all the necessary equipment and fully briefed on health and safety. Booking with a trained professional ensures that your experience will be done safely so that all you have to do is turn up and enjoy shetland from the water.
For more information on booking, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Before heading out anywhere, please download the What3Words app which provides emergency services with an accurate position if required. If you do find yourself in trouble on the water, dial 999 and ask for the coastguard.
Hello from Laurie
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