It took me 20 years to realise that the UK is home to over ¼ of all of the world’s whales and dolphins. Killer whales, Humpback whales, common dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, they all live and thrive around the island we call home.
It’s not only the wildlife that’s impressive. Our islands are actually also home to some remarkable landscapes. Beyond the reaches of the southern Scottish midges, the northern coasts and isles of the UK boast white sandy beaches and palm trees, with an appropriately warm summer high of 15 degrees celsius. Scorching. Jokes aside, these places are extremely underrated adventure destinations which can be explored so close to home.
It’s not all rosy out there in the ocean though. After years of reckless consumptive behaviour, we have managed to create quite the storm for the wildlife living there from the impacts of pollution and climate change. This boiled over in 2016 especially, when one of a pod of only 8 unique killer whales living on the West Coast of Scotland washed up dead on one of those previously mentioned tropical beaches.
The whale, Lulu, was tangled in a fishing line with her blubber found to contain 100x the safe limit of a chemical found in electrical components, PCB, which had leached into the environment. PCB is the likely culprit for the pod’s infertility, and the nail in the coffin of their extinction, as they are unable to interbreed with other distinct groups of killer whales.
I’m sure I won’t be the only one surprised by this fact, or the fact that we actually have native killer whales in the UK, but hearing about it makes me want to do something for our seas and coasts. Fortunately, there are many charities out there working to protect and conserve our oceans, and the Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust are one such charity I discovered doing just this. Based out of Tobermory on the Inner Hebrides, they work to monitor our seas for marine mammal activity and educate the public on the lives of these ocean stewards. Over the last 20 years they have covered over 100,000 square kilometres through their annual surveying trips!
With all this in mind, I wanted to create something which raised awareness for these animals and showed the best of these places – nature, landscapes and people alike – to do some good for our environment. So I created an adventure race, the Selkie. Hailing from old norse-gaelic mythology, the Selkie were creatures which were known to climb onto land and shed their seal skin to turn human. Much like what these creatures were capable of, the race spans a series of islands, and involves swimming, running and biking all the way from one end of the chain to the other. (Biking is the 21st century Selkie-spin).
The Selkie race equates to a channel swim, iron man bike and double marathon, but on the ground (and in the sea), it is several degrees colder, with far more deadly jellyfish and howling gales.
The race covers a total of 180 miles across the entirety of the Outer Hebrides. Beginning at the lighthouse on the southernmost Isle of Barra head (Berneray), the first leg crosses four sounds and 4 isles totalling 7 miles of swimming. During rough storms, small fish have landed atop the 193m sea cliffs on the first isle, Berneray, whilst the second isle of Mingulay, at 273m, has been known to lose sheep. In Gaelic, the southern tip of the third isle, Pabbay is known as the nose of the strong tide, and if missed will not be made. Once successfully over to the fourth isle, Sandray, it is a short plunge over to Vatersay, before a 15 mile run takes me to the next swim – 6 miles over to South Uist.
The Uists (Indicated by the red lines) are pretty flat and very low-lying, looking more like a swamp than islands from a map. These will be a 60 mile bike across and could be a world record or a serious challenge depending on the whims of the wind.
The final swim across the Sound of Harris is also the longest single swim leg, at nearly 7 miles. Once up to Leverburgh, it will be a 52 mile bike over Harris and down onto Lewis. Here I will find the final 36 mile run to the Butt of Lewis lighthouse and the end of the selkie across the open moors.
Training for this race is brutal, and right now during lockdown involves swimming in the dark in the North Sea in sub-zero temperatures before work, taking to the indoor trainer at night and running whenever I can. As much as I miss the warm pool and the ability to do longer sessions and drills, sea training is essential given the average Hebridean sea temperature being a fair bit lower than the channel. Even with the wetsuit and (veggie) goose fat I will need to build a solid cold tolerance base as well as a fitness base. Before this lockdown I was peaking at around 15 hours of training, and I will be aiming to more than double that as the race draws closer.
Anything you can do to support would be massively appreciated and pull me through some of the training that’s going down right now. So if you can spare anything, please head over to my justgiving page: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/JamesArmour
Thanks a million, and if you ever want to #getcold hit me up.
By James Armour
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