How to improve your mermaid spotting skills.

One of the seven metal gates closing the former salt cellars at Wick Harbour depicting a mermaid based on childrens pictures

One of the seven metal gates closing the former salt cellars at Wick Harbour

Paddling around this enchanting landscape of the Scottish coastline, illusions of magical creatures under the waves start floating around in my head. It is almost tangible that there must be mermaids around.
Mermaids, sirens and selkies are all part of the seafaring folklore. They have been depicted at maps of the world from the middle ages. Shakespeare wrote about them in a midsummer night’s dream. Columbus reports having seen mermaids in the Caribbean. Although he thought the mermaids he saw, were ugly, mermaids are usually considered as gorgeous and seductive creatures. Nowadays the coffee brand Starbucks has a mermaid logo. So I’m not the only one with this fascination for these lovely half humans. I definitely want to find one and ask if she wants to go on a selfie with me.

But where to look for those shapely, long-haired, fishtailed women with enchanting singing voices of the deep in real life?

To find an answer to that question I start a scientific investigation to find mermaids in Scottish waters. What comes close to a woman’s figure? A dolphin or an otter?
The only creature that I can think of is a seal. Especially the harbour seal with its lovely round face and big dark eyes, though I’m not sure about the cubby body and bald head.
They love to sunbathe on the rocks and stones near the sea and curl their body, tail up, in a banana-shaped form just to have a good look at the approaching boats.
They swim close to the shore and are very interested in humans, they pop up right behind our kayaks just to have a curious look at us. But they are quite shy and when I look around, they quickly dive underwater. Very mermaidish behaviour if you ask me…

Sunbathing seals on a rock acting mermaidish

If you  use your imagination and squinted realy hard….

Perhaps I am looking at the wrong time of day, maybe I should look for mermaids at twilight or in semi-sleep moments.
The only sound I hear are the cries of the seals, which is similar to a howling dog, not very attractive to listen to. But no beautiful singing women’s voices.

Perhaps I’m in the wrong state of mind.
So I sat on the beach and try to find the 14th-century person in me and be more superstitious and open up my vivid imagination. Every unexplainable thing that is happening I will contribute to ghosts, monsters or gods. Expectantly I pear over the water and beaches, will I see a mermaid? One night does not yield any result, the mermaids are elusive, I sit there for 14 nights…
Alas, too much education I’m afraid. Science in that sense killed off all the monsters of the past.

Perhaps I’m not tired or hungry enough.
‘No’ I said to Alexander. ‘No food today, I want to see mermaids! This is a scientific investigation, very serious’.
He looks at me amused. ‘Have it your way’ he replied.
During the day I felt my energy dwindling. Yes, it is working. I should be seeing mermaids this evening’ I thought delighted.
I was getting behind and paddling slowly and in no fit state to pull the kayak above the tideline.
‘How is the experiment going?’ Alexander asked interestedly.
‘Brilliantly, I’m getting in the right state of tiredness and hunger.’ I answered enthusiastically but feeling absolutely lousy.
It all went downhill when Alexander started cooking. The smell of the food was too much for me. I could not resist and wolfed down the entire pot of pasta, only leaving scraps for Alex.
No backbone to endure the hunger experiment. And no mermaids.

Perhaps I need to be ill.
The perfect opportunity came when I had a blister gone bad and needed antibiotics badly. In a stupor of fever and medicine, we went out for a paddle. The only thing that happened is I tumbled over out of my kayak and no bloody mermaid came to rescue me.

Perhaps I’m not drunk enough.
Sitting on the beach with a bottle of whiskey I try to get drunk. I’m not a practised drinker so a few sips will make me completely lala. A perfect state of mind to see mermaids. The world went woozy, I saw a lot of falling stars and then passed out on the beach. Damn, I just need to practise more….

Perhaps I’m not desperate enough.
An abstinence of sex must be sufficient for me to see mermaids, shouldn’t it? I mean, all those 14th-century guys didn’t see a woman for months. They must have been pretty desperate and crave sex. They would jump everything that looked remotely female, desire makes everything look good even bald, chubby seals with moustaches on their faces.
Five weeks, I think, is not sufficient time to try this one in order to see mermaids. And I’ve got a man lying next to me in a tent. Too much temptation, I think I pass this one in my investigation.

Watersplash, just missed the mermaid

Was it really there!?

To wrap up my personal research I must conclude that having a vivid imagination, or being hungry, tired, ill, or drunk in itself is not a sufficient condition for seeing a mermaid. We have not ruled out however, that they might be a necessary condition for seeing a mermaid.
Therefore my recommendation for further research is to test whether a combination of these factors might bring flocks of mermaids to life. For the single traveller, the abstinence of sex could be a very promising field of further investigation. So many sailormen and fisherman can not have been wrong in the past for seeing mermaids, can they?

Charlotte Gannet

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High water at home

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This week, in the Rhine close to home, water did rise to 12.40m NAP (approx. sea level). To give you a reference to my floor in the living room is at 10.60m NAP. Don’t worry, we are still dry behind the dykes This water level, which is a once in every five-year event, only flows over the summer dykes. The winter dykes can keep on other 3 m of water at bay.

For us, kayakers, it gives a nice expanse of water and a whole new territory to explore. Today was beautiful, the light was changing constantly. I explored the nature area Meinderswijk, close to Arnhem.

So, just to share this enjoyable moment, an extra blog post with some photos and a small video of the Beaver that passed by.

Enjoy Alexander.

 

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The Old Man of Hoy

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The Old Man of Hoy rises a one hundred and thirty-seven meters above the sea. It is a temporary monument in an almost timeless landscape. It is the tallest sea stack in Britain and in my opinion one of most fascinating ones around the Scottish coast.

Its warm orange and red layers of Old Red Sandstone pierces the cool shades of blue in the sky. It’s stance so delicate in the ocean, where the tides run strong and the waves ride free. It seems so timeless but in the geological scale of its Devonian strata, where it is sculpted from, it is here for less time than a blink of an eye on a day. According to Charlotte, this is too geo-geek information but! The stack only formed 250 years ago, by the erosion of a headland and it might topple soon. The orange sandstone, however, is at least a 350 million years old.

We did visit Orkney in 2012 and past the west side of the island Hoy in two days. It is a magical place of immense beauty. I started painting the scene and finished one version, which I gave to the friend that joined the trip that year. This version was started in the same year, but the scene became almost too magical and I chickened out. So for four years, it drifted on it’s his paper stretcher board. Last weekend it was finished and ready to share as this week’s visual blog post.

Alexander

Watercolour, 43x18cm on Saunders Waterford CP(NOT) paper 300 gr/m²

No brains, only beauty

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The lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata)

The fact that jellyfish have survived
for 650 million years
despite not having brains
is great news for stupid people.

Fascinating, ghostlike creatures hanging suspended in the water. Propelling forwards by expanding and contracting of the umbrella-like hood of their boneless bodies. Mesmerising in colour and translucent ness. Actually, the entire body is water, 97 percent of it. Trapped water in cells, but not all innocent. Some jellyfish have the means to defend themselves. The long tentacles pack a powerful sting. It varies among species. Some are perfectly harmless.

Jellyfish come in all shapes and sizes. It is amazing the large variation in design. Big and pink like the ill-named dustbin lid jellyfish. The burgundy red, sometimes indigo blue lion’s mane with its long tentacles trailing through the water. Very common is the moon jellyfish who live in large groups and go for mass suicide on the beach, or translucent oval shaped comb jellyfish with pink or green iridescent stripes, fit to adorn any Christmas tree.

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The comb jelly (Beroe cucumis)

Because of climate change and the oceans getting warmer we see more exotic jellyfish in the Scottish waters. Paddling around Barra we spotted what looked like water bubbles on the water surface. It turned out to be a transparent membrane attached to a small indigo blue disk-like jellyfish with very small tentacles. It had its own little sail! It is called ‘By the wind sailor’. It lives in the warmer waters of the mid-ocean and sails across the ocean to the prevailing wind direction, imagine that. And just because the sail on the jellyfish is angled the wrong way for this hemisphere that has seen too many southwesterly storms, it stands on a beach and dies.

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The by-the-wind-sailor (Velella velella)

In Asiatic counties, jellyfish are considered food, dried to be preserved. Revived to be eaten raw or cooked. So Alexander had to try that as well. The idea of eating jellyfish put me off a bit. There were some moon jellyfish lying on the beach. He took out his knife and cut a bit off the body. The outer layer was surprisingly though but lower down it was much softer. The texture is quite like jelly, but with a salty flavour, a bit more like the slimy stuff you might find up your nose when having a cold. We concluded that the English name ‘jellyfish’ is well chosen.

 In the Dutch language, a jellyfish is called ‘kwal’. Phonetically [ *k w ɑ l ]. It is the exact translation for jellyfish. The other meaning in the Dutch language for the word ‘kwal’ is an unfriendly person. Usually a man, I would never call a woman a ‘kwal’. I might choose the French word for jellyfish ‘meduse’, it has a more feminine sound to it.

A kwal is someone like a teacher or a driving instructor or a boss, someone higher in rank. But he has a bit of an ego problem, he pours out all his frustrations out on you and puts you down. But because you need something of him you try to stay nice and polite. Behind his back, you could do him an injury. That is a ‘kwal’ of a guy. But I would never call him a jellyfish. Or would I…

Does any person come to mind in your surrounding that fit the description? Spineless and no brain to speak of? There are plenty of people like that around, beautiful or not. Console yourself with the thought that brainless arrogance can be a survival strategy. It worked for jellyfish…

Like a virgin -touched for the very first time

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I made it through the wilderness
Somehow I made it through
Didn’t know how lost I was
Until I found……

-Madonna-

It’s intriguing how some text sometimes sounds so appropriate with the experience you have. After the very first day at sea, on our own, it felt like the first bit of the lyrics of this Madonna song. I was touched, to the point of being emotional by the awe and beauty of the scenery. I also felt relieved, although I was quite well prepared for the navigation, I still didn’t know what to expect. But at the end of the day, it all came together, like I found my passion.

Although fanatically*, we kayaked for just under two years now. The sea trips we made were visits across the Wadden, to the islands north of the Netherlands. Most of them, however, were guided by others. In the spring I had carefully introduced our club instructors to the idea that we were going to paddle in Scotland and they were not surprised or worried.

Starting this holiday in the Great Glen looked like the safe option, only to discover that Loch Ness, Loch Oich and Loch Lochy provide very little shelter from wind and waves. Also, the Caledonian Canal was quite hard to paddle. You are not allowed into the locks with your kayak, so there’s a lot of portage with heavy boats. Fed up with the locks we were eager to start on our sea trip and did quit the Caledonian Canal at the Gairlochy Top Lock.

So after a top-up of supplies in Fort William, we pack the boats near Strontian at the “Ceann Loch” (meaning head of the Loch) of Loch Sunart. This is our very “own” first trip on tidal water and we are excited. I have studied the Yachtsman’s Pilot to the Isle of Mull (Imray, Martin Lawrence) to the last letter.

The trip along the shores of Loch Sunart is pleasant. The narrow channel at Eilean Mor creates some interesting currents on the ebb tide. We also encounter our first seals, who are popping the curious noses out of the water when we pass. After the lunch and pushed along by the flood, we dodge the submerged rocks at Coal Charna on the east side of Carna. The eddies and whirlpools draw the rocks out on the water’s surface. In most cases, we could also pass over them in our kayaks but we are careful, courtesy of the current we have 2 knots of extra speed.

We enter Loch Teacuis for a good exploration. The flood drives us to the head of the loch. Returning to the direction of Carna is more of a challenge. Halfway, at a narrow section, there is a threshold of water, with the water level on the outside of the loch clearly higher. We need to push hard to get out of southern part of Loch Teacuis. At Eilean Chulaig we are out again and there is time to relax. The scenery all around us is breathtaking; the sun shines on the rugged wilderness, cute little seal pups with lovable faces surround us on the water, on the island fluffy Herring gull chicks waddle through the purple heather. Touched by the awe of the moment and relieved by the belief that we will be capable to successfully complete the trip, I am overwhelmed by emotion and it’s hard to hold back a tear that rolls over my cheek. All the training, all the preparation and all the reading about overfalls and submerged rocks, had built up into an apprehension and excitement. But now I could let it go, here in this moment of beauty and wonder. We found something that we really loved doing.

We leave Eilean nan Gabhar and start our approach to Carna, the island where we will sleep. The pilot states for this area; “The passages either side of Carna are among the trickiest bits of rock-dodging anywhere on the west coast, and there is still some doubt about the position of some of the rocks. In both passages, the tidal stream runs at 2 1/2 knots spring”. Still, we meet a man standing on the bow of his quarter million motor yacht. He shouts at us in despair “Do you have any idea what the safe passage is here?”. I can only tell him, that this is not the best place to be with a boat like his and that he should take a kayak or read his pilot.

While I bag my first Scottish Island, I think to myself; do not be afraid to go, the rewards are great. But practice your kayak skills and for the navigation bit; study like a nerd, from a book if that is all you have. You always can cut down on the information bit by bit, when you observe the system and get to know it more and more.

 

*By fanatically, I mean, kayaking twice a week and with a lot of courses and larger trips. Our training area is the Rhine river where large barges and the current make unpredictable waves and eddies. We had about 4000 km under the belt before we left for Scotland. As someone who is instructing people in the art of kayaking myself now, I can see that it’s difficult to reach a level where it’s comfortable to do your own trips out at sea, within two years. Besides the ‘on the water’ experience, I also studied a lot about navigation and the sea. I would suggest that you always consult an instructor or experienced kayaker before you set out and conquer the sea.