As I drove the long and winding road to the village of Keose, I began to wonder just what I’d let myself in for, as the next heavy hail shower rolled in, hammering down on the car roof. This wasn’t quite the sunny day away from my desk I’d had in mind…
I was off to meet Lewis Mackenzie, the diver who hand-harvests a seaweed called Sugar Kelp, the defining botanical in our Isle of Harris Gin. Normally we’d leave these cold visits to the kelp forests to him. However, for this harvest, Lewis decided I should join him.
Aboard his boat, skipper Angus Macdonald of ‘Haste to Sea’ headed out to sea from the small pier, taking us to one of Lewis’ favourite Sugar Kelp areas, in the bay of a nearby sea-loch.
Here, Lewis told me:
‘When the tide is low the kelp begins to appear on the surface and it’s a fairly sheltered, shallow spot, perfect for your first snorkelling experience.’
After transferring to his small harvesting boat Lewis explained that Sugar Kelp is considered a food grade substance, and safety and sustainability is paramount to his work.
‘We have to have full traceability of where we’ve picked the Sugar Kelp, so we use hand-held GPS of where we’ve harvested. This goes into a harvest log so each batch can be fully traced back to where we picked it with the date and the time.’
Lewis also explained the importance of appropriate gear:
‘At this time of year, the temperature is around 9˚C in the water so it’s important we’re well protected.’
And with that news, he handed me my face-mask, snorkel, gloves and fins to go alongside my wetsuit and shoes. It was time to take the plunge.
Jumping in, the water was just as cold as I had imagined and learning to control my breathing took some getting used to. Just when I thought I had the hang of it, I’d suddenly swallow a mouthful of saltwater…a true taste of our island shores!
But, it wasn’t long before I experienced the beauty of life underwater where all you can hear is your own breath, and watching the golden-green leaves of Sugar Kelp shimmering in the glimpses of spring sun was a whole new world for me.
Soon, the warmth of my survival suit beckoned, and it was time to return to the boat. Examining some fronds of kelp, Lewis explained how the texture is unlike any other plant and how the age is determined by the feel of it.
‘At 4 months old the kelp is strong and rubbery and at just 4 days it has a delicate, tissue paper-like texture to it.’
As we returned to shore, I reflected on what had been a very different Monday afternoon at the office. The sunshine continued to glisten on the waters, and I felt lucky to have experienced this magical world but looked forward to the warmth of an Isle of Harris Gin.
We’re very thankful for the skills and expertise of Lewis but for now, I’m happy to leave him to enjoy life beneath the waves, at least until the water warms up a bit more...
THANKS TO LEWIS MACKENZIE AND HEBRIDES FISH 'N' TRIPS
THANKS ALSO TO ANGUS MACDONALD AND HASTE TO SEA