Having spent the day driving through perfect sunshine, I reach Pembrokeshire’s Marloes peninsula and enter a blank wall of cloud. I pitch my tent at West Hook Farm campsite in thin drizzle, then walk on to the headland, watching the cloud rise to let the late sun blast underneath. A rainbow strums a perfect chord across the sky behind me. An hour after sunset the sky is cloudless.
Looking down the Pembrokeshire coast towards Skomer.
Looking down the Pembrokeshire coast towards Skomer. Photograph: Michael Charles/Alamy
In Britain it’s always worth hanging around to see what the weather will do. In the case of the islands off the Pembrokeshire Coast national park, I’ve been hanging around, off and on, for more than three decades, going back repeatedly to the Marloes peninsula in the hope of catching the right wind and waves to visit the rocky islets of Skomer, Skokholm and Grassholm. Sometimes the boat was fully booked; more often the service was cancelled due to wind, swells or storms. But this time, finally, it looked hopeful.
It is a joy to watch their supreme aquatic skills, especially as I feel about as agile as a lump of driftwood
Early next morning, Andy, the boat captain from Celtic Deep, based in the village of Dale, looks tanned and cheerful. “It’s been a great year so far,” he tells me, “Sharks, fin whales, minkes, bluefin tuna – they’re all around.”
Our objective is to motor out to the Smalls, a wave-battered gang of rocks 20 miles offshore, then loop back past all the other, larger, islands, slipping into the sea to swim with whatever life forms appear. Fortunately we have an extraordinary amount of experience and talent to lead us: Richard Rees, who has spent his life studying the ocean; Nicki Meharg, a professional freediver and instructor; and David Miller, an artist who spends much of his time underwater, studying his favourite subjects, marine and aquatic life.
Gannets on Grassholm.
Gannets on Grassholm. Photograph: David Tipling Photo Library/Alamy
As we approach the Smalls, seals pop their heads up from the swell to watch us. The only feature more than a few feet tall is Smalls lighthouse, standing on one of two long outcrops. Nicki explains the plan carefully: we’re to jump into the waves and swim hard to reach a narrow gully that separates the two main rocks, then drift through the kelp watching for life. “Stay as a group. Don’t get too close to the rock. Once we are inside, only one person underwater at any one time.”
I am encased in 7mm of neoprene: even in summer the water here is cold. We leap in, but the current is too powerful, so we climb back on board and Andy drops us at the other end of the gully. Here we manage to find a quieter area of water where seals are hanging out. Once we settle down, they approach. Within a few minutes they are sniffing our fins and performing accomplished swim-bys from below. It is a joy to watch their supreme aquatic skills – and makes me feel about as agile as a lump of driftwood.
Puffin decoy hat
David’s puffin decoy hat
After half an hour we’re getting chilly so reboard the boat, warm up with tea and coffee, then motor a few miles back east to Grassholm island, to watch gannets. This uninhabited rocky island is home to about 10% of the world population, and its entire surface is dotted with nesting birds. It’s sad to see that most nests are made of torn fragments of plastic fishing nets.
From here we continue back to the lee of Skomer, where David takes over command, being the unsurpassed expert in getting close to sea creatures – finned and feathered – without disturbance. We are all on strict instructions to create no splash, to move slowly, and to stay vertical in the water – so as not to be mistaken for a seal. The secret weapon is a full-size model of a puffin attached to our belts or even on our heads: a surefire way to calm the birds’ anxieties.
‘The puffins are remarkably bold, happily swimming within a few feet of me.’ Photograph: Nature Picture Library/Alamy
I slide into the water and allow myself to drift gently towards a mixed flock of puffins, razorbills and guillemots. Visibility underwater is about eight metres and suddenly a white ghost of a bird flies beneath me: it’s a puffin, its feathers filled with air bubbles, hunting for sand eels.