Thursday 19 July 2018

Starlight spectacular: Night kayaking on West Cork's secret marine lake

Kayaking by moonlight in West Cork provides 'selfies of the soul' for our visitor

Kayaking on the Wild Atlantic Way
Kayaking on the Wild Atlantic Way
Lough Hyne, Co. Cork. Photo: George Karbus / Fáilte Ireland
Sea Kayaking on Lough Hyne
Kayaking at dusk on the Wild Atlantic Way
Lough Hyne

Yvonne Judge

With the light declining and midges nipping on our extremities, we gather shyly, a motley group on the shores of Lough Hyne, West Cork.

"Don't suppose anyone here is an Olympic canoeist, no?"

Declan, our leader with Atlantic Sea Kayaking, breaks the ice. As it happens, he isn't even slightly nonplussed when a young woman in a tracksuit with giveaway shamrock and Olympic rings blushes. Her college pals point her way.

"Olympic rower actually. Irish."

Her Cambridge companions giggle, exuberant from their weekend antics in nearby Skibbereen.

Not to worry. We are all novices at night kayaking, and listen politely to the safety drill as our eyes adjust to the descending gloom. We are kitted out in waterproof suits and rubber skirts like Jules Verne aliens all ready for the trip.

Lough Hyne, Co. Cork. Photo: George Karbus / Fáilte Ireland
Lough Hyne, Co. Cork. Photo: George Karbus / Fáilte Ireland
Kayaking on the Wild Atlantic Way
Sea Kayaking on Lough Hyne
Kayaking at dusk on the Wild Atlantic Way
Lough Hyne

Another piece of gentle advice from Declan: Digital devices, whether phone, GoPro or camera, can be left safely on the shore. This is a nature reserve, but I suspect that may be just a brilliant excuse to preserve the zen of the trip. This one is what your memory is for, and for storytellers to talk of afterwards; for selfies of the soul.

The lake is lignite dark and still; showing only slight shimmers of ripples. A slightly cloudy night sky is overhead, and, to our surprise, we're told that these are perfect conditions to see what many have come for; the luminous phosphorescence for which Lough Hyne is famous. This bioluminescence is one of the many rare attributes of this marine lake, fed by a tidal tap from the Atlantic.

For centuries, boffins have visited from labs abroad to examine the lake with its Fraggle-like creatures lurking beneath. Goggles, waders, galoshes and sub aqua devices have been donned over the years to examine the scaly inhabitants for whom the nightly appearance of a few canoes above must seem like an apparition.

We head out into the water, 12 craft, easing off gently, acquainting ourselves with the steering of the two-berth kayaks and the dark. Up ahead, Declan's flashing red night light keeps us clued in and, to the rear, Patrick acts as aqua-shepherd making sure nobody strays off course. We head over in the dark, towards a house light and making sure everyone is together. Stroking beneath overhanging trees on the edge of the lake, we slowly push out to the deeper waters.

Declan lures us along with his tales of the lake - the donkey-eared king marooned on his island, the O'Driscoll alone on his ivy castle throne and, of course, plenty of reminders of perfidious Albion - whether done with a heavy hand for the Cambridge visitors or not I cannot possibly say. There's a chilling moment of reflection as we drift toward a nearby gurgling, and Declan describes the walls out here by the lake entrance; built by hand with huge boulders to serve no purpose but famine relief for local labourers.

By quirk of its natural shape, Lough Hyne's deepest water lies immediately before the rocky portal to the sea, over which seawater flows in and out twice a day. The lake retains its depth - and when I say depth I mean the equivalent of a 14-storey building… get your head around that.

Sea Kayaking on Lough Hyne
Sea Kayaking on Lough Hyne
Kayaking on the Wild Atlantic Way
Lough Hyne, Co. Cork. Photo: George Karbus / Fáilte Ireland
Kayaking at dusk on the Wild Atlantic Way
Lough Hyne

Just then, we are asked to lower our paddles, hush and shut our eyes (if we are comfortable to do so, of course). We bob in the black stillness. It is mesmerising.

Then, a splash of a paddle in the water. Wow! A sparkler is thrown across the black, and whoosh, the show has begun, the phosphorescence is aglow. Space dust shimmers as the water splashes. I do it again; a lake firework of sporadic twinkling limelight. You can just imagine the creatures below lined up watching us watching it, their bubbles applauding the intruders.

We're out on the lake for two hours all-in, and as we return to earth, we reflect that it was as if time had stood still.

We return to our Baltimore cottage, shower the sea hue off us, light the turf fire and talk of the experience for the next few hours cradling glasses of red. Afterwards, I look up the translation of the Irish for the lake - Lough Oighean. It means 'cauldron'. How perfect.

How to do it

Atlantic Sea Kayaking (atlanticseakayaking.com) runs starlight/moonlight kayaking trips on Lough Hyne and at Castlehaven Bay throughout the year, weather permitting. Trips cost €50pp, last 2.5 hours, and set off around an hour before darkness. Equipment is included, but it's recommended that you wear warm, comfortable clothing. They also run a special 'Starlight Serenade' trip once a month which includes music and food.

Read more:

The Irish Adventure Bucket List: 25 days out to try before you die!

Kayaking at dusk on the Wild Atlantic Way
Kayaking at dusk on the Wild Atlantic Way
Kayaking on the Wild Atlantic Way
Lough Hyne, Co. Cork. Photo: George Karbus / Fáilte Ireland
Sea Kayaking on Lough Hyne
Lough Hyne

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