Scuba-diving plankton make Donegal waters sparkle

Ever seen luminescent plankton sparkle at night like scuba-diving fireflies?
If not, then maybe you should take an island tour with Captain Gareth Doherty of Selkie Sailing as I did several days ago on his 22-foot Drascombe long boat.

Land ahead! Captain ‘Columbus’ Doherty’s first sighting of America, or some such landmark (Photo courtesy Selkie Sailing).

Setting off from what I call ‘Ernie’s Place’ (Bun An Inver harbor, opposite Teac Jack) just as the sun was setting, we headed across tranquil water to Sceard Iompainn (Umfin’s Blowhole) near Béal Scealp Uí Dhúgáin (Duggan’s Sea-Arch), its russet-red rocks sliding smoothly to the sea.
sunset on the wild atlantic way, Donegal boat trips,
Interestingly, as Pól Ó Muireasáin, our Gaelic linguist on board, pointed out, the island of Iompainn may have derived its name from the older spelling, ‘Iompthoinn,’ meaning ‘turning wave.’ Opposite Béal Scealp Uí Dhúgáin is where I normally fish off the side of my boat ‘Radharch na Coco’, catching sizeable pollock, but also losing plenty of lures and weights in the process, tangled in the heavy seaweed there.
Pól Ó Muireasáin, Gareth Doherty, Selkie Sailing

(l to r) Sea-mates Gareth Doherty and Pól Ó Muireasáin enjoy a light-hearted moment. Photo by Sean Hillen

Dare I say it for fear of ridicule, but once I even lost a fine rod there – left unattended in the stern of the boat, a group of conspiratorial avenging fish dragged it down to the murky depths before I could scamper back and rescue it.
From Béal Scealp Uí Dhúgáin, we floated gently on the placid surface for a while indulging in a spot of fishing while marveling at the glittering plankton in the water beside us dancing mightily as if high on ecstasy at a fairy rave party.
Our night tour then took us to Gola (Gabhla – the place of the fork, alluding to the two hills as seen from the mainland); Tororragaun (Tor Uí Arragáin, Harrigan’s Outcrop); Inishmeane (Inis Meáin, Middle Island); and Inishsirrer (Inis Oirthir, East Island).
sailing in Donegal, boats on Wild Atlantic Way

A chat at sea with local coastguard, Joe Curran (in orange) and Antonia Leitner from Austria (front left) helps pass the day away. Photo by Sean Hillen

There’s nothing as peaceful on a lovely evening than to be on a boat on calm seas in good company, chatting idly about this and that. And that’s exactly what we did, with subjects ranging from the fate of the Irish language to the wealth of wildlife off Donegal’s shoreline and Gareth’s peck on the nose from a nervous gannet (And, on a more cultural vein, needless to say Daniel ‘Travolta’ O’Donnell’s chances of capturing the Sam Maguire Cup of classical dance for the glory of Donegal – just joking).
Several things impressed me about Strabane-born Gareth Doherty on this trip.
The slim, bearded sailor loves the sea and all things associated with it, including a heartfelt concern for the environment and the birds and sea creatures that inhabit it.
 As a keen naturalist, the bird and wildlife around the coast here is truly spectacular,” he says. “And there’s so many different ways to enjoy them. Every time I cast off from the shore I have a feeling of anticipation, knowing the rewards that await me. The moment I switch off the engine and hoist sail, this transformation encapsulates for me an ancient tradition.”
Fishing on Wild Atlantic Way, Gareth Doherty

Gareth hand-catches a 15-pound sunfish near Umfin. Photo courtesy of Selkie Sailing

Illustrating his concern for wildlife, Gareth and his wife, Amanda, from Sunderland, helped establish the ‘North West Whale & Dolphin Support Group’ consisting of local like-minded people keen to learn how to save stranded sea mammals. The initiative followed the ill-treatment of a pod of 13 pilot whales left to suffocate after five days on Ballyness beach near Falcarragh. It was the 13th such stranding last year in Donegal.
wild life northwest Donegal, birds and sea life

Gareth’s son, Aran, watches over a young Great Black-backed Gull. The bird’s tongue got tangled in fishing lure, which Gareth skillfully removed. Photo courtesy of Selkie Sailing

Gareth, who lived in Black Isle, near Inverness and Dunoon in Argyll before moving to Donegal seven years ago, (his three children are named after Scottish islands – Skye, Rona and Arran) is a gold mine of marine information.
Well-qualified – he is a dinghy instructor, day-skipper, offshore yachts-master and is trained in advanced power-boating – his deep knowledge ranges from details on wildlife to be found around the Continental Shelf lying 50 miles off the Donegal coast to the characteristics of the waxy oil that dripped from a sperm whale stranded on Magheraroarty (Machaire Rabhartaigh) beach several weeks ago.
The 44-year-old’s passion for the sea originates in great part with his grandfather, Paddy McCauley, who spent much time in Inver, Donegal. “As he was a keen sailor and fisherman, some of my earliest memories are of being on the sea,” he recalls.
Now Gareth has transformed his indefatigable passion into a creative entrepreneurial venture. Aside from the Drascombe long boat, Selkie Sailing, based in Derrybeg, has many other craft – a gaff rig, topper sailboats, a catamaran, kayaks, a rib and a banana boat: more than enough to host guests on adventurous excursions among the many islands, sea arches and caves. Sailing classes take up much of Selkie’s activities.
Gareth Doherty saving sea life, Donegal wild life

Gareth caresses a blue shark, four miles off Inishsirrer near the wreck of the steamship, Boniface, torpedoed during World War One. Photo courtesy of Selkie Sailing

Gareth says different seasons bring different sights. “Spring sees a migration of Arctic Skuas, Sandwich Terns and Gannets with occasional rare visitors like the Short-Eared Owl,” he explains. “Summer days are filled with the song of the Skylark and ground-nesting birds like Oyster Catchers and Ring Plovers, with sea-cliffs harboring colonies of shags, cormorants and fulmars. Chances of seeing an otter, a basking shark, a bottlenose dolphin or a porpoise are higher then. With autumn come Sandlins and Dunlins while seal pups rest on the rocks and the sandy beaches of the islands. Brent and Barnacle Geese rule winter, taking advantage of the sea swells to feed. Sometimes, a long-tailed duck may make an appearance.”
Two proposed projects excite Gareth. One is in education – to teach children in local schools about the marine environment and its sea and air inhabitants. The other focuses on Minke whales. “They’ll start to appear over the next month and I’ve organised two underwater photographers and a cameraman on a drone helicopter to shoot their behaviour,” he says excitedly. “It may be the first time this has ever been done in Ireland.”
whales Donegal, Minke whales

Efforts by Amanda and Gareth Doherty aim to save many stranded whales, dolphins and other sea life such as this.

As to the name ‘Selkie.’ It’s a mythical creature; half man, half seal which comes on to the land and removes its outer layer of skin to reveal itself as a beautiful, dark-eyed human. Like the mermaid, selkies have been both praised and feared. Stories describe how they helped sailors in rough storms but also how they lured people into the sea. Another yarn tells of a man stealing the skin of a female selkie to trick her into being his wife.  
As Selkie Sailing’s motto states – “Where the shore ends, the advenure begins,’ you never know, perhaps a trip with Gareth might end up in a fortuitous meeting with one of these intriguing creatures.
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Sea lettuce, sugar kelp and snakelocks anemone: exotic foods of the Gaeltacht islands

Pól Ó Muireasáin’s the kind of guy who’s hard to miss – especially in a quiet, rural place such as Gaoth Dobhair sweeping down to the islands of west Donegal.
He’ll talk to anyone – no-one being above or below his broad radar of interest.
guide tour of Donegal islands

Sea voyaging is filled with danger – Pól explains to participants at the Wild Atlantic Way ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ during an expedition on Gola Island, as he recites the names of those islanders who died engraved on the pier wall. Photo by Sean Hillen

Walking with him from A to B means inevitably stopping off at G, H, K and Z as he meanders this way and that to chat with most men or women who happen to come within his quite well-developed range of vision.

Not that you’d want to miss him anyway cos that’d mean you’d suffer the loss of hearing his colorful, homespun tales about wildlife and ghostly sightings; his abiding interest in the intricacies of the Irish language; his poetic lyricism on the beauty of the local landscape; and his whimsical descriptions about esoteric delicacies he manages to find hidden along nearby shorelines.  
Sea lettuce, sugar kelp and snakelocks anemone – these are just some of the lesser-known foods uncovered on the solo ‘search-and-find’ missions that Pól Ó, a committed, skilful ‘sea forager,’ conducts around the islands of the west Donegal Gaeltacht.
Sea lettuce, sugar kelp, snakelocks

Sea lettuce and snakelocks anemone make for tasty snacks (Photo by Pól Ó Muireasáin)

Wearing waders, a waterproof vest and carrying an aquascope, an underwater viewing device, the exploits of the Derry native now living in Bunbeg and a guest speaker at this weekend’s annual Gola Island Festival (Féile Ghabhla), have now attracted national and international attention, with Der Spiegel, the German national newspaper, despatching a photo-writer team this week to profile him and Raidió na Gaeltachta’s ‘Mo Ghrá Thú’ featuring him in a special.
“There is as much nutritional food underwater than there is above and we haven’t even really begun to understand it,” claims Ó Muireasáin, a youthful-looking 49, who worked for two years as the first Irish language proof-reader in Legal Services at the European Commission when it was granted official status in 2007, before moving to Gaoth Dobhair. “It’s sad when one reads about world food shortages and the lack of a nutritional diet, especially when so much healthy ‘cuisine’ exists in our seas and oceans.”
Sea lettuce, sugar kelp, sea forager, snakelocks anemone

Sea urchins – yummy, yummy! (Photo by Pól Ó Muireasáin)

An island lover, Ó Muireasáin, whose local nickname is  Pól a’Bhicycle, spends much of his time on Gola. In fact, he was the official island guide during the recent Wild Atlantic Way, ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ at Teac Jack, which featured former CNN news editor, John DeDakis.
Needing to take time out to contemplate what was important in my life, I went seeking solitude,” he explains. “I wild-camped and developed an avid interest in sea-foraging, enjoying a calm convalescence, observing and listening to nature at close quarters. Doing so helped me appreciate the important things in life – mental and physical health, giving help to others and receiving help in return, smiling and making others smile and having a deep gratitude for simply being alive.”
writing in Donegal, Ireland Writing Retreat, lobster

On the pier at Magheraghallon, Pól explains the difference between male and female lobsters – “See, one is hard and erect,” he says, much to the ladies’ rising curiosity.

As for the obscure foods he finds on his foraging trips, Ó Muireasáin refers to the Atlantic Ocean as “freesupermarket.com,” adding, “All you need to know is which aisles to wander down for whatever type of seafood you want. The Japanese convert sugar kelp into crispy snacks, the Spanish deep-fry snakelocks anemone which they call ‘ortiguillas de mar’ (little sea nettles) in olive oil for a tasty dinner. You can also boil shrimps or prawns with sea lettuce for a nutritious meal or make a fine stew from limpets, not to mention using both types of duileasc – dillisk or creathnach – in a whole range of culinary ways.”
Ireland Writing Retreat, writing courses Donegal, Gola Island

His Excellency King Eddie of Gola (in blue T-shirt) listens attentively as Pól talks about some of his island adventures.

During his sojourns on Gola, near the dilapidated Teach Charlie Uí Fhrighil, the polyglot, fluent in five languages, has undergone a number of intriguing experiences, including ghostly apparitions in the dead of night that sent him scurrying like a madman out of his tent (though where he could scurry to on an isolated island, alone, without a boat or a paddle is beyond me), as well as his sighting of a six-foot conger eel sunbathing off Portacrin Pier. “Experiences I’d hardly get in Brussels,” he said, smiling, recollecting some of his adventures on the ‘high seas.’
Gareth Doherty, Selkie Sailing, Pól Ó Muireasáin’s, Pól Ó Muireasáin

Two seafaring environmentalists (l to r) Pól and Gareth Doherty share a joke on an island pier. (Photo by Sean Hillen)

Ó Muireasáin voices admiration for many local people who’ve befriended him since his arrival in west Donegal, including Gareth Doherty with Selkie Sailing, who organises training in water-sports and eco-tourism trips and has lobbied for greater protection for stranded sea mammals. Ó Muireasáin describes him as a “a committed and deeply knowledgeable environmentalist.”
Both men passionately believe environmental tourism coupled with the rich cultural history of the Gaeltacht can bring strong economic benefits to the marginalized rural area, describing the Donegal islands as a “a paradise of wildlife.”
“There’s dolphins, both bottlenose and Risso’s; otters, porpoises, whales, especially Minke; you’ve even got eels that travel around seven thousand miles from the Sargasso Sea,” said Doherty. “Not to mention diverse birdlife – sandwich and arctic terns, the largest migratory birds in the world; puffins, around two thousand on Tory Island alone, the most westerly of colonies; sand martins, skua, corncrake, as well as manx and sooty shearwaters, which fly about a million miles during their lifetimes.”
fishing in Donegal, Gola Island Ferry, sea foreger

Dinner is served! (Photo by Sean Hillen)

Adds Ó Muireasáin, “There is tremendous potential here for attracting international visitors, especially from landlocked areas of countries such as Germany and the US, but local people need to pull together. They can’t act like islands.”
Ó Muireasáin, who studied Celtic languages and literature at Queens University before completing his Masters in Irish translation studies, teaching at the University of Ulster and working for the Department of the Gaeltacht, also admires Eddie Joe Mac Aoidh, the ‘Uncrowned King’ of Gola (Rí Ghabhla). Eddie, born on the island, has set up a café there to cater for visitors, many of whom travel over on ‘The Cricket,’ a ferry service organised by Captains Sabba Curran and his son, Daniel, of Gola Ferry Service.
Ireland Writing Retreat, John DeDakis, writers in Donegal

Participants at the Wild Atlantic Way ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ with Pól and Captain Sabba Curran (in T-shirt) before embarking on ‘The Cricket’ courtesy of Gola Ferry Service for Gola Island.

They’re all hoping this weekend’s island festival and the promotion in Der Spiegel, RnG and other media outlets will provide a welcome tourism boost and bring greater focus on the traditional Donegal island way of life.
See feature article on page 28 of today’s Donegal News.
Sean Hillen writer Donegal