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Our first trip was something that will forever stick with us. The anticipation as we threw off the bow lines. We were leaving a sheltered harbour, heading West to explore the Celtic Deep. To us a marine wilderness was within our reach. No way of knowing what we'd encounter, yet knowing that anything was possible. That's the spirit we want to keep at the heart of every expedition. So far so good.
Our trips look to explore the islands and offshore habitats in the stretch of water between Wales and Ireland. It is home for some of the UK's largest and most iconic marine megafauna. Whales, super pods of dolphins, even giant bluefin tuna. Sharks too. It's all out there. To enter the clear water of the open ocean and observe blue sharks 30 miles from the Welsh coast is an exhilirating experience.
We're passionate about sharing the wonders of our marine world and getting wet doing it. Celtic Deep is run by conservationists. Our aim is to collect information and pass on what we learn about the spectacular wildlife that pass through our waters so that decision makers can put right measures in place to protect it.
A trip to the Celtic Deep is a full day trip. Most are 10 hrs. Departure times and location (usually Dale but possibly Milford Haven) will vary a little depending on the tides but count on leaving early in the morning and returning in the evening.
There will be a couple of hours ‘steaming’ out to the Deep where we will wait for megafauna like sharks, whales and tuna to turn up and enjoy some open water snorkeling. There is plenty to see on our way with whale watching, dolphin action and birds galore. Conditions allowing we might take in some of the islands (The Smalls, Grassholm, Skomer & Skokholm) on the way out or on the way back.
Lundy is a similar distance, but we'll be heading more South than West. So a couple of hours steam across the Bristol Channel taking in the dolphins and birds before arriving at Lundy. We'll spend the morning swimming with seals, before having a bite to eat and carrying on our tour around the island on the lookout for basking sharks and puffins and snorkeling and freediving some of the most pristine reefs and drop offs in the UK. If conditions dictate, we will switch to take in the wildlife colonies of our Pembrokeshire islands, from the offshore Smalls & Grassholm to near-shore Skomer & Skokholm.
Once you’re booked up we’ll send a more detailed list but you’ll need to bring waterproof and warm clothes, sun protection, wetsuit and snorkel gear if you’re going in the water. You will need some food for lunch, snacks and water to keep you going. It is a kind of a tradition that tales of daring do are exchanged over a drink in the Griffin Inn on our return to Dale.
If we listed everything that might show up we would be here a while. So for now let us focus on what is seen on a consistent basis (with some lesser-seen but possible species in brackets) in the area we will be exploring.
Yes, this is all out there!
Sharks: blue sharks, (also porbeagle and thresher)
Tip: blue sharks appear in bigger numbers second half of the season
Dolphins: Common dolphins (also pilot whales, bottlenose dolphin, risso dolphin, orca)
Whales: minke whales (also fin whales)
Tip: whales are seen more frequently earlier in the season
Other big fish: Bluefin tuna, sun fish
Tip: All about tuna? Bluefin tuna tend to be later in the season.
Birds are drawn in to the smell of the chum and offer fantastic opportunities for photography: Gannet, puffin, guillemot, razorbill, skua, fulmar, shearwaters, storm petrel to name few
We've got some of the seal watching and swimming opportunites on our doorstep in Lundy, the Smalls & Skokholm
Dolphins: Common dolphins (also harbour porpoise, pilot whales, bottlenose dolphin, risso dolphin, orca)
Whales: minke whales
Other big fish: Sun fish are a common visitor in the Summer months. We'll be keeping an eye out for the tell tale 'flapping' dorsal fin.
We'll be visiting some of the UK's most iconic and important bird colonies in Skomer, Skokholm, Grassholm and Lundy. Fantastic opportunities for photography: Gannet, puffin, guillemot, razorbill, skua, fulmar, and manx shearwaters
One of the main focal points of the trip are the blue sharks. We will be orientating the trip around attracting 'blue’s' to come near the boat (which leads to other things turning up too).
Whether you get in the water is totally up to you. You can make up your mind on the day if you want. Zero pressure. If you do want to snorkel, or you think you might, you'll need your own kit. That means a wetsuit, winter thickness is best. Not essential but you can stay in the water longer. Wetsuit hood, gloves are a good thing to bring. You will need mask, snorkel. Fins would be ideal but you can get away without. If you don't have wetsuit gloves hat and socks, bring dark coloured gloves, socks and a hat that you could wear in the water.
Sharks don’t see you as food. They eat, squid, mackerel things like that. One of the things we're looking to achieve so as not to confuse them is to be as dark and un-sparkly/flashy a shape in the water as possible. So no silvery jewelry or bright objects that might be mistaken for a fish!
You won't have to swim very far as you'll be close to the boat. You won't need to leave the surface either. So being an expert snorkeler freediver is not necessary. However, you do need to have tried snorkeling before and be happy that you can clear your snorkel without lifting your head out of the water. So in preparation get down the beach or swimming pool with your snorkel and mask!
The boats we charter are all certified offshore sport-fishing & diving vessels. Atlantic Blue is our primary vessel. It is absolutely the craft for what we're going to do and where we are going. Not only that, it comes with a skipper, Andy, who has 20 years experience of taking people to the Celtic Deep and bringing them back again smiling. We will be using his vast experience to lure the sharks close to the boat.. but ofcourse there's no hooks involved!
Before going any further it is important to reiterate that an offshore trip is definitely more of an undertaking than your average nearshore boat trip. Below are a few considerations that you should think about before taking this on. We are a long way from land, all day and we don't want anyone coming under false pretenses and not being prepared. So here goes; a bullet list of woe or wow depending on your idea of a good time!:
It might be a bit bumpy: Although this is very much a weather dependent trip it can still get rough out there. Optimum conditions for us will be calm seas with a slight breeze however we will go out in a little more than that. Even in calm to moderate conditions the boat will move around a bit. There will be chumming involved too, that means there will be the delightful aroma of mashed up fish on board! So yep, if you know you get sea sick it is likely you will on this trip! Definitely plan on taking some tablets.
Long day, open boat, exposed to the elements: Even in the balmiest of Pembrokeshire Summers it can get cold out on the water. Of course with any luck you'll be in and out of the water too! Return to your winter wardrobe for this trip and you will be all good. Equally, sun and glare off the water mean a hat with a brim and sun cream is a must. The boat does have a small cabin for the skipper, toilet, tea making facilities, an oven and a couple of seats to shelter, but otherwise it's a working deck so you'll be standing, perching or sat on deck throughout the day.
No guarantees: It goes without saying really, but this is mother nature we're talking about. That means there is never any guarantees that any one species will show up on any one day. Sharks will almost certainly make an appearance at some point but there's no saying how quickly or how long they'll stick around. Andy reckons there's about a 20% chance of whales. So it's about making peace with the fact that it's unpredictable but there's loads of great stuff out there.
Still with us? Good! If that stuff actually gets you more excited than putting you off then this is the trip for you. It is all about exploration, going somewhere truly wild, not knowing for sure what we're going to find, but knowing it will likely be something cool and that this year will stick long in the memory as a result!
Shark habituation and association
It's well documented that feeding sharks can cause issues, altering natural foraging behaviour, and creating an association between humans and food that can be dangerous to human and/or sharks.
We chum for sharks. Chumming (to release a scent trail into the water to attract fish or sharks) is about giving the sharks a scent trail to follow... a promise of a potential meal rather than a meal. We use chum (rubby dubby) made from locally caught fish, bran and pilchard oil to create a long curtain of smell that in the right conditions can stretch for many miles. Although small chunks of fish are thrown periodically to keep the interest of the sharks as they follow this trail towards us, we never carry fish into the water with us or hand-feed the sharks.
Like many wild animals, sharks will be seduced by an easy meal and will change their natural behaviour if they are fed regularly and consistently at the same location and time of day. The process whereby a shark becomes dependent on regular feeding is called habituation. We want to make sure we are minimising the chance of habituation with the sharks we encounter. Blue sharks are numerous and highly mobile, capable of travelling hundreds of miles a day. So luckily, it is already highly unlikely that in an offshore setting we would encounter the same animals on any given day. However, we look to further minimise any risk by varying the locations and by not keeping a set time schedule.
We’re freedivers and we're passionate about getting in the water to observe wildlife. First and foremost though, we're conservationists. We are not here to push the limits of what are hard won rules in the UK regarding whale and dolphin disturbance.
Are goal is to set up a platform where wildlife comes to us rather than us pursuing wildlife. During out time in the Celtic Deep our engine will be off. We’re going to drift with the currents in the hope that sharks will find us and other wildlife too: birds, tuna and dolphins have all come to the boat while we’ve been in the water.
We will not actively enter the water if cetaceans are within 100m of the vessel. If they show up we will wait and enjoy them from the boat until they have left the vicinity. In some cases, dolphins in particular, will return and investigate us while we’re in the water. If they seek us out while we’re in close proximity of our idle vessel and we remain passive and don’t pursue the animals in any way then we’re comfortable with that. The animals are visiting us on their terms and able to leave at any point. Entering the water periodically is important because it means we’re able to keep watch of the chum-slick area in the water for other species like sharks.
Swimming with Seals & Seabirds
One of the reasons we visit Lundy is that the seal colony there is renowned for being relaxed and interactive with snorkelers and divers. There are clear guidelines for swimming with seals that we will be adhering to to minimise our impact. We'll be transferring these best practices to any of the other sites we visit.
Seabirds such as puffins are spectacular swimmers and snorkeling with them is a an opportunity to see them through a different lens.. an agile under water predator rather than a clumsy clown. We're acutely aware of the fine margins puffins and the other auks have to tread in order to survive. We're not about to compromise what is a crucial few months for them in the sanctuaries of Skomer and Skokholm. By keeping numbers low, keeping our distance and following the guidance of wardens from these islands, we're excited to collaborate on creating a new code of conduct that will ensure we're providing a sustainable snorkelling experience.