On the day of the very lowest springs, when you really have a sense of tiptoeing over the seabed, we go to a wonderful shore just west of Broadford Bay. It is a particularly unbeautiful beach, more or less level, featureless and very brown. The cobbles, pebbles, gravels, the brown fucoid seaweeds all give an impression of a dull, shadowy place. But what marvels it reveals once you start to look.
The site is at a point where, at extreme low water, the channel between the shore and the opposing shore on the island of Scalpay is at its narrowest. When the tide is running through narrows you get a rapids effect and lots of marine life seems to like that. Sponges can be prolific and scallops obviously benefit from a constant stream of particulate matter to filter feed on.
Perhaps that is why we find lots of juvenile scallops: the king, Pecten maximus, the queen Aequipecten opercularis and the dainty Snow scallop, Chlamys nivea. Individuals of the former two species are bright splashes of colour at the water’s edge or seen through the shallows amongst the gravels and weeds. The ‘niveas’ tend to attach to the undersides of large cobbles and rocks.
I saw lots of baby ‘kings’: it’s a veritable nursery. I know from what I learnt on my first trip to Skye 27 years ago that local scallop divers pick up juveniles and move them around to ‘nursery’ grounds of their choosing. This simple management of their local resource makes it easier for them to exploit the scallop fishery in a sustainable way.
You can also find the horse mussel Modiolus modiolus embedded in the gravels. This is a sensitive species which has shown a decline in recent years. Dredging for scallops has caused damaged to the seabed where they have been growing in large numbers. Horse mussels are long-lived molluscs, it is likely they live to 50 years. When found on the seashore they should be left well alone.
In addition to an array of molluscs, including interesting clam species which we sieve from the gravels, there are lots of sea urchins. There are many of the small Paracentrotus lividus urchins under rocks, but there are also large individuals of Echinus esculentus amongst the kelp plants in the shallows. These are edible, I have never tried them, the taste of urchin is said to taste like nothing else – an article in the Independent describes them as having a creamy taste with a hint of iodine. Peter finds a perfect test of the purple heart urchin, Spatangus purpureus. It is a prize.
We take our usual weeds to wash, and scrub boulders on the shore. Just before we leave Steve picks up a large paired Pecten shell. It has several interesting specimens on and inside it. We can see the turrid, the nudibranch, the chiton, the limpet and the young scallop attached to the exterior and the interior has some small clods of sediment. We decide to take it back and see how many species we retrieve from it as a sample of ‘substrate’. When every last bit of sieved mud has been picked through we have a tally of more than 30 mollusc species from this single object.
On the way back to Kyleakin I am driving Peter’s car and I suddenly realise I am very hungry. It has been wet and windy all afternoon. We stop in Broadford and the four of us buy pies – mine is a warmed chicken and mushroom one and it is yummy.
But there is more tastiness in store when I sit down with the others to enjoy a convivial Saturday evening in over a dish of pasta prepared by Sonia and Terry. Creature comforts abound, such a bonus when you are on a field trip!