From the beach of Aberbach, which is Welsh for little river mouth, I slipped into the cold waters of Pembrokeshire county and swam for the first cliff face. I studied the rock wall between strokes, searching for handholds, and examined the glassy water spread out beneath it, trying to gauge depth. Was I really going to ascend that crag and then throw myself off it?
In coasteering, the answer is usually yes, as the sport combines swimming through open ocean, climbing treacherous precipices and then plunging into uncertain seas… just to begin the mad process over again.
Coasteering started when rock climbers grew tired of carrying and belaying ropes, deciding instead, in the interest of safety, to ascend over water. Wales’s 870 miles of coastline – especially the stretch that juts out from Pembrokeshire – is a daredevil’s jungle gym. Thus, on a tour with Preseli Venture, I expected an afternoon of fear and adrenaline, euphoria and belly flops. But in addition to that, during the two hours I spent navigating jagged rock faces that soared to ferns, perched like coiffures atop the cliffs, and dark caves where swells pushed through like surging rivers, I also received an education in the region’s easily overlooked marine biology underfoot.
“You see that area up there,” said Jon Kelly, my guide, as he pointed to a perilous section of rock where it looked as if someone had spray-painted the cliff yellow. The climb appeared manageable, but the jump looked risky. I wasn’t, however, about to cower at our first mission, so I nodded, placed my hands on the rock’s teeth and felt the barnacles dig into my palms.
- (Noah Lederman)
Kelly stopped me. “We’re not climbing yet, I just wanted to point out the xanthoria lichen,” he said, referring to the band of yellow. “[Xanthoria parietina] hates the water. That’s why they grow above the high tide line.” The organism just beneath it that looked like road sealer, he added, was black tar lichen. Often an overlooked aspect of our environment, lichens are essential pioneer organisms that allow for the succession of grasses, bushes and trees.
After the lichen briefing, we scrambled onto the rock and walked slowly toward an arch that hung above the end of the headland, taking our time to inspect the tidal pools along the way. Kelly pointed out a few of the hundreds of varieties of seaweed found in Britain. One kind called channel wrack, which evolved conduits beneath its fronds to allow for the quick run-off of water, had the same preference for dryness as the xanthoria. Bladder wrack, meanwhile, lived among the black tar and floated up with the tide like small green balloons attached to thick strings. Beneath our feet were beds of happily drowned kelp.
A rock wall standing between the sea and the archway stood like a barbican against the small, but approaching swell. While the bulwark was probably an extension of the headland at low tide, with the rising tide it became an island. We lowered ourselves into the channel and swam the gap between the archway and the temporary island. A wave swept in from both sides and also breached the wall. The water dunked him and his life vest. His long hair floated up.
When he resurfaced, he didn’t skip a beat: “Let’s jump off this rock,” he said.
- (Doug McKinlay/LPI/Getty)
He bounded up the wall and leapt without hesitation, as if he were atop a volcano that he knew was ready to blow. I went much slower, searching for handgrips, allowing the swell to tug at me and using the flume to boost me onto the outcrop. I climbed with caution to the little peak and examined my impact zone before jumping. I was acclimatising myself to the sport.
We swam through protected bays and past rocky shorelines where Atlantic grey seals pup between July and December. (During those months, Preseli doesn’t go onto the beaches that the seals use to give birth.) We journeyed around headlands covered with more lichen – pioneer organisms that had selected such extreme surface that succession seemed impossible. On one climb, Kelly discovered a patch of swollen rock samphire, a coastal flora that people often cook with, or even pickle. We stopped to nibble it raw. “It sells for quite a bit of money,” Kelly said.