An extreme way to see Wales' coast

Combining swimming through open ocean, climbing treacherous precipices and then plunging into deep trenches, coasteering is an increasingly popular activity on the Pembrokeshire coast.

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.

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.

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.

I had only ever come across this uncommon plant, which tasted like carrot, in King Lear. Shakespeare wrote, “Half-way down Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!” According to Shakespeare’s character, the samphire harvester was taking an extreme risk. (Though maybe the gatherer was simply a trailblazer of coasteering).

The headland grew more sheer and extreme, but we climbed with the relative protection of the sea. I jumped from seven meters, shaping myself like a pencil; Kelly back-flipped from even higher with a celebratory yelp. We took breaks to marvel at the fragile ecosystem, Kelly moving fluidly between his roles as stuntman and coastal biology professor.

“This is a dog whelk,” he said, removing a predatory sea snail from the rock and flipping it over to show me the chitinous spike on its underside. “It uses this to drill into barnacles. Once it gets through, it secretes an enzyme into the barnacle and then waits for the acid to turn the poor guy into mush. Takes the dog whelk about three days to suck it all up. Quite gruesome really.” Kelly placed the sea snail back onto the rock beside its buffet; half of the barnacle shells sat like emptied cauldrons.

Coasteering is a developing sport around the world,  including Wales. At present, the United Kingdom has a National Coasteering Charter that works toward creating safe practices, training guides and promoting the sport, but there is no national governing body yet. Therefore, guides like Kelly tend to be over-qualified – he has site-specific training, along with certifications or qualifications in beach lifeguarding, rock climbing, sea kayaking and first aid – in order for companies like Preseli Venture to avoid accusations of negligence.

But as the sport becomes more popular, things will undoubtedly change. Where there were once only a few recognized outfitters in Pembrokeshire half a decade ago, now there are more than a dozen. When a governing body is formed, standardized qualifications for guides and crowded cliffs will be sure to follow.

“I’d hate this to become a sport where you’re waiting on line like for an amusement park ride,” Kelly said, scanning our empty rock playground.

More humans traversing the rocks will also inevitably yield a less vibrant ecosystem. Creatures would die. But today, we shared the cliffs only with the life beneath our feet.

I followed Kelly into a cave. The darkness of the cavern and sunlight beaming through worked like a pair of alchemists, making the familiar lichens above our head gold, silver and bronze. Inches of swell squeezed in behind us and the non-wave magnified into a watery bomb. It slammed us around like ants floating in a shaken drink.

After the invited walloping, we swam out. I studied green- and pink-fingered snakelocks anemone in one wet niche and a rusty-looking beadlet anemone in another. Swell raced over the beadlet, delivering a grey sand crab into its soft tentacles. The sand crab squirmed as the anemone administered its poison. Another wave interrupted and ripped away its lunch, either saving the crustacean or returning a corpse to the sea.

Kelly was up ahead gazing into a tidal pool. Inside, quarter-sized limpet shells, conical and radially ribbed, were tightly suctioned to the rocks. Algae grew atop these shells like long strands of neon green hair, making the limpets look like little punk rockers, head banging with the tide. The wig-like position of the algae was their greatest advantage.

“Limpets are like the cows of the tidal pools,” Kelly explained. “At high tide, when water covers them, the limpets graze the area – though they can’t climb atop other limpets – and then have to return to the exact place on the rock or else they’ll get eaten.”

A limpet’s shell forms to the rock. As the surface of the rock changes, the area beneath the limpet becomes a precise “footprint”. It’s the only place where a limpet can consistently recreate that tight seal, preventing a bird from prying it off.

Kelly pointed to limpet-shaped footprints absent of its creator. “We call these home scars,” he said. These limpets were gone forever.

Kelly hurled himself from the pristine precipice. It was an incredible day atop the Welsh cliffs and in the Welsh sea. But the future of this ecosystem unsettled me. The sport would grow, as would the home scars. I plunged into the deep blue and reluctantly stroked my way back to Aberbach.