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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
he resurfaced, he didn’t skip a beat: “Let’s jump off this rock,” he said.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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