Storm Ellen rolled into town at the weekend which, together with a series of very high tides, made for dramatic scenes all along the Welsh coastline. Never one to miss a good weather event we popped down to Rhossili late on Friday evening to see what the sea state was like and I think the word that best describes it was big. Or maybe that should be Big. Towering waves were smashing against the Worm and Tears Point whilst the wider channel resembled a boiling cauldron of white water. The swell was absolutely immense and I didn’t envy the crew of a lone cargo ship passing through one little bit.
The resident birds were clearly not enjoying themselves either with a flock of House Martins feeding in relative shelter behind an outcrop in the cliffs where a pair of Chough could also be found hunkered down. A Kestrel on the other hand showed no such issues and was content to continue hunting above the Vile. Where there’s rough seas however there’s always a chance for some decent seawatching so we found our own crevice and set the scope to scan. Almost immediately a couple of Gannets passed by, low to the waves and travelling at high speed. Then came the species I’d been hoping for – Manx Shearwaters. Thanks to lockdown we’d seen none up until this point so were both more than pleased to spot a trickle heading up channel. Even in far from ideal viewing conditions that flash from black to white as they skimmed the wavetops was clearly visible and reminded me just why these are my favourite seabirds. Yes, even better than Puffins. It only took a few moments for them to be lost in the swell once more but as consolation prizes go a pair of Harbour Porpoise travelling in the opposite direction was pretty decent.
Then all of a sudden there was a break in the clouds allowing a beam of light to slice through the gloom, illuminating Worms Head and the crashing waves before us. With spray blasting horizontally across our field of vision it made for one of the most memorable experiences of this somewhat bizarre summer.
It of course goes without saying that we were being cautious at all times and remained well clear of any cliff edges or for that matter the sea itself. Only the previous evening we’d been reminded of how quickly proceedings can unravel, turning a nice trip to the coast into a life or death situation.
Strolling the clifftops at Southgate on Thursday we’d already spotted a Wheatear and another couple of Choughbefore a scream drifted across the landscape. In blustery conditions it was hard to pinpoint where the sound had originated from or for that matter its nature. Perhaps someone had been as pleased to see some Manx Shearwaters as I was to be twenty four hours later. A couple of minutes passed and then we heard the scream again, however this time it definitely didn’t sound like someone leaping for joy. Quite the opposite in fact. Fortunately I had my binoculars with me and scanning the base of the cliffs I picked up a youngish girl staring into the waves. Bit odd I thought but as she began to descend and disappeared from sight I spotted someone else in the water frantically swimming against the swell, presumably in an effort to get clear of the rocks. Shit. There’s moments in life when nothing’s quite prepared you for how to act but we did all we could think to do. Emma called the coastguard and I kept tabs on the swimmer. All the time I kept debating as to whether or not I should or even could go and help but with no obvious route down the cliffs and certainly no desire to become another casualty by jumping in after them, I was left to watch, helplessly. Not a nice feeling and one shared by the now small group who had gathered having also heard the commotion.
In a couple of minutes the coastguard, RNLI and search and rescue helicopter were all on their way but somehow, and I’m still not sure how, the swimmer made it back to the rocks and clambered out with nothing more serious than a lot of bruising and several small cuts. It doesn’t bare thinking about what could have gone wrong in such a manoeuvre but our joint sense of relief was palpable. Despite calling off the emergency services the helicopter still came and did a detailed scan of the area to ensure that there were no more casualties that we may have been unaware of which, gratefully, there were not. What followed was a stern talking to from parents, observers and the coastguard but I imagine that the experience itself has done more to teach the group about the perils of the sea than words will ever do. It turned out they had been planning a bonfire when an errant wave had crashed over them, dragging the group of six back towards the water. Fortunately all bar one had been able to grab hold of something to save themselves but how many times has a similar story played out these past few months with far more dire consequences.
We’ve seen a few incidents over the years but this was easily the closest I’ve come to watching someone drown. I don’t recommend the experience as a victim or observer so please remember to take care out there.