Opportunities to paddle the North Sea coast of Aberdeenshire have been fleeting for the last few months as the winter has seen a pattern of easterly and northerly airstreams which create big swells on this east facing coast. A few days of westerly wind had allowed the swell to drop, offering Allan and I the chance to paddle up the coast from Catterline towards Stonehaven.
Heading north in bright sunshine we soon came to the first of many interesting rock formations - the Garran, which has an arch right through into a bay beyond.
Paddling back out against a stiff breeze funneling in was hard work!
The coast here is a conglomerate rock with rounded pebbles and boulders set in a reddish matrix, a legacy of when this part of Scotland was an arid landscape washed by periodic and devastating floods. In some places the different flood events can be clearly seen in the cliffs. The rock is reasonably soft and forms caves, some very large and surprisingly long.......
...and some narrow slots which penetrate the cliffs, often with the boom and roar of surf somewhere in the gloom at the back - there are cave monsters here!
The highest stretch of cliffs are managed by the RSPB as Fowlsheugh reserve, known for the staggering numbers of breeding seabirds. The birds are just arriving back from a year at sea, beginning to pair up and squabbling over nesting sites. There's lots of coming and going and plenty of noise. Once the birds have begun to lay their eggs we keep well out from the cliffs to avoid disturbance and reduce the opportunities for predators to snatch an unguarded egg or chick.
Not all the birds are back yet, but already the cacophony, noise and movement assault the senses. Out on the water great rafts of Razorbills, Fulmars and Kittiwakes congregate, while their partners on the cliffs squabble over nest sites - the round holes where boulders have fallen out are particularly favoured. Fowlsheugh is the largest mainland seabird colony in the north east of Scotland, these 60 metre high cliffs form the breeding ground for upwards of 130,000 pairs of birds - mainly Razorbills and Kittiwakes but there are also large numbers of Guillemots and Fulmars and small numbers of Puffins.
At the northern end of the main cliff face there's yet another speleological opportunity, and if this particular one doesn't take your fancy......
....there's plenty more just around the corner! This slanting cave opens up into a long chamber at right angles within the cliff.
One cave we didn't visit is this one tucked at the back of a long geo. It has a fine waterfall positioned right over the highest point of the arched mouth and a beach of red pebbles within. It's a favoured spot for Atlantic Grey Seals to haul out undisturbed and we could see around a hundred animals on the beach, many of them the pups born in November. Their somewhat otherwordly wailing calls were echoing out of the cave along the walls of the geo; in it's own way this is as good a wildlife spectacle as the seabirds - only not so many folk are lucky enough to have the the opportunity of seeing and hearing it.
Another headland with another cave - this one is actually a tunnel right through the headland.......
...emerging into a bay on the other side of the headland. The exit appears blocked by rocky walls, but a sharp right turn in a narrow channel leads to open water. As with all the caves on this coast, safe paddling is limited by the swell. I've paddled here many times in conditions which didn't even permit going near the entrances. Although most don't have inward sloping roofs, swell is still greatly amplified in all of them.
One of the options for a lunch stop had been one of the beaches at Tremuda Bay, but it seemed we were far from the only sea kayakers to be enjoying the fine conditions! A group from Stonehaven Canoe Club were doing a trip and also conducting a beach clean-up. They'd done a great job of it too, there was no plastic rubbish at all on the two beaches we landed at.
With hardly room to land another boat on the rocky beach, we decided to push on to another lunch spot a little way up the coast.....