Sea Kayaking with a Camera

14th October 2014
When I was younger I worked at a watersports centre near Kinsale. We were trained in sailing, windsurfing and (my favourite) kayaking. After a few summers as an underpaid teenager with too little training and far too much responsibility I finished up my watersports career. But not before buying a sea kayak. I loved the exploratory nature of sea paddling; the places you could get to, the views that you can't see from land, the atmosphere in all the secret coves and caves you could suddenly access, the frightening openness of being on the open ocean with your arse below sea level... I did a bit of paddling the summer I got my boat but after a few months, with nobody else to head out with and an unwillingness to do much more by myself, I left the kayak under a hedge in West Cork. It stayed there for a good few years, and at times when money was running out I almost sold it. I'm glad I didn't now because this past summer saw a very rewarding revival in my kayaking!

From a photography point of view sea kayaking is a key to many unopened doors. The places you can get to in a small boat can be incredible, and being an island, Ireland has a huge wealth of these all-but-secret landscapes. And even without a camera the sense of adventure, relaxation and sometimes adrenaline you can get from paddling around our coasts is second to none. Here's a little bit about some trips I did this summer.

Morning stretch on another beautiful day! You can just about see the boats in the back.

Multi-day trips are the most enjoyable for me. There's a great feeling of adventure when you're away overnight, with everything you need packed away with you. In June myself and Eoin did a two day trip from Courtmacsherry to Dunworly, not a massive distance but a trip I've always wanted to do, along an area that's very special to me.

We slept a bit west of Seven Heads Bay between two incredible days of sun and calm seas, wildlife watching, cups of tea and good food, quality snorkelling and gorgeous scenery. It was the first time I'd used my boat for years and it's a trip I won't forget for a long time.

Packing up after a morning of snorkelling and a lazy breakfast under a hot sun.

Eoin doing some freediving later in the day. The joy of having a sit-on top is the ability to get on and off easily. I was confined to taking pictures from my cockpit. This cove we pulled into later was nice for lunch but a peregrine falcon soon arrived and shooed us away fairly lively. We had no bother finding an equally lovely place to eat.

Later in the year Brian, Eoin and I paddled around (and through!) the Old Head of Kinsale. This image is from one of the four passages through the headland. The one we took was 300m long, hardly 3m wide and very very spooky at the half way point. Not a place to take the camera out but a totally amazing minute or two!

Flat calm at the Mouth of the Shannon. Conditions like this have the ephemeral quality of a dream.

After moving back to Kilcredaun at the end of June I quickly got to work on a trip across the Shannon to the coast of North Kerry. It’s a really stunning place and best appreciated in a sea kayak on a glassy day (failing that Dolphinwatch Carrigaholt sometimes go there on their brilliant trips). I stopped loads, pottering around all the beaches you can’t readily get to from land and met a small group of bottlenose dolphins on the way home, which had my heart beating through my buoyancy aid. Thankfully they paid little attention to me; I’d have felt fairly vulnerable had they taken an interest in the 14.5ft yellow thing passing by them.

Emerald Cave, a little north of Ballybunion. All natural light with nothing but a little straightening done to this image.

On another evening I popped across the Shannon with a good book for a nice cup of tea and a relaxing mooch around the shore at Kilconly.

Will and I in an amazing cave on the south side of the Loop Head peninsula. A little later we were in Poulatedaun as a big shoal of mackerel chased an even bigger shoal of sprat, which tried and failed to hide under us. We also met a seal further in that cave but quickly retreated. Not an animal we'd like to accidentally corner!

In August I paddled from Kilcredaun to Scattery Island to spend the night. Pulling up on the western shore in a boat heavy with camera gear and camping paraphernalia I quickly set up a clothes line to dry out my damp paddling clothes and built up a shelter for the night. I had a nice evening and morning walking around the island, which has a rich history and loads of rabbits. The paddle home the next day was gruelling enough; bow to a stiff wind and choppy sea, against the tide and the boat as heavy as I’ve had it. I didn’t bother stopping to take pictures...

With the good weather and glassy sea conditions persisting into September I managed to put another two day trip together, this time on my own from Doonbeg to Kilcredaun. I'd wanted to kayak around the Loop all summer, and had to retreat on my first attempt. This time the forecast was perfect. I stashed camping gear at Tullig to lighten the load and set off on an incredible afternoon. Conditions couldn’t have been much better and with 40 miles of coast to see there was no shortage of fascination.

A nice tunnel near Donegal Point. Near here there was a superb throughway in one of the headlands. I didn't stop to take pictures but I can still feel the excitement going around the bend in that cave and seeing the second opening.

Some of the mind blowing cliffs at Tullig. That's nearly 60m of sandstone overhanging the sea.

One of many mind-blowing caves. I was too spooked to go all the way to the back of this one, which was the bones of 100m deep and the swell booming at the back. There was a big raft of dead looking Pelagia jellies in here too.

Camp at Tullig Gowleen. You can see the boat on the right of the beach below. A peaceful place to wake up on another beautiful day!

The iconic portal near Loop Head. The birds had gone but it’s probably just as well; I’d definitely have been shat on!

Just when I thought the sea couldn’t get much calmer… After an easy rounding of Loop Head (thankfully!) I eventually came to Kilcloher, with a disappointing amount of plastic recovered from the sea at this stage. At one point I had to put the brakes on after seeing a massive jellyfish. It turned out to be a faded balloon, totally transparent after who knows how long at sea. It's lucky some sunfish or turtle hadn't tried eating it. People associate balloons with celebration but every time I see one I can't think anything but environmental disaster. Please never use them!

In a small cove near Rinevella I came across another thick shoal of mackerel chasing sprat. This photo doesn’t do the frenzy justice but I was shooting blindly from above water. The sprat were trying to hide under the kayak but there wasn't much hope for most of them. It would have been easy fishing if I hadn't already plenty of mackerel at home. It was a phenomenal year for them.

A cave I almost missed near the lighthouse at Kilcredaun. The ceiling was spectacular and the view out from the back was really beautiful. Having spent the past two summers looking at that profile of Rehy Hill from a landscape I was completely falling in love with it felt very special to be seeing the same shape framed beautifully from within the landscape itself. A nice way to round up an incredible two days at sea.

I have heaps more images I’d love to share but this is probably enough as it is. Taking my SLR out kayaking always feels a bit risky but it’s totally worth it. I keep it in a dry bag beneath my spray deck and if I see something I like I stop, dry my hands (a little towel in my buoyancy aid pocket does the job) and take it out. Inevitably it gets a little salty but the 7D is fairly well weather sealed. It can be hard to get a sharp enough image in some of the caves but I’m happy to push the ISO to 800 if I have to, which is good enough for most situations if you really concentrate on keep steady. More modern cameras can handle the lower light much better I imagine. Getting wildlife pictures is a much harder thing; firstly it takes awhile to get the camera out so nothing’s done quickly. Secondly, I don’t fancy risking a lens change at sea so unless I have a big lens on from the start I’m not going to get close enough to anything for a decent picture. Since landscapes are much more readily available than wildlife I tend to keep the walkabout lens on, though the wide angle is brilliant for the caves too. I usually bring a compact in an underwater housing too, because you never know, but it’s very hit and miss. I got lucky with it once this year, but I haven’t put the image up anywhere yet…

So there you go; if you want to see a totally new perspective on Ireland’s coast get out on the water. And if you're into photography then bring a camera with you!

If you want to get into kayaking and you're in Cork then look no further than Jim Kennedy of Atlantic Sea Kayaking. On top of being a great dude Jim runs amazing trips whether you want to get a first taste of sea kayaking or learn more skills to further your paddling. I highly recommend the night kayaking on Lough Hyne!


Photo comment By Joseph Cashell: Scattery Island is the business! That is all.
Photo comment By Evtiu: Awesome, fascinating, it would be great if I can share the experience... Beautiful place, unspoilt, serene, picture perfect....perfect escape.:))) Would be a scary, daring and definitely life changing thingy for me😊😊. Fun in raw form.

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