You’ve heard of the greenway. What about the blueway?
Inspired by the Great Western Greenway cycling route, a sequence of kayak and snorkel trails on the Wild Atlantic Way in Co Mayo and Co Galway give a glimpse of another world
Life aquatic: a spider crab in Keem Bay, on Achill Island. Photograph: Richard Thorn
Life aquatic: organ pipe worms in Connemara. Photograph: Richard Thorn
Life aquatic: light bulb sea squirts in Sligo. Photograph: Richard Thorn
Life aquatic: jewel anemones in Sligo. Photograph: Richard Thorn
Life aquatic: a rock goby in Connemara. Photograph: Richard Thorn
Life aquatic: beadlet anemones in Donegal. Photograph: Richard Thorn
This summer Laura Taylor hitched up a trailer, took it to south Co Mayo and offered guided snorkelling tours of Achill Island’s tranquil Keem Bay. Captivated by sea urchins, spider crabs, sand eels and more, about 350 wetsuited customers pioneered the State’s first blueway of its kind.
It’s part of a marine-trail project that is “giving people an opportunity to put their face in the water and see a different world”, according to Richard Thorn, president of Comhairle Fó-Thuinn, the Irish Underwater Council. Mayo’s Great Western Greenway cycling and walking route is a popular and award-winning amenity. Can a maritime version, taking in both Co Mayo and neighbouring Co Galway, take off?
Achill; Louisburgh’s Old Head; Killary Harbour; Inishbofin Harbour; Glassilaun Beach, near Renvyle; and Mannin Bay, just outside Clifden, have been submitted to the Irish Sports Council’s national trails office for approval as locations – Killary for caneoing, Glassilaun for snorkelling and the rest for both.
Whether above or below the surface of the sea, each habitat has its own magic. Killary is renowned for its sea squirts and dahlia anemones. Kayakers paddling into the shadow of Mweelrea, above the harbour, might encounter dolphins at the mouth of Ireland’s only fjord.
Achill already has an established canoeing trail between two of its blue-flag beaches: Silver Strand and Golden Strand, which face Blacksod Bay and the Belmullet Peninsula. Visitors to the horseshoe-shaped Keem Bay, at the island’s western end – once the base for the basking-shark fishery – can find amethysts, reminders of the island’s convulsive past.
Mannin and Glassilaun are also magnets for mask and fin, while Old Head, opening on to Clew Bay, and Inishbofin Harbour, farther south, offer ample scope for water sports and more.
It was a chat between several divers and an equally keen sailor that set the blueway project in train. About 18 months ago Thorn was tossing around a few ideas with Brian Quinn of Fáilte Ireland, who is based in the west and knows his Clew Bay navigational charts better than most.
“Brian sails, and so he is very sympathetic to water sports,” says Thorn, a former president of Sligo Institute of Technology and a creator of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology’s outdoor-education programme.
Laura Taylor, Comhairle Fó-Thuinn’s sports-development officer, “suggested the idea of snorkel trails, and then we put a shape on it and contacted Canoeing Ireland to see if it was interested in collaborating”.
Since then, Mayo and Galway local authorities, among other organisations, have agreed to support development and maintain the blueway sites. Each of the five canoe or kayak trails is 10-15km long, she says. Each of the five snorkelling trails is 1-3km long. Fáilte Ireland will pay for signage and interpretation, and seven local snorkelling guides are being trained.
The team hopes that the network of free trails will encourage visitors to engage with the coastline through “safe, controlled” water-based activities, says Taylor. They can choose whether to follow just one or two of the trails or to go on a “water-based odyssey along the west coast, from south Galway to northwest Mayo”.
Kevin O’Callaghan of Canoeing Ireland says the routes will be graded, as some will be unsuitable for beginners. “Canoeing Ireland will carry this out, and we envisage that this concept will extend beyond the west coast and will include other water sports, such as surfing and adventure cruising.”
All of the blueway points except Inishbofin are on or very near the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland’s first long-distance touring route, which will stretch along the west coast from Inishowen Peninsula, in Co Donegal, to Kinsale, in Co Cork, when it opens, next spring. That should increase their appeal, especially as each location has some parking, as well as safety notices that will be complemented with information boards.
“Australia and New Zealand, and the US, have a handful of snorkel trails, and there are kayak trails in Northern Ireland, but these are the first of their kind in Europe,” Thorn says.
“We have some good and some not-so-good walking and biking trails, and we want to set a standard for these blueways which will be maintained without it having to involve any big cost,” Thorn says. “After all, visit Lidl at the right time and you can get snorkelling for less than €100.”