Starlight kayaking on Lough Hyne

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It nearly didn’t happen.

This starlight kayaking experience on Lough Hyne, Co Cork, was a couple of years in the dreaming and several weeks in the planning. Yet it nearly didn’t happen.

Ever since reading about it in the Irish Times20 best places to go wild, I’d wanted to give it a go, preferably with the acorns. Then, a few weeks back, as I was pondering what kayaking experience to get as a birthday present for Brian, I tentatively looked up again the Atlantic Sea Kayaking website.

We had planned to take a short break over the October bank holiday weekend, so I started researching self-catering accommodation in West Cork. With a spacious holiday home reserved (through the friend of a friend) in Union Hall, Co Cork, I booked a starlight/moonlight kayaking experience on Lough Hyne for 2 – as it happens, it is only available to people aged 16 and over.

This meant also arranging a babysitter for the acorns. Thankfully, the holiday home owner was able to help, something I will be forever grateful for.

With everything lined up for the Saturday evening, we arrived in West Cork late on Friday. Then around lunchtime the next day, I got a phone call that sent my heart sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean – the wind was too strong and the starlight kayaking experience was cancelled for safety reasons.

Cancelled!

The next availability was on the Wednesday evening, by which time we would be back in Wicklow. Gutted doesn’t even come close to how I felt.

Lough Hyne and Knockomagh Hill

With the rest of the day ahead of us, we headed to Skibbereen to have a lovely lunch in the unique setting of the Church Restaurant.

Our revised plan for the day was to walk to the top of Knockomagh Hill (alt. 197m), on the shore of Lough Hyne, to enjoy the views over the West Cork coastline.

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Only 2km in length but often steep, the hike through the Knockomagh Wood Nature Reserve is worth every breathless step.

Walking through green tunnels of gnarled branches, treading on a thick carpet of fallen leaves, climbing steep zigzags of rough stone steps, it wasn’t long before Lough Hyne appeared in all its splendour through the broken trees and their bare branches. (Storm damage has been extensive in Knockomagh Wood, so much so that the starting point for the so-called Northern Loop is closed.) 

But nothing prepares you for the breathtaking beauty that awaits at the top – panoramic views over the West Cork jagged coastline, its soaring cliffs, its narrow inlets and its rolling fields, with beautiful Lough Hyne at your feet.

Emerald green and Altlantic blue. West Cork is all green and blue.

 

It was during that beautiful family hike that I got another phone call from Atlantic Sea Kayaking. The news was good. The news was excellent. By securing an extra instructor, they were able to fit us in for the next day’s starlight kayaking adventure!

Starlight kayaking

Magic is an overused word. But I can’t think of a better one to describe the Starlight Kayaking Experience on Lough Hyne.

With the clocks having gone back the night before, the meeting time was 4.30pm on Sunday afternoon at the Lough Hyne car park, a few hours only after my first ever Atlantic swim.

As the sun slowly sank behind Knockomagh, we met Declan, our guide for the night, and were helped into waterproof trousers, a spray deck and a buoyancy aid, all provided by Atlantic Sea Kayaking.

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“These boats are very stable. The only way they will capsize is if you lean. Don’t lean.”
This was our first taste of Declan’s dry humour and way with words. Throughout the evening, he enchanted us with fascinating facts about Lough Hyne and the area’s history, local legends and tales from not-so-long-ago, peppered with Irish words and ironic punchlines. 

With his safety warning still ringing in our ears, we quickly learned how to use our paddle (fitted with neoprene mitts, no less) and made our way to the double kayaks lined up on the slipway. There were 11 boats in our party, plus 3 instructors.

Brian climbed in the back, and I, in the front. Soon we were off, gently gliding across the smooth surface of the lake. Nevermind the rumble of the odd passing car and the chatter of the other kayakers in the group, Lough Hyne was a picture of calm and stillness.

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Ireland’s first Marine Nature Reserve (established in 1981), Lough Hyne is an inland seawater lake fed by the Atlantic flows, which rush through a narrow gap called the Rapids.

Because the Rapids are higher than sea level, Lough Hyne has an uneven tidal cycle – the tide rises for 4 hours, and ebbs for 8½ hours. By the time the tide starts coming in again, Lough Hyne is still draining into the ocean, until the very moment when the two bodies of water are level.

Then, for less than a minute, the current comes to a complete standstill.
A hush falls over the waters, an unnatural quiet, and the weeds that have been pointing seaward quiver, stand up, and when the reversing current gathers momentum, fall back again pointing inland.
It is a moment when sea and lake seem to hold their breaths and if you were there, waiting, you’d never forget it.

Taken from an information panel on Lough Hyne’s shore

The tide did turn as we were kayaking on Lough Hyne, but in the twilight, the Rapids could only be heard, not seen.

Stars started twinkling, layer upon layer of sparkly dots in the cloudless sky overhead. Soon the Milky Way appeared. The lake and its surroundings were plunged in pitch black, yet the night sky seemed to be more light than dark.

As darkness descended over the still waters of Lough Hyne, a light show like no other started under the surface. Moving the paddle through the water, scores of twinkling lights like fairy dust briefly glittered in the inky depths – transient reflection of the starlit sky above.

Skimming the surface with the flat of the paddle, a wave of light glowed in the dark – a liquid flare. The bow wave rippled as two glistening threads trailing under the kayak. 

Fleeting. Mesmerising. Magical.

Bioluminescence 

This natural phenomenon is called bioluminescence. The starlike sparkles are caused by bioluminescent plankton, while the glow wave is created not by an algae in the lake, but by the bacteria that feeds off it.

Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism.

This phenomenon is the reason people flock to Lough Hyne for a starlight kayaking experience.

Knowing that bioluminescence is at its strongest in summer, I didn’t want to get my hopes up for this late October trip. Yet it was an exceptional display.

Two hours went by, as if in the blink of an eye. As if time had stood still.

The glowing feeling of having witnessed something really special went on for hours, days even.

On thanking guide Declan for this magical experience, he simply said, “I can’t take credit for it. Nature does it.”

For obvious reasons, cameras and smartphones are not recommended onboard a kayak. Besides, capturing this wondrous phenomenon would prove a challenge even for the most skillful of photographers. So there are no images of it.

You will have to take a trip to Lough Hyne and see it for yourself.

Visitor information

Atlantic Sea Kayaking runs starlight/moonlight kayaking trips in double kayaks on Lough Hyne and from Reen Pier, West Cork, throughout the year, weather permitting – our initial booking was cancelled for safety reasons, as the wind was too strong.

Trips cost €50 per person (minimum age 16+), last 2.5 hours, and set off around an hour before darkness. All waterproof gear and equipment is included, but it’s recommended that you wear comfortable outdoor clothing such as fleece/track suit, perhaps a hat and a drink of water. 

Knockomagh Wood Nature Reserve is located a few miles south of Skibbereen, Co Cork, next to Lough Hyne. There are several walking routes and trails throughout the woods on the slopes of Knockomagh (“crooked hill” in Irish), though some of them are currently closed due to storm damage on the trees. Although only 197m high, the climb to the summit from sea level is steep at times. At the top you are rewarded with stunning views of Lough Hyne and the West Cork coast. There are sessile oaks, the ruins of a cottage, a bluebell glade (in season), the fallen beech (growing again) and other sights to see as you progress.

Getting there

Follow the R595 to Baltimore for about 3km (2 miles) and take a left at a sign for Lough Hyne. Get to the lake and turn left for the main car park.

Read this / A lire  A secret beach and a wild Atlantic swim / Plage secrète et baignade sauvage dans l'Atlantique

Disclosure:
This is NOT a sponsored post. I received no compensation from
Atlantic Sea Kayaking, or anyone else, to write it. The starlight kayaking experience for two was bought as a birthday present for Brian.
This post contains some affiliate links. Should you choose to make a purchase after clicking on one of them, I may receive a small commission and your purchase will help support this site.

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16 Responses to “Starlight kayaking on Lough Hyne

  • Sounds fabulous, still in my list as I missed the start before when being stuck in traffic on the way down to Skib – next year hopefully 🙂

  • What an incredible experience for you both! Lucky Brian having such a romantic and thoughtful wife! It honestly sounds so magical and I have always wanted to see bioluminescence. I love the idea of giving an experience as a gift rather than more stuff to clutter our homes. Such lovely memories to treasure and such a great way to nurture a marriage by going on an adventure together. Thanks for such a great write-up, your talent for photography and words shining through as bright as the stars on your kayak expedition! x

    • Kelly, thank you ever so much for your kind words, they’ve touched me deeply. So many things had to come together to allow for this adventure, and I am forever grateful to have experienced it. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. You have to get yourself down south and try it 😉
      PS. I wholeheartedly agree with you about gifting experiences rather than more stuff!

  • What a cool experience! I would love this too. Nature did it indeed. Glad it worked out for you after all. #FarAwayFiles

  • Oh I love this! Sounds as magical as can be, and so glad it worked out for you! I never knew about bioluminescence before reading this…I’m sure it was an amazing thing to witness. Thanks for linking up with #farawayfiles

  • I’ve seen this experience on television but am certain it would be even more truly magical witnessed first hand #CountryKids

  • What a bonus to get your family walk in and birthday adult kayaking. the views on your walk are spectacular helped by the glorious clear day. We all love Kayaking and seeing the starlights must have been magical. I’m not sure I see why it is over 16 only, it doesn’t look very dangerous if under 16’s were accompanied by an adult in their kayak. Probably the cost of insurance for the company organising. Anyway, a wonderful looking birthday treat and very kind of the property owners to babysit for you. #CountryKids

    • The age limit for the starlight kayaking experience is indeed due to insurance. Atlantic Sea Kayaking also run moonlight family tours but even for those, children need to be 12 years old.

  • it sounds like a truly magical birthday treat experience in the kayaks. The views on your walk are as stunning as ever #Countrykids

  • What an utterly brilliant birthday gift! I stayed in Clonakilty years ago and we visited Skibereen but I had no idea about this loch. For some reason I thought bioluminescence was only a tropical thing – I had magical experiences swimming in it in the sea when I lived in Mexico! Amazing to discover it’s in Ireland. Blimey my Ireland tour will need to be months long!! Fantastic read, thanks for sharing #CountryKids

  • How disappointing it must have felt to have your starlight kayaking experience cancelled – so glad you did manage to get to do it after all. What an amazing magical experience. It must be fascinating to see the biolumiscence from the plankton on the water and the starry sky above you. I can imagine it must be something you just couldn’t capture on camera – it has to be experienced. I’d love to do something like this one day. Lough Hyne and the West Cork coastline is absolutely stunning by day too. Thank you for sharing such a magical experience with #CountryKids

    • I watched a David Attenborough programme about bioluminescence only 2 days ago, and even they had to develop a special, highly-sensitive camera to capture it, as the light is too faint and too transient for regular cameras. But it was one of those things that are much better enjoyed in the moment anyway. Messing about with a camera would have ruined it for me.
      Thanks for hosting #CountryKids

  • This sounds so lovely. How incredibly lucky to have clear skies. You’ve reminded me that I need to check out the local kayaking outfits in our neighbourhood. #adventurecalling

  • This looks and sounds like a wonderful experience – I’m so glad you got there int he end. It definitely sounds like our sort of date evening. Thanks for joining us on #adventurecalling. We’re open again for new posts in the morning.

  • That sounds absolutely amazing, I’m so glad you got to do it. I can’t even imagine how magical it was, I shall have to try it myself one day! I love learning about these fascinating places and natural wonders, certainly cheers me up on a cold November Tuesday. Thank you so much for sharing with us #AdventureCalling

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