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The seal popped his whiskers out of the water to the sound of bagpipes playing “Happy Birthday”, then promptly disappeared. We stopped paddling and allowed our kayaks to drift close to the rocks, waiting to see if his speckled grey head would reappear.
We were closing in on Les Écréhous, a group of rocks and islets six miles off the northeast coast of Jersey. Used by fishermen and smugglers in the 17th century, the islands are uninhabited these days, apart from a few cabins and stone cottages used as summer houses – hence the bagpipe music wafting across the water.
“They have attracted quite a few eccentrics,” said my guide Derek Hairon. “Philippe Pinel, the self-proclaimed King of Les Écréhous lived here for 30 years in the 19th century.”
The seal surfaced, eyed our bright orange flotilla, and dived down again. As the current pulled us around the rocks, the seal followed, swimming around the kayaks like an aquatic dog.
“Sometimes it becomes a bit of a pantomime when we spot seals here,” Hairon said. “Everyone ends up calling out ‘it’s behind you’ at some point.”
Our group had met at 8am that morning at St Catherine, in Jersey’s northeast corner. It would take nearly two hours for an expert kayaker to reach Les Écréhous from here – novices like me would be exhausted before getting close. Instead we would use a boat, crossing in just 30 minutes, and then launch the kayaks for the final approach.
On board the Duchess of Normandy, a former coastguard vessel, we signed disclaimers acknowledging that “emergency services may be further away than normal” – an introduction to the remoteness of our destination.
“When I first started coming here in the 1970s, you would get up to 50 boats moored up overnight,” said Hairon, unloading our kayaks. “Now that boats are faster, most people just come for the day.”
We paddled in the direction of the current on a falling tide. Our group consisted of a couple in their thirties, a lady celebrating her 60th birthday, her husband, their adult children and their partners. Everyone had kayaked before so we made good progress, landing on the first beach before many people in Jersey would be out of bed.
Hairon’s son Nick followed, giving tips, and I soon learnt to “pedal”, pressing my feet into the front of the kayak with each stroke. Before long I developed a rhythm, broken only when my paddle got ensnared in the sargassum seaweed that fills occasional tracts of the otherwise crystal-clear water.
We saw gannets, which Hairon told us had come from Alderney, more than 30 miles away. They swooped down and plopped into the water, emerging seconds later carrying fish. We saw egrets and oystercatchers, cormorants and curlews; each species seemed to have their own area of rocks, with territory marked in white droppings. Paddling around the back of Maître Isle, we encountered a colony of terns and watched as 20, 30, 40 birds took off at once before dropping into the water just metres from us.
At high tide only the three largest islands remain above the water. There are houses on all three, crammed together like a floating favela; a comparison that seemed even more fitting when we wandered among them and discovered that they have no electricity nor running water (residents used to collect rain from their roofs in water butts).
As late as Neolithic times, Les Écréhous were joined to France, and in the early 1950s the French contested their ownership, along with that of Les Minquiers, another island group to Jersey’s south. The International Court of Justice eventually awarded both to Jersey in 1953.
The name means “rocky islands” in Old Norse, and in the Middle Ages the islands housed a Cistercian priory. By the late 19th century, they were the setting for a holiday home belonging to the Boot family, founders of Boots, the chain of chemist shops, though it was later destroyed by winter storms.
“Their butler used to serve lobster and champagne for lunch on silver platters,” Hairon said, pointing out a spot on the top of a shelving pebble beach between La Marmotière and Le Blianque Isle. “And, that’s where we’re going for our picnic.”
We eased our way through a narrow turquoise-coloured canal and stepped ashore. With one of the world’s largest tidal ranges, at low tide the islands turn into a vast expanse of sand and rocks.
By late afternoon we had completed our circuit. The bay quickly filled with water as the tide rose, encircling dried-out boats until they floated up from their moorings. It was time for us to return to Jersey, back to the banks and restaurants, bars and shops, back to an island with nearly 100,000 people. We left Les Écréhous to the seals and the birds, to be reclaimed by the sea.
The author was a guest of Jersey Kayak Adventures. It runs trips to Les Écréhous from May to September, from £146 per person, including all equipment