For those who love active breaks and coastal sports, join a sea-kayaking course in Pembrokeshire and discover a wilderness world close to marine wildlife and far from the crowds

Words and Photographs JAMES STEWART

I can’t be the only walker who has gazed at a seal’s head that turned out to be a mooring buoy. So, what’s the best way to get up close and personal with coastal wildlife? A motorboat nature cruise is great for young kids, but carries the nagging sense of an aquatic bus tour. At the other end of the scale, wild swimming, though wonderful, is limiting.

That’s why a sea kayak ticks all boxes; it’s small enough to nose into caves yet sufficiently swift to cover distance at a fair clip. It’s also silent – small and silent are handy where wildlife is concerned. That few kayak operators have genuine wildlife expertise is why I was intrigued by a tour launched by Pembrokeshire’s Preseli Venture. The eco-activities provider has teamed up with the area’s National Trust office to run nature discovery trips by kayak with a ranger. You don’t need much kayak experience, says activity ranger Phil Sadler, also a kayak instructor. Most who come are beginners or improvers. And although the wildlife quota varies by the season, the scenery in one of the remotest parts of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is guaranteed. Not for nothing was Pembrokeshire once called ‘gwlad hud a lledrith’ – the ‘land of mystery and enchantment’.

I’m finishing breakfast when Phil arrives at Preseli Venture’s smart eco-hostel, 15 miles from St Davids. We pore over his map, examining the lines that indicate where razorbills and guillemots nest and where seals pup. We’ll see seabirds, maybe a kingfisher, perhaps seals or otters (sightings of which seem to be on the rise). ‘Who knows? It’s nature. No trip is ever the same,’ Phil utters.

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We kit up outside: thermal T-shirts under 2mm wetsuits, a windproof top and the ‘skirt’ that will seal our sea kayaks. We’re taking these swifter crafts instead of the beginners’ sit-on kayaks as I’ve paddled canoes for years. Preseli Venture’s boats are flat-hulled, so fairly stable. Still, will my river-paddling skills transfer to the sea? We’ll soon find out.

We’ve picked a beautiful day for it and Abercastle harbour basks in horizon-busting sunshine. With the kayaks carried to the beach, Phil runs through techniques. Feet go on adjustable rests. Legs are braced against the sides. Lean into strokes rather than sit back. And try not to capsize, he adds. Though bulwarks will keep the kayak afloat, it’s still the unpredictable sea. ‘If you go over, slide out and try to maintain composure.’ Easy for him to say.

We climb into the kayaks and skim out across glassy water. Past Ynys y Castell islet, our kayaks lift to a slight swell. We are now alone on an empty sea that seems vast from our perspective at sea-level. This suddenly feels fantastically intrepid. We hug the islet’s shore – bobbling in the backwash as Phil points out pillow lava where ancient magma met seawater and shale coloured by prehistoric soot – to arrive at a cave. Phil reverses in; a safety tactic in case a rapid exit is required. This is a seal haul-out, he says, but not right now. How does he know? ‘Sniff,’ he says. I smell nothing. ‘Exactly. There’s a musty smell when they’re here.’

Outside, dazzled by sudden sunshine, we paddle beneath cliffs which arc towards Strumble Head. Back at the hostel, this section of the map was covered in dots. Now they appear: a labyrinth of islets and rock fins. We’re off ‘rock-hopping’, which means dawdling in pools that fluoresce turquoise in sunshine, and racing over rocks when the sea surges through gulleys. The air is supercharged with iodine.

As we grow more remote, the wildlife appears. Herring gulls chitter as we bob beneath their perches. Oystercatchers flit away on stiff wings. Our adventure is now a safari. Phil points out a brown seabird soaring over rocks – a fulmar. Like its relative the albatross, it can desalinate seawater to spend months at sea. Its defensive trick is to spit an oily mucus, the reason why the Vikings called it fúll mar or foul gull. ‘It’s horrible stuff,’ Phil says. ‘I reached up for a handhold while climbing once and squelch!’

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We paddle to a lonely beach then, in a silence broken only by a stream tinkling over pebbles, we eat sandwiches in the sun. Above, gulls drift like dandelion seeds. The sea whispers. It’s hard to believe everyday life continues elsewhere. Amazing that this is so close to a resort like St Davids. Pembrokeshire’s north coast won triple SSI status for its sense of wildness, Phil tells me. This is a special place.

Am I ready to go? Not really. I could dawdle here all afternoon. Yet when I shunt forward off the beach like a seal, I’m thrilled to be afloat again. After land, the kayak feels enjoyably skittish. My doubts about how I would cope with sea-kayaking now seem a bit daft, to be honest.

We track beneath the coastline. Phil points out scruffy plants on crags above the tideline. They harbour the insects that support the choughs that nest here. It’s a precisely balanced ecosystem, each level critical to a greater whole. It’s time to go, so we drop the kayaks’ skegs to improve directional stability and point back towards Abercastle across open sea, settling into a paddling rhythm. I watch a cormorant skim past and then spot a round blob floating 50m seawards. It really is a seal this time, an Atlantic grey male – you can tell by the head shape. He watches us watching him.

We round Ynys y Castell and drift inshore before a gentle breeze, landing on a beach that seems busy by comparison. I can’t recall when I felt so relaxed. Our three hours away seem like a mini-expedition full of adventure and escapism. Hard to believe there’s so much to discover just a little way out from shore.

For more coastal sports and wildlife experiences, head to our Activities section or pick up a copy of Coast magazine


James Stewart attended a half-day National Trust Coastal Discovery Wildlife Tour run by Preseli Venture (around £52pp, 01348 837709; Tours run from late May to early October, and some involve coasteering. September and October tours are focused on conducting seal surveys. Single sea kayaks and double sit-on kayaks plus the gear – boots, wetsuit, a lifejacket and windproof anorak – are provided. Bring a thermal top or T-shirt plus a bathing suit to go under a wetsuit, a towel and warm clothes and dry shoes for after. You will also need old trainers if coasteering. In summer bring sunscreen, and don’t forget your camera. Aquapac ( produces a wide range of fully submersible waterproof cases for cameras, tablets and phones.


• Preseli Venture has comfortable doubles and family rooms in its five-star eco-hostel (from £39pp B&B). All bathrooms are shared.
• For glamping and camping Trellyn Woodland – set deep in eco-loveliness above Abercastle – has yurts and geodesic domes that sleep four to six, plus six tent pitches. Camping around £7pp, yurts from £80 per night (

Looking for the perfect holiday right at the water’s edge? Try out our selection of exclusive cruise trips around the British Isles here.