By Eilidh Whiteford
In winter they are an interesting place, but when the seabirds arrive, the Shiants come to life,” says Joe Engebretsen who, along with his father Charles, has been taking visitors by boat to explore the small island site through long-standing family business Sea Lewis.
Trained as a commercial diver in the early 1990s, Joe spent nine years in the Royal Marines, working primarily on fast boats and landing craft, before returning home with his family in 2001 to work as a diver, boat operator and fire-fighter, as well as running Engebret Ltd filling station in Stornoway.
He joined his father Charles, a commercial diver in the 1970s who has taken visitors diving and on boat-trips around Lewis since 1990, and between Joe and Charles, visitors can be sure they are in safe hands and will have an enjoyable experience.
Offering short fishing trips – perfect for families with young children who may not wish to go far from shore – as well as a two-hour sightseeing journey down the east coast of Lewis to Marvig and the Witches Pool, the speciality of Sea Lewis is the spectacular Shiant Islands trip.
Comprising three separate islands, the Shiants were inhabited since at least early Christian times, with evidence pointing to a year-round settlement on Eilean an Tighe, crops grown on Eilean Mhuire, and rough grazings on Grabh Eilean.
Privately owned by the Nicolson family, visitors can stay at the Shiants' bothy by arrangement; but it is the islands’ modern-day residents that are the star attraction: the three small islands, 218 hectares combined and lying around ten miles south east of the Isle of Lewis host 10% of the UK's breeding puffin population; 7% of UK razorbills, are home to 18,000 guillemots and nearly 2,000 shags; provide an important stop for kittiwakes and overwintering barnacle geese, and in 2014 saw the return of a breeding pair of White-Tailed Sea Eagles!
“It's such an interesting place any time of the year, but when the birds arrive, the weather is nice and the place is in full swing, it's just spectacular to be out there,” said Joe.
And Sea Lewis has keen knowledge of the seabird life of the Shiants, being involved over the last few years with the Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB), transferring staff and volunteers to the islands for the Shiant Isles Seabird Recovery Project, as well as helping to monitor both Sea and Golden Eagles.
On a commercial front, Sea Lewis also work with local shipping agents carrying out personnel and equipment transfer to larger ships, as well as with the MOD; and most recently was involved in the Dalmore oil rig incident which saw the Transocean Winner oil rig run aground on Dalmore beach, on the west side of Lewis, last summer.
“It was quite imposing sitting in the boat with the rig towering above you!” Joe recalled.
Sea Lewis operate with two XS850 RIBs, both powered by twin 200 outboards, giving them the ability to transfer up to 16 passengers plus equipment between both boats.
Joe continued: “I always think going to The Shiants in an open boat is more interesting as there can be so much to see – the seabirds, dolphins, the eagles. And for our customers there is flexibility; if we see some dolphins and want to follow them, we can.
“Being an open boat though, it is important for customers to take our advice on what to wear, but if you're properly wrapped up then there's no better way to go to The Shiants.
“The safety of our passengers is paramount and we believe the craft we use are ideally suited to the work we do and the areas we operate in.”
And testament to Joe and Charles' boat handling skills and knowledge of the local waters around the Shiants, with notorious tides and currents, could be seen last summer when the company donated their time and boats as safety vessels for a charity endeavour 'Swim to the Shiants'.
Raising funds for the Hebridean Men’s Cancer Support Group, the challenge saw five island wild swimmers make the ten-mile swim from Lemreway in South Lochs to the Shiants in August 2016.
Accompanied by four kayakers and a Sea Lewis RIB, the Swim to the Shiants was a huge success; and offered Joe yet another adventure to the islands.
“It was great to be involved and really, really interesting,” he said. “It was my first time seeing that kind of operation and the swimmers were so impressive.
“On the way out we were passed by another group of kayakers who were going out to the Shiants; and by the time we all arrived there, they'd got a fry-up on the go for the swimmers!”
Granted, having a fry-up ready and waiting certainly won't happen on every Sea Lewis trip; but what is guaranteed is care being taken, fun being had, spectacular scenery and wildlife, and memories to last a lifetime.
To find out further information, or to arrange private charters and tailored trips, please visit the Sea Lewis website – www.sealewis.co.uk – and get in touch with Joe, who is delighted to discuss details for making your Sea Lewis experience one to remember.