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Coastal habitats and species

Of the coastal habitats, of greatest interest to the visitor are the area’s many unspoilt beaches, of which the white coral beaches at Ard Ban are of greatest conservation significance. Maerl is the name given to the calcareous ‘skeletons’ of unattached, slow-growing, deepwater coral-like plants belonging to the genera Phymatolithon and Lithophyllum.  When alive, these seaweeds help to create colourful seabeds supporting a diverse array of sea life. When dead, their lime-rich tissues can be washed to shore, and when bleached by the sun can form beautiful beaches. Wherever maerl beaches occur in Scotland, crofters have traditionally used them to enrich the soil with calcium. Offshore commercial exploitation of maerl beds, which can involving dredging, is very environmentally destructive.

Common seals, often lounging on small islands or skerries exposed at low tide, are a frequent sight around the peninsula’s rocky coast, which also supports a healthy population of the common otter (Lutra lutra). The inner sound between Applecross and Raasay often affords opportunities to see an array of even larger marine mammals including porpoises (Phocoena phocoena), the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops  truncatus) and the minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), the latter being the commonest of the baleen whales around Scotland. Although they can attain over 8m in length, sightings of  minke whales usually only involve fleeting glimpses from afar of  their arched back and a sickle-shaped fin as they appear momentarily above the water.

An even rarer sight is the enormous, migratory basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus), the second largest fish in the world. Their common name relates to their habit of cruising slowly through the water with their cavernous, toothless mouths wide open filtering plankton upon which they live. In the past these gentle sea beasts were hunted commercially for their meat, and in particular, their liver, which contains oils, although since 1998 they have been protected in Scotland by the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (as amended by the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004). One of the most famous hunters of basking sharks was Gavin Maxwell of Ring of Bright water fame, who briefly established a fishery on Soay between 1945 and 1948. He was later to become a conservationist through his passion for otters, although he published an account of his ill-fated basking shark exploits in the book Harpoon at a Venture.


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