It is almost six o’clock and the last rays of copper sunlight touch the top of the Knockomagh Hill where we have been hiking through for the past 45 minutes. From this site there is a full panoramic view of Lough Hyne and the West Cork coastline. Our guide Mary walks us through the woods and explains the importance and history of this protected area.
It is National Biodiversity Week in Ireland and the Irish Environmental Network has organised events all across the country to celebrate Ireland’s incredible natural ecosystems. This evening we are taking part in a moonlit kayak at Lough Hyne marine nature reserve with Atlantic Sea Kayaking to launch Biodiversity week and experience the bioluminescence that takes place in this lake a few times every year.
Once we get ourselves dressed up in all the kayak gear – and after Jim Kennedy, the founder of Atlantic Sea Kayaking talks us through the importance of protecting natural habitats – we are ready to get the kayaks in the water with the last hints of light left in the sky. I am slightly nervous as some fears of deep waters whisper in my ear, but as soon as we hit the water a peaceful silence surrounds our kayak and time seems to stop.
Soon, the darkness of the night arrives and with it, a sky fully covered by stars. All we can see is the shadows of other kayaks and a tiny red light from Jim’s head torch. We follow Jim and venture around on the waters of the saltwater lake.
Lough Hyne was a freshwater lake up until around 4,000 year ago when sea levels rose and joined it with the Atlantic Ocean. Now, the lake is connected to the ocean through Barloge Creek by the narrow tidal channel known as ‘The Rapids’ and, although the lake is just 0.8 km by 0.6 km, it has a depth of 50m in some areas.
The unusual warm oxygenated sea waters and the cliffs and boulders of Lough Hyne create the perfect habitat for an incredible variety of marine life including fish, sea slugs, sponges, seals and other unique flora and fauna.
Lough Hyne is also home to phytoplankton that, when stimulated by movements of water or external forces such as the row of a kayak, emit a flashing light called bioluminescence. The reasons behind bioluminescence are by far the most incredible of phenomena.
Bioluminescence is the result of a chemical reaction produced by some species due to a molecule called luciferin. When this molecule reacts with oxygen it produces light energy and this light is often used to deter a predator, to attract a mate or as a form of communication. As if this wasn’t magical enough, kayaking in bioluminescence feels like paddling through the stars.
Lough Hyne is not only Europe’s first ever marine nature reserve but also one of the most studied marine environments in the world. As we headed back to shore, it was easy to understand why this place should be protected and cherished for its beauty, its extraordinary biodiversity and role as a unique natural habitat.