Otter Lodge Blog: What is Skye Coral?

Shells on a Skye beach

For an island with many miles of coast, Skye has remarkably few sandy beaches. To be fair, we’re probably not first on your list of holiday destinations if you’re looking for waving palms and a suntan; so you may be surprised to find we do have our own ‘coral beach’ at Claigan, north of Dunvegan. When you see it on one of those occasional sunny days it really quite special; the sand is very white and the sea takes on a gorgeous aquamarine colour. 

The Coral Beach, Skye

The Coral Beach near Dunvegan

If you inspect the beach closely you find it’s not made of fragments of shell or stone, but something that looks remarkably like, well, tiny branches of coral. Hence the name.

Maerl on Skye

Live maerl is a pinky red colour

But wait; before you start imagining Scotland’s own version of the Great Barrier Reef I should explain that this stuff isn’t really coral. It’s algae – not quite so romantic, I’m afraid. Weirdly, our coral starts off life as a kind of hard, red seaweed called maerl. Pieces of it lie on the sea bed like discarded Twiglets and in some places they group together to form a dense patches.

I know, this still doesn’t conjure up images of a magnificent undersea kingdom, but bear with me. Maerl beds are similar to real coral reefs in that they are great place for wee critters to hang out in and avoid predators. Some literally build the reefs into a safe home – there is an amazing thing called a Flame Shell that spins threads, a bit like a spider, in order to bind the pieces of maerl together to make a house. 

Maerl isn’t just found off Scotland, it’s in shallow waters all around northern Europe and the extent of the beds can be pretty impressive. Because it’s rich in lime, huge amounts of maerl have been dredged in the past for agricultural and industrial purposes. Fortunately, this exploitation seems to have slowed down and UK conservation agencies seem to be more concerned about the damage caused to the beds by activities such as scallop dredging.

Sea urchin on Coral Beach, Skye

A tiny sea urchin resting of fragments of dead maerl. Maerl provides an ideal habitat for many kinds of juvenile sea creatures.

Dead pieces of maerl end up as brittle white skeletons that gradually break up and are washed into some of the bays around the island. The Coral Beach on the north coast of Skye is well known, but you can find maerl at other places such as Ord on the Sleat Peninsular. Quite a lot of it stays hidden beneath the waves, only to emerge at low tide. If you keep you eyes open you might find Skye has more beaches than you expect!

More info:

Walk to the Coral beach on Skye

Film showing a flame shell in action (click on the link to the film)