Sailing to Les Ecrehous in the English Channel in the Early Morning

As the boat slowly sailed past the St Catherine’s breakwater, on the north-east corner of Jersey, a small flock of Brent geese, winter visitors from the Arctic, took off ahead of us. Clearing the breakwater, our skipper, Richard, revved the motor, sending the inflatable leaping over the first wave and crashing down beyond it, shooting a large cloud of spray to the sides. Though Richard assured us that this was a relatively calm day, one or two of us might well have been pleased that we had not yet had breakfast.

La Marmotiere

La Marmotiere (photo: Anthony Toole 2012)

It was 7.15 am, and though the sky was brightening, the sun had not yet cleared the cloud that hung low over the horizon and almost obscured the French coast. Eight of us had clambered into the Jersey Seafaris boat for the 15-minute, early morning trip to Les Écréhous, a reef of rocks and small islands that lay about ten kilometres from Jersey and thirteen from France. We were accompanied by Gareth, a Marine Biologist.

The occasional seal bobbed its head above the waves. A flock of oystercatchers flew away as we approached one of the islands. Other rocks were guarded by cormorants and shags. A solitary razorbill ignored us as we sailed past it.

Landing on La Marmotiere

As the boat ran up onto the shingle beach of La Marmotière, the second largest island, the dawn sun broke through, transforming the drab, flat scene into one of shining facets and sharp shadows.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • The tidal range is one of the highest in the world, making the rocks of international importance for marine life.
  • You may experience close encounters with birds, seals and dolphins.
  • The boat trip in a rubberised inflatable, and the landing on rocks in the middle of the English Channel are thrilling experiences in themselves.

Like much of Jersey, Les Écréhous are composed of granite. They and other similar reefs are remnants of a land bridge between England and France that was inundated as the glaciers of the last Ice Age melted. Belonging to the Duchy of Normandy, they became part of England following the Norman Conquest of 1066. Two centuries later, Henry III gave up his claim to the French crown, and Normandy, but held onto the Channel Islands and its rocky reefs.

Over the centuries, Les Écréhous were inhabited, at various times, by monks, smugglers and fishermen. Indeed, the houses of the last group still crown the highest rocks and remain in seasonal use. The highest concentration of these dwellings, dating from the 1880s, cluster around a tiny courtyard on the summit of La Marmotière.

La Blianque Ile from La Marmotiere

La Blianque Ile from La Marmotiere (photo: Anthony Toole 2012)

As we scrambled up the shingle, a thin line of surf stretched a few hundred metres across to La Blianque Île. The sea level, however, was dropping fast, and during the minutes it took for us to explore around the houses and admire the luxuriance of the lichens and succulents that covered the granite boulders, it had fallen sufficiently for a broad shingle bank to link the two islands. Elsewhere, previously hidden reefs had become rocks and rocks had become peninsulas.

Marine Life on Les Ecrehous

The tidal range around Jersey and Les Écréhous is said to be the world’s second highest, extending, at times, to around twelve metres. This has helped create a unique ecology, such that, in 2005, Les Écréhous was declared a marine area of international importance under the terms of the Ramsar Convention.

The extent of the tidal flow and the movement of currents around the islands have produced very clear, highly oxygenated waters, in which many species of planktonic larvae flourish. The rocky platforms offer shelter, protection and food to a high diversity of creatures. More than 100 fish species have been recorded, which include conger eel, blennies, rays, pollack, bass, Atlantic salmon, common sturgeon and Twaite shad. In addition to seals, there are bottlenose, white-beaked and Risso’s dolphins, harbour porpoise and pilot whales.

Of more than thirty species of invertebrate living in the mud and sand, half are rare in British Isles waters. These attract large numbers of wading birds, including winter visitors and passing migrants.

Rock Vegetation, La Marmotiere

Rock Vegetation, La Marmotiere (photo: Anthony Toole 2012)

An important characteristic of these waters is that some species are found here at the northern or southern limit of their range. For example, this is the most southerly reach of the beadlet sea anemone. In contrast, it also marks the northerly limit of the giant goby, a Mediterranean fish. Gareth, our Marine Biologist informed us that a small number of the latter confine themselves to a particular pool that becomes exposed at low tide. These gobies leave the pool at high tide, but return to it when the tide falls.

Some of the species at this limit of their natural habitats are showing signs of genetic variations, resulting from their relative isolations from the main populations.

We spent more than an hour exploring the linked islands, and sitting on the shingle to enjoy our breakfasts, during which time Gareth explained the ecology of Les Écréhous. Then it was back into the boat for the return trip, as some of us had a second morning appointment.

Practicalities

  • Flights take place to St Helier on Jersey from most British airports.
  • Trips to Les Ecrehous are by rigid inflatable boat run by Jerseyseafaris.

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