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White beaches, dolphins, seahorses: I sailed away from Britain, but now I love its coasts more than ever | Travel

White beaches, dolphins, seahorses: I sailed away from Britain, but now I love its coasts more than ever | Travel

I’m staring at a seahorse. At the little spines on its head. A spiky crown. Like a unicorn under water. Such sightings are always precious, but this one feels unique because I’ve convinced myself that he’s giving birth. I watch them daily, these bony little fish, tails curling twigs, fanning delicately, performing their sunrise greetings (my heart!). This little fella angles this way and that while bubbles, or perhaps thousands of tiny seahorse babies ejected from his pouch, rise around him. It’s hard to tell, but who needs proof? The possibility is magical enough. Life is fairytale-special. If you choose to see it that way.

Susan Smillie on her boat. Photograph: Cat Vinton/The Observer

We’re in northern Greece, the seahorses and me, a few miles south-east of Preveza, in the Ionian sea. But you could find them in your own watery back yard, too – even in London. Hippocampus hippocampus breed in the outer Thames, and along England’s south coast.

I sailed to Greece, kind of by accident, a few years back. I had left my job in London, and set off on a small boat with a loose plan to navigate Britain. But at Land’s End, I got caught up in my own adventure and sailed across the channel to France. A couple of years later, I landed in Greece. No regrets, obviously. It was the thrill of exploration that took me, the cultural draw of foreign lands. But when I think about the thousands of miles I sailed, the most life-changing, heart-expanding experiences were in Britain. It often takes leaving home to really see it. How wonderful, I recall, British shores are. The Atlantic, the North and Irish seas. The smell of seaweed, colonies of seals. The rhythm of tides. How I miss tides!

‘Once-in-a-lifetime extraordinary”: a pod of dolphins in Lyme Bay. Photograph:

I will for ever remember my awakening, a newfound freedom, meandering England’s bucolic south-west coast at a sea snail’s pace. The drifting landscapes, Dorset’s chalk hills and pretty harbours, the drama of Durdle Door. But it was the shifting seas that really held me as I edged west. The clarity of the water increasing, colours changing, from sediment-tinged greens and browns in the east to deep blues in the West Country.

By the time I crossed Lyme Bay, the 40-mile gateway between Dorset and Devon, I was open-mouthed to find turquoise waters lapping…

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