The Ecrehous Islands
ecrehous islands

This article was originally published by the i.

“Our commute might be a little, er, choppy today,” announces captain Dan Luce of Jersey Seafaris, as he climbs aboard his RIB and fires up the outboards. “I recommend holding on to your hats.”

He grins, guns the throttle and cranks up the stereo. The synthy bars of Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) ring out. With a burst of speed that pins me into my seat, the boat leaps away from St Catherine’s Breakwater like an untethered rocket, skimming onto open blue water. Occasionally, it crests a wave, then plummets vertiginously, thumping back down into the ocean in an explosion of spray: cue squeals from my fellow passengers. “Oops, sorry about that!” says Luce, smiling.

The thirty-minute trip whizzes by. A band of white materialises along the horizon, shimmering, mirage-like, as it gradually resolves into focus. An island appears: first one, then two, then by the dozen. “Welcome to Les Écréhous,” Dan announces, as he cuts the motor and drifts into an empty cove. “Our very own desert islands for the day.”

Six miles northeast of Jersey, the Ecrehous Islands are one of two little-known archipelagos just off the Jersey coast – the other is Les Minquiers, 12 miles south. So secret are they that most UK travellers don’t even know the islands exist.

That could be because, depending on the tide, you could quite easily miss them altogether. Extraordinarily, the Ecrehous all but vanish at high tide. Only three islands keep their heads permanently above water: the largest, Maîtr’Île, measures just 300m long, while neighbouring La Marmotière and Blanche Île are even tinier.

Most are little more than rocky atolls, cloaked by seaweed and wrack. But at low tide, the landscape of the Ecrehous transforms. The islands have a massive tidal range, as much as 12m on a big spring tide – and, as the sea recedes, the archipelago’s landmass triples in a few hours, revealing an Atlantis-like landscape of sandbanks, beaches, coves, banks, bays and islets.

If you time it right, it’s possible to walk right out onto the sandy seabed, reaching islands that, only hours before, had been submerged under several metres of water. It’s an intoxicating experience: padding out on to pristine sand, soft as silk, unsullied by human footsteps. It feels like walking on the surface of the moon.

Beautiful they most certainly are, but the islands are treacherous, too. “The Ecrehous are tricky to navigate unless you know what you’re doing,” Luce explains. A lifelong skipper and fisherman, he has been visiting the Ecrehous since he was a boy and knows them as well as anyone – but even he is sometimes caught out here.

“The currents are changing constantly. Sandbanks appear out of nowhere that didn’t exist the day before. The tides come up faster than you can run. So, you always need to keep one eye on what the sea is up to.”

For centuries, the Ecrehous were contested territory, squabbled over by Britain and France. Since the 1950s, they have belonged to the Bailiwick of Jersey, but they remain contentious: in 1993 and 1994, they were occupied by French “invaders”, who raised Norman flags before swiftly being booted off.

Their name derives from two old Norse words – esker, meaning bank, and hou, meaning island – but their human history stretches back much further. Flint tools and Neolithic remains have been found here, and during the last Ice Age, the islands were still part of the European continent. It is bizarre to realise that 10,000 years ago, the Ecrehous wouldn’t have been islands at all, but hills.

For centuries, the Ecrehous were a refuge for fishermen and smugglers, and during the 18th century, a hermit named Philippe Pinel (the self-proclaimed “King of the Ecrehous”) lived on Blanche Île for more than 40 years.

Nowadays, they’re a precious haven for wildlife. The Ecrehous Islands are one of Jersey’s most important Ramsar sites, a marine conservation zone that safeguards the islands’ fragile wetland habitats. They also mark the northern reaches of Jersey’s national park. In 2022, four zones at the Ecrehous were designated Areas of Special Protection to reduce the risk to birds from visitors. Among the species that breed or nest here are the common tern, roseate tern, oystercatcher, European shag and great cormorant.

The only sign of human habitation on the islands is a cluster of concrete cottages huddled at the far end of La Marmotière. These tiny houses have been passed down through generations of Jersey families, Luce tells me, and almost never come up for sale. On fine summer days, their owners sail out to spend a few days here, setting out deckchairs on the rocks, snorkelling, having barbecues and soaking up the isolation. “They’re the ultimate Jersey holiday home,” he adds. “You could name your price if one ever came up for sale.”

Short of a spare million, I settle instead for a splendidly lonely stroll along La Marmotière’s shoreline. Seals bask on the rocks, sunbathing in the spring sunshine, entirely unfazed by my arrival. Oystercatchers and terns dart low over the water, scanning the water for a meal. Crabs and starfish scuttle through the rockpools. I paddle in a cove where the water is so dazzlingly blue, it looks like it has been Photoshopped.

But it’s the silence that strikes me most. Save for the swash of sea and the cackle of gulls, the Écréhous are thrillingly, eerily quiet. No phones, no traffic, no music, no computers, no chatter, no voices. A liminal world, suspended halfway between sea and sky, but not entirely of either.

“The Ecrehous are special,” says Derek Hairon, whose company, Jersey Kayak Adventures, runs guided kayaking trips around the islands. “One minute you’re on Jersey, surrounded by 100,000 other people. Twenty minutes later, you’re paddling around an island where you’re the only one around

“I think it’s important for people to experience that sense of being surrounded by and lost in nature. It helps put things in perspective.”

Standing on La Marmotière’s wild beach, with only seabirds, seals and the odd passing dolphin for company, I know exactly what he means.

The Ecrehous Islands – Travel Essentials

Getting there

Blue Islands offer flights to Jersey from UK airports including Southampton, Bristol, Birmingham, Newcastle, Exeter and East Midlands. Condor Ferries operates a ferry service from Poole and Portsmouth.

Visiting there

Trips to the Ecrehous from St Catherine’s Breakwater with Jersey Seafaris are £55.99 for three hours,

Kayak trips around the Écréhous with Jersey Kayak Adventures are £180, including boat crossing,

Where to stay

The Moorings Hotel has rooms overlooking Gorey Harbour, three miles south of St Catherine’s Breakwater, from £125,

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