Driving on my own to Scotland the Thursday before, I was mulling-over the events of the last time I had driven to Mull for a diving trip 25 years earlier. That was with three students from Reading University BSAC and we never got past the Lyndhurst Pub in Reading before having a head-on collision with a police car going the wrong way on that one-way road. After a visit to the Royal Berks I hired another car and all but one of us continued to Mull for some great diving.
En route this time I walked up Sharp Edge of Blencathra, in the Lake District, before staying at a Travelodge near Gretna. It was then an easy drive to Lochaline Hotel the next day so that I could dive with Lochaline Dive Centre on the Saturday. I dived with an informal diving group from north-west England called Instant Divers “just add water”. We dived two very well-known wrecks in the Sound of Mull, the Rondo and the Thesis, which I was to dive again the following week with our club.
As soon as the dive boat returned to Lochaline I put the car into the queue for the ferry, paid my debts then ferried across to the Isle of Mull to drive to Bad-daraich House in Tobermory. Jane Wilkinson, responsible for making this week happen was there (indeed she’d been diving the area since the start of the school holidays) and so were the Selwyn family, Roger, Clare and Benjamin. Rob Hilton had made the journey from Reading in a day, Kev High and Jen had also arrived, later followed by Jim and Brenda Taylor. That left Sunday for us to explore Mull before the scheduled five days of diving, beginning on Monday. I left it a bit late to scale Ben More, the only island Munro outside of Skye, the weather was poor and having topped a 700m sub-peak in rain and mist I diverted across to some impressive waterfalls. By the time I got back to the house Nora Holford had arrived and the dive group was quorate. I could feel a tense atmosphere, was it fear of so many deep dives in unfamiliar territory? No it was not, it was an impatient concern over Benjamin’s A-level results, due that coming Thursday. Would they be good enough for him to live the dream of studying marine photography at Falmouth University? Would the Selwyns even dive on Thursday?
Our first dive was the John Preston Wall very close to Lochaline Pier where I caught the ferry to Mull. Nominally a wreck dive but Jim Taylor and I didn’t see it. This dive set the scene for all future wall dives, sheer drop-off up to 40m, gentle drift, tube worms, colonies of football sea squirts, various anemones, dead man’s fingers, ballan and cuckoo wrasse, and Football sea squirt colonies (Diazona) as shown here.
Our boat the ‘Peregrine’ was spacious, comfortable and Malcolm the skipper very amiable, just like the skipper on my Saturday jaunt. Lunching on the Peregrine as our cylinders were conveniently filled in situ we travelled north up the Sound to our next dive site opposite Salen for the wreck of the Shuna. A new one for me (not found until 1992 I think). Shot was at mid-ships and we finned first to stern for an inspection of the rudder and prop and where peacock worms were hanging from the wreckage. Finning the length of the ship and noting the triple-expansion engine (thanks Jim) we reached the bow which had a large lion’s mane jelly fish trapped on it. I was about to attempt freeing the hapless coelenterate before my brain began to work. As would become a daily occurrence, we needed a deco stop in addition to the safely stop on ascent. A novelty of diving with Lochaline Boat Charters is that they offer 3 dives on each day’s outing. So we finished the day diving in the peat-stained water of Tobermory Harbour on the wreck of the Cutter ‘Pelican’ with its distinctive pointed bow. I picked up a good-sized female edible crab which got eaten the next evening.
Winds were light throughout our 5 days of diving but the Tuesday was the only chance we had to get beyond the Sound and north to the Small Isles. First dive was ‘Windmills’ a wall dive on the east coast of Muck. As usual, the wall was covered in dead man’s fingers, plumose and other anemones, sea squirt colonies, hydrozoans and other sessile fauna while large shoals of cod-type fish (whiting?) swam around us. The solitary scallop I picked up from the fine gravel at the base of the wall was rapidly returned to the deep by our quality control manager, Roger, the germination of my plan to overwhelm his vigilance was set into motion. Skipper Malcolm informed us of the basking shark that sauntered over our bubbles as we were all blissfully unaware of its presence.
We next motored north-east a short distance to Eigg, the community-owned, ‘green’ island. Or, as someone described the islanders, the dope-smoking Republic of Surrey layabouts; you decide. The sun was shining, we could get off the boat, walk, relax, write up our log books while our cylinders were being filled yet again. Soon diving again on a wall to the east of Eigg I came across another female crab, not as big as yesterday and a bit soft so it got to live another day. There was also a nice lobster but neither Jim nor I could get it out of its lair. Burrowing anemones were in rock crevices, plenty of urchins and I noticed a pretty water-bottle sea squirt (Corella parallelogramma) with red and yellow-white flecks across its transparent body. More shoals of unidentified pelagic fish as well as pollack, one of which was nearing a metre long. With two hours ‘steaming’ to get back to Tobermory this was the one day a third dive was not possible. On this sunny day here among the volcanic basaltic Small Isles, with the distinctive pitchstone ridge of Eigg, the contrasting mountains of Rùm (sharing its geology with Skye’s Cuillins), distant Canna and Coll, it was hard to think of any better place to be in the World.
Next up the Rondo, how did that ship’s Captain not notice the lighthouse on the rock which he hit? The Rondo is perfect for going deep and returning slowly to decompress at 6m without leaving it, there are also two swim-unders, gaps between the wreck and the rock. This was the third time I’ve dived its full length down to the bow, managing to exceed 50m by putting my hand through the rusted bottom of its bow! Visibility was good albeit dark on this occasion, the first time I was down in the bow in 1986 the viz was poor and my buddy took fright and went straight back to the surface leaving me down there searching for him inside and outside the wreck. Jim was much more conscientious and we returned together before the narcs took their hold.
Our second dive was down south, towards Oban, in Ardmucknish Bay on the much-dived Breda. Yet this was to be my first-ever dive on it. In poor light this large, silted wreck had a gloomy, sinister feel despite good visibility at the time. There were many swim-throughs and interesting remnants of cargo to explore. The day ended back in the Sound on one of the most pleasant British wrecks dives, Thesis, even if it was not the best of weathers. The shot was on the impressive bow and there was time to explore the whole wreck without quite needing to do a deco stop by the time we reached 6m and did a 3 min safety stop.
Thursday arrived, the boy done great, Benjamin would be going to Falmouth, everyone is diving, we shall go to the ball! We had a short journey across Tobermory Bay to reach north Calve Island and a pleasant wall drift dive. Before the dive Jim expressed a desire not to push our nitrogen levels so high after so much deep diving but when at the base of the wall I eventually noticed Jim at 40 m in a scallop-collecting frenzy. They made for a tasty starter that evening.
Next up was the most fascinating and memorable dive of the week in Laudale Narrows, way up into Loch Sunart. Our skipper, now Dave (Bodie), kept us waiting until the tide stopped flooding at the surface. Intermittently divers were then put in and told to go west with the ebb tide. Perhaps Jim and myself were put in deeper water but we were definitely on an easterly flood tide (going in the exact opposite direction to the rest of the divers). I figure we were in a higher density salt wedge that was slipping under the superficial and less salty ebb flow out of the loch. Whatever, we could not sustain finning against it so we ‘crabbed’ sideways and up the gently sloping seabed until eventually we got slack and later a westerly current. What about that seabed, it was an organic, pulsating mass of living creatures, a base layer of millions of filter-feeding black, and also orange, brittle stars topped with colourful hermit crabs, small sea urchins, dead man’s fingers and the occasional butterfish. Jane had chosen this site because of the rare but locally-abundant flame shells, but I couldn’t see any. Then I remembered Jane said they lived in nests and you had lift their covers for these shells, with bright red tentacles, to make jerky swimming motions above the disturbed silt. It didn’t take long to realise flame shells were everywhere, what a delight, what a dive site.
As if this wasn’t enough first-rate diving in one day we still had the Hispania to come, considered by many as the best wreck dive in Britain. Unusually, there was already another hard boat waiting over the Hispania for slack, it was the skipper I had dived with the previous Saturday. So we had to share this lovely wreck with others. There were lots of holds, corridors, rooms that you could swim through. I’m sure that back in the eighties one of the cabins used to have a bath in it but it’s gone now. No propeller any more either.
Last day, a short trip across the sound to Auliston Point for another wall drift. Videoed a flat fish at the base of the cliff, prodding it to get some action. Beautiful red soft corals grew along the wall. I caught a male crab but when I measured its carapace on board it was too small for a male, it would have been big enough to keep if female. Large-eyed poor cod inhabited the kelp zone above the cliff. Into Loch Sunart for another wall dive. Beyond the wall we ventured over the sloping fine gravel seabed to forage for scallops. The wall had tall, angular corners with abundant sessile life. Jim spotted a Ling, which is distinct from other cod family species with its barbell and conger-like body.
The final dive we spent drifting along a wall through Risga Narrows further into Loch Sunart. Conscious of being able to return home with fruits de mer we collected a goody-bag full of scallops. I even had to empty the bag at one point and ‘grade’ them and return the smallest back to their natural habitat. At the base of the cliff I could see a large-clawed, male edible crab down inside a vertical crack of the wall. I had the luxury of time and space to transfer my torch from my crabbing-arm, placing my scallop bag and myself on the seabed and then begin the long tussle with the crab which used its legs and claws to wedge against the rock. Crab muscles have not evolved to resist those of a manipulative human, with space and time, and it was indeed only a matter of time before the crab shared lodgings with the scallops. There was one last unfulfilled wish still not achieved. Jane, Roger and Nora had wonderful photos of nudibranchs after their dives but I hadn’t seen one. Looking intently along the kelp forest above the wall I finally saw a 2 cm long Polycera Faraoensis, quite big for this species even if it is one of the most commonly seen in the area. I didn’t want this dive to finish, will I have to wait another 25 years to get back?
It had proved impossible to book a table for a large group in any Tobermory restaurant so that final evening we ordered a take-away curry to eat with our wine and beer in the large dining room that had a magnificent view of Calve Island through the window. Gaelic music, supplied by Brenda, was another perfect accompaniment. During the night the wind picked up, rattling windows, swaying trees. Leaving early next morning, crossing by ferry, there were white horses driven by the south-east wind straight up the Sound, the worse wind direction of all. We had been so fortunate.