Diving the Edge of the World
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Many argue St Kilda offers the best diving in the UK. Colin Taylor went to investigate and came away convinced. Sue Scott has long been a fan of these wild and desolate islands. She took these remarkable photographs and describes some of her favourite dive sites

The St Kilda archipelago lies in the Atlantic Ocean, 45 miles west of the Sound of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. On a clear day, the stacs of the island are visible from there. Over the years this distant vision has proved an irresistible temptation to the would-be explorer. The archipelago consists of four main islands, Hirta, Boreray, Soay and Dun and numerous stacs and skerries, of which the Stac an Armin and the Stac Lee are the highest in Britain, being 191m and 165m respectively.

The landscape of St Kilda was fashioned by volcanic action and the violent action of wind and water. About 60 million years ago, a rift in the northern continent caused widespread volcanic activity. The land between Hirta and Boreray, collapsed inwards and St Kilda’s jagged, eroded cliffs and sea stacs were thrown up. The incredible upheaval which took place has created some of the best cave and tunnel dives in Europe. With almost gin-clear visibility and, what has been described as the finest marine life in Britain, St Kilda is fast becoming a ‘must’ on the list of places to dive.

The expeditions officer of my club, who had been to St Kilda before, had booked a week’s trip on the MV Cuma, a 65ft ex-research vessel which had been specially kitted out to take divers and naturalists around the Western Isles. The vessel was based in Mallaig, 50 miles north of Fort William, but has recently changed owners and now operates from Maivaig, off Uig on the west coast of Lewis. Our skipper, ‘Cubby’ MacKinnon, was an ex-diver himself so fully aware of the dangers of diving in these difficult waters with their strong tidal currents and sudden changes in conditions.

On arrival in Mallaig the weather was looking seriously bad and reports stated there was more to come! However, we made our way over to Lochmaddy, South Uist, passing through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, including the Isles of Canna and Skye. We managed to get a sheltered dive on the south side of the Loch, even though it was blowing an Eight. We were dropped on a wall covered in colourful life, with the visibility about 20m. I was amazed at the varied colours to be found here and the different varieties of anemones, urchins and porifera of many different types and hues. I had no idea such a Garden of Eden existed right on our doorstep.
Fortunately, the weather in this area can change very quickly and the last report that evening indicated that a ‘window’ in the weather would occur over the next few days. The following morning we sailed for St Kilda, everyone on board cheered by the news, as we had really thought we weren’t going to make it. St Kilda is about six hours’ sailing from the Sound of Harris, an incredibly difficult place to navigate, particularly if a fog comes down suddenly. The Sound is covered with low-lying rocks and small islands with a twisting, turning channel in between. We made a swift crossing, which was in itself an experience, with sightings of dolphins and minke whales surfacing around the boat. As we got closer to St Kilda the weather began to clear and the sheer size of the stacs became apparent – some were more than 400ft high. Close in, they were awe-inspiring, and made more fascinating because of their human history – so many of the original islanders, before they all left their homes here in 1930, lost their lives here. They used to climb the stacs to catch sea birds for food and feathers and to take their eggs when in season. It was considered a ‘manly’ thing to do and as soon as the young men were of age they tested their metal on the stacs.

As you get closer to the islands, they seem like a huge rockery with a million butterflies fluttering around it. Alfred Hitchcock should have made his film The Birds here ... he wouldn’t have been short of extras! A cacophony of sound greets you when you are even closer. The place is alive with sea birds, in particular the puffin, which is the emblem of the islands and the name of the only pub, The Puff Inn (the cheapest pub in Britain). The islands also contain the largest gannetry in the world, with more than 70,000 breeding pairs. St Kilda is one of the major sea-bird breeding areas in the North Atlantic. The puffins nest in burrows on the slopes of Dun, Soay, Boreray and Hirta. Many other varieties of sea birds can be found, including Manx shearwaters, storm petrels, fulmars, oystercatchers, eider ducks, guillemots, razorbills, kittewakes and skuas. The skuas are particularly aggressive if you are near to their nests and will dive-bomb you, giving you a nasty peck on the head. A hat is always worthwhile – with so many birds around, droppings fall like rain on occasions! On land, a familiar sound at night is the drumming of snipe, and during the day the St Kilda wren, a sub-species of its larger mainland relative, can be heard singing.

We arrived at the only anchorage in Village Bay in mid-afternoon. The islands were shrouded in mist. We were not aware of the beauty of our surroundings until later that evening, when the mist lifted. We dived immediately on arrival, as time is of the essence when visiting St Kilda ... you just don’t know how long good weather will last. Our first dive was in Village Bay, on the island of Dun. As we crossed the bay we could clearly see the sea-bed from the boat and knew we were going to have excellent visibility. It was a cave dive, and as soon as we dropped over the side I knew we were in a special place. The visibility was fantastic and as I righted myself from the drop in, I saw that I was surrounded by beautiful jellyfish of many different types, including lion’s mane, comb jelly, string and many others. The sea-bed 20m below was clearly visible and as we got closer the colours began to come into focus. It was staggering – we had landed on a field of jewel anemones which led right up to the entrance of the cave. The place was alive with marine life. It seemed in every nook and cranny there was a long-clawed squat lobster, with just its claws showing. These are nocturnal in shallow water, so are not often seen in daylight. I have never before seen so much colour in British waters. Yet I shouldn’t have been surprised: conditions are ideal in this area. The sea is constantly moving around the islands, providing a substantial food source, thereby encouraging growth and reproduction.

Over the next four days, we dived on six different sites around the islands of Hirta and Boreray. Boreray proved slightly more productive in terms of marine life. The island is smaller than Hirta and stands surrounded by the stacs around which the tides and currents flow, sometimes with great force. The sea-bed was often covered in the by now familiar jewel anemones (Corynactis viridis) interspersed with beautiful, orange dead man’s fingers (Alcyonium digitatum), and elsewhere beds of daisy-like anemones of yellow and white (Actinothoe sphyrodeta) appeared like garden borders. All this, and we were being buzzed by the seals which live in and around the caves and tunnels which riddle these islands’ shores. Often, we would enter a cave to see in the distance two, four or six ghostly green eyes floating and weaving to and fro, reflected in the beams of our torches, suddenly darting forward and back again, or rushing past at great speed. It was creepy at first, but they seemed quite playful, although keeping their distance. One of our divers did come face to face with a large male who bared his teeth at her and then decamped. It is well to remember that these are wild animals with wild instincts for protecting their harems.

There are so many caves and dive sites to choose from, we left it to the skipper: one spectacular cave worth a mention is on the north side of Hirta. It had the dimensions of a cathedral and went quite deep into the cliffs – we didn’t discover how far, as we didn’t go equipped for deep penetration. It split into two paths at one point and it was there that we decided to turn back. The entrance was found at about 15m, although we dropped to 24m before working up to it. The entrance was guarded by a large lobster, which was particularly aggressive. Instead of backing off when you came close he would come at you, claws raised. Normally he would have made a tasty meal, but the beauty of the place had turned us all into conservationists for the week! We left him on guard for others to enjoy – much more satisfying. The cave itself was huge, about 6m wide, but the roof was out of sight. The floor was covered with pebble-shaped boulders, getting on for a metre in diameter and worn smooth by the currents, and the walls covered with small orange sponges (Amphilectus fucorum). I would recommend that anyone taking a trip to the islands goes prepared for some minor caving, with plenty of line and good high-power lamps. I certainly would have liked to have gone on a bit further.

On this trip we didn’t get to dive with whales, which we were hoping to do. But our skipper did tell of how while walking on the cliff tops of Hirta, he had watched orcas playing close inshore. You just have to be lucky.

 
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