|Summer Isles: Dive Sites|
The ten most popular dives on the isles.
1. The Fairweather V
This was a steel, stern-trawling fishing vessel which sank on 4 February, 1991 and lies in 25–30m of water. Still intact and in excellent condition, it is best to dive the wreck on an incoming tide to get the best visibility. Lying off Cairn Dearg headland, the site is rather exposed from the north-west round to the east, so it is best to dive in sheltered weather conditions. The captain’s cabin, wheelhouse, galley and holds are all accessible and all covered in plumose anemones, bryozoans, hydroids, nudibranchs and surrounded by schooling fish. The wreck is marked by two shot lines, on to which a dive boat can tie.
2. The Innisjura
This wreck also lies off Cairn Dearg headland and is a former wooden coastal trader which sank during World War One. The 30m-long vessel is largely intact, although the wheelhouse has now collapsed. The steam engine and gas lamps are of particular interest. Completely covered in plumose anemones and soft corals, the wreck is best dived on an incoming tide as it can be quite silty at the 30–35m depth in which she lies. Due to these factors, only a few divers are allowed on her at any one time.
3. The Boston Stirling
Another steel stern-trawler now resting in a sheltered cove to the south of Tanera Mhor. This 33m ship lies on her starboard side from 6m at the bow to 15m at the stern and is of generally good condition, though the wheelhouse lining of wood panelling has now collapsed (though not bad, when you think that’s the main deterioration in the 15 years she’s been down). The holds are accessible and very photogenic. There is extensive cover of plumose anemones, soft corals, ascidians, anemones, sea urchins and numerous fish. There is a buoy and line set 10m off the stern, but smaller boats can tie on to the mast at low tide. An excellent dive.
4. Isle Martin
This site can be very deep depending on where you dive along the north wall. Depths range from 5–70m or there is a more gentle slope down to 40m. There are numerous ledges and huge boulders all down the slope, and in several areas you drop underneath large overhangs which drastically cut out the available light and make it rather dark and gloomy. However, the marine life on the walls more than makes up for this. There are pincushion starfish, cuckoo wrasse, dragonets, brightly coloured ascidians, sponges, sea urchins and sea fans.
5. Conservation Cave
Also known as Cathedral Cave, and on the south-west point of Tanera Beag. It was named after an expedition by members of the Marine Conservation Society who classed this cave as one of the best sites on the north-west of Scotland. The cave has a high, domed roof and the top is cut by a shaft which allows light into the darker recesses. Large, smooth boulders covered in creeping algae and breadcrumb sponges – small, lumpy, brown and yellow coloured – cover the inner surfaces, and as you drop down the eastern spur of the wall, you come across hundreds of nudibranchs, carpets of cup corals and jewel anemones, and on the steeply sloping sea-bed, huge dahlia anemones, hydroids, ascidians and plumose anemones.
This is a superb site, but the conditions can be rather ‘hit or miss’ because of the exposed nature of the site. There is now a voluntary conservation code in force in this area and no collecting of marine life is allowed. Divers are advised on proper buoyancy procedures before entering the cave because of the pristine nature of the site.
6. Bottle Island
The furthest island south-west of Eilean Dubh, it is best dived at high tide to take advantage of exploring the numerous shallow caves around the south-west corner. The gullies, rockfaces and overhangs have a profusion of marine life such as butterfish (like tiny, spotted mini morays, you find them under seaweed) scorpionfish, anemones and numerous species of starfish, crab and mollusc. The sea-bed is sandy, where you can always find flounders, anglerfish and if you are lucky, skate, rays and dogfish.
7. Black Rock (Sgeir Dubh)
The largest skerry, or rock, found between Tanera Mhor and Glas-leac Mhor. This rather exposed site drops down a boulder slope and rock wall rapidly to 30m and continues down a sandy slope to 45m. This site attracts large numbers of shoaling fish, which also attract seals. The boulder slope is home to nesting cuckoo wrasse, squat lobsters and thousands of ascidians covered in feather starfish. The shallower West Black Rock has a greater growth of kelp and is generally more sheltered. Maximum depth is 15m and it has a large colony of seals and is one of Andy Holbrow’s favourite spots. ‘We have been diving and playing with them for the past five years’, he says. However, they can be skittish and excessive noise scares them away.
8. Latto’s Rock
An otherwise unnamed skerry on the Admiralty Chart located between Tanera Mhor and Sgeir Nam Feusgan. The site is sheltered from the worst of the Atlantic swells and is a flat-topped rock pinnacle with small mini-walls, steep sandy slopes and boulder overhangs. The top 6m is covered in a thick mat of sugar kelp fringed with hydroids and nudibranchs, lots of small sea urchins, blennies, gobies, scorpionfish, and octopus, if you look hard enough. Each type or stem of kelp seems to have its attendant spider crab hanging under the leafy frond.
As you descend to the rocky ledges, there are numerous ascidians, octopus, squat lobsters, sea pens, feather starfish, scallops and nudibranchs. I found one of the smallest octopus I have ever seen, hiding in an empty mussel shell. This area quickly gives way to a steeply sloping soft sand and mud slope where sea pens, scallops and crabs are commonplace.
9. 12-Foot Rock
A flat-topped pinnacle west of the southern point of Eilean Dubh. The depths range from 10–50m and comprise a steep rocky wall which drops down to a fine sand and mud sea-bed where sea cucumbers, sea pens and scallops can be found. The walls are adorned with sea anemones, mussels, long-clawed squat lobsters and feather starfish. This site is also subject to oceanic swell, which can make it rather difficult to dive safely, but it is very interesting.
10. The Keyhole
More formally known as Toll Eilean a’ Chleirich, on Priest Island, it is actually a couple of massive caves which cut into and through the island (and from the sea look like a keyhole). One of them in particular comes up to a flat rocky platform at only 3m and eventually drops back down to 20m on the other side of the headland. The narrower of the caves was first dived last season and it is even more spectacular, with vertical walls encrusted in sponges – including lots of elephant ear sponges – soft corals and anemones. The rocky dykes which run out from the headland are covered with a fringe of kelp.
Tidal streams of under half a knot current are indicated on the Tidal Stream Atlas and although the islands are largely sheltered from the might of the Atlantic by the Hebrides and the Minch, there can still be considerable surge and groundswell, which makes conditions geting in and out of the water rather difficult. Fortunately, many of the sites are located on the sheltered eastern shores of various islands and hence are excellent for diving virtually all year round.
Diving conditions do vary, but in general it is best to dive the inshore sites on an incoming tide as they can get rather silty. The best visibility is encountered off the outer islands and during the winter months. Unfortunately the single track road can often be rendered impassable during heavy snow conditions. When that occurs, pick-ups can be arranged from the harbour at Ullapool.
Where to stay, numbers to know
• Maggie Mackenzie’s, Loan, Achiltibuie, Ross-shire. Tel: 01854 622226
• Summer Isles Hotel, Achiltibuie, Ross- shire.Tel: 01854 622282. Old, very exclusive, very good. Restaurant has a rare Michelin star. Around £40 a head for dinner. Also recommended for post-dive drinks. Good bar food, £7–10 a head, with seafood platters, venison stews and a number of vegetarian choices. (Another good pub venue is the Am Fauran in the village of Altandhu, also good bar snacks)
•Hilary Macleod, Port Beag Chalets, Althandu, Ross-shire.Tel: 01854 622279
• Sandra Macleod has self-catering apartments. Tel: 01854 622285.
• Tourist Information Centre, Ullapool, Ross-shire. Tel: 01854 612135
Who To Dive With
• To go out on the MV Heron, contact Craig Barnes or Fiona Ward on 01854 622457. She has a compressor, air bank, large cabin with toilet, full medical kit with oxygen, radar, echo-sounder and ship-to-shore radio, and weather canopy.
• Closest Recompression Chamber: Kishorn Hyperbaric Chamber, Kyle of Lochalsh. Tel: 01520 733212.
• Marine Call: Specialist recorded message for all Scottish inshore seas’ weather forecasting. Outer Hebrides District,
tel: 0891 500 464; fax: 0336 400 464.
• Hydrographic Chart: Loch Broom & Approaches No. 2501 1:25,000. Ordnance Survey: Summer Isles No. NB90, 1:25,000
For those who wish to bring their own Rib there are numerous boat launching locations and you can use Atlantic Diving Services to get air fills either by arrangement or by bringing extra air bottles along which can be exchanged as you need them.
FLY: British Airways flies three times daily to Inverness from London, Gatwick. (Dep 09.30 arr 11.15; dep 15.00 arr 16.45; dep 19.55 arr 21.40). From Glasgow there are two flights a day Mon–Fri and one on Sunday (none Saturday) and from Edinburgh one flight a day Mon–Fri, none at weekends, (no service from Birmingham or Manchester). All services operated by British Regional Airways. Cheapest fares are Super Saver: from Gatwick £109 return midweek, £120 weekend, plus £10 British tax, stay must include Saturday night. Super Saver from Glasgow and Edinburgh, £87 return plus £10 tax. Can book any time up until day of departure. British Airways Reservations, tel: 0345 222111. Arrangements should be made for pick-up in advance with either Atlantic Diving Services, or any of the accommodations listed (Maggie McKenzie runs a taxi service, tel: 01854 622226).
Inverness airport: tel: 01463 232471
CAR HIRE: Avis: 01667 462787. Hertz: 01667 462652. Sharpe’s Reliable Wrecks: 01463 236694.
DRIVE: Best way north is A1 through Edinburgh, M90 to Perth, A9 to Inverness, A835 to Ullapool. From Ullapool, head north for12 miles on the A835, then turn left on to a single track road with a signpost to Achiltibuie and ‘The Summer Isles’. It’s then a further 20 miles.
When to dive
All year round, although the prevailing westerly winds can make things rather difficult during the winter months. The months March through to November are generally excellent, but often the clearest water is found in December and January. There’s a bit of an algal bloom in May, but July, August and September are very good.
Water temperatures do not vary too much: warmed considerably
by the Gulf Stream, they can range from 6–18°C. It is important
to bring along lots of protective clothing for the time spent between
dives, as the wind chill factor can lower the body’s temperature
too low for comfort, particularly during the winter months.
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