Saturday, 27 August 2011

Visiting sad old ladies

Firstly, I have to apologise for not being around much lately.  I started a new job a couple of weeks ago and I've hardly had time to draw breath since between one thing and another.  One of those things being a diving weekend in the Sound of Mull organised by Martin at Ace Divers.  "So what does that have to do with sad old ladies?" I hear you ask.  Everything because most of our dives were exploring ship wrecks on the bottom of The Sound.  I had never dived a wreck before and what an introduction it was!

It took us around 3 hours to drive from central Scotland to the Lochaline Dive Centre and that included our ferry crossing and 20-odd miles driving up a single track road.  The Corran ferry must be the shortest ferry crossing ever. You barely get parked on deck and turn off the engine before it's time to drive off again.

We were meeting friends and staying in the bunk house at the Lochaline Dive Centre.  I had never stayed in a bunk house before so I was expecting something pretty basic, maybe just a step up from a tent.  I was pleasantly surprised when I stepped into our compact but bijou room.  It was very small but looked as if it had been freshly decorated and was very comfortable with it's tiled floor (with under floor heating), two bunks and en-suite toilet / shower room.

We arranged with the owner to have dinner later and headed out for a night dive at the West Pier.  The customers in the Lochaline Hotel were probably traumatised at the sight of a bunch of divers stripping off and getting kitted up outside their windows.

As you can see we had typical Scottish weather.  We had a nice, leisurely swim along a wall covered with all sorts of aquatic life then headed back to the bunk house.  I think we all expected burger & chips for dinner but we were treated to chicken breast stuffed with smoked bacon followed by cheese cake for dessert.  It wouldn't have been out of place in a high class restaurant.

The next morning we drove down to the harbour and loaded all our gear on board the Brendan, a dive boat that takes 12 divers.  David, the skipper, took us out to visit our first sad old lady, the SS Hispania, who was launched in 1912 and met her end in the Sound of Mull in December 1954.  She is thought to be the best Scottish wreck for diving outside of Scapa Flow.  We all changed into our drysuits and connected up our scuba gear then sat around the back of the boat until we arrived at the site.  It took a little longer than expected and we ended up doing a few Mexican waves with our fins while we waited.  More challenging than it sounds when you understand how little room there is to move once we're all kitted up.  The Hispania should only be dived on a slack tide to avoid the strong currents that can be present around her.  David, our skipper got the timing just perfect.  As The Boy and I were doing our PADI wreck diving speciality over the weekend the others let us go into the water first before anyone kicked up any silt.  We descended the line from the marker buoy and the first old lady came into view, much clearer and more spectacular than I had imagined.  A huge, green and yellow body started appear out of nowhere and seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see, covered in over half a century's aquatic life.  This is me following The Boy around the wreck (he had control of the camera , as usual):

The PADI skills for the first dive weren't too complicated - swim around the wreck identifying potential hazards, maintain neutral buoyancy, navigate back to the ascent point, avoid touching the bottom.

We met a few Ballan Wrasse like the one in the photo.  They are very curious and will usually come up close for a good look at divers. When I got home I read up on the Hispania.  The author described what happened to him when he got the tides wrong.  When he exited the wreck the current nearly ripped his mask off his face and he had to grip the funnel and shimmy up it to reach the ascent line to prevent himself from being swept away.  Thank goodness our skipper read the tides perfectly.

David had the kettle on by the time we were all back on board and while we had lunch he set off to find our next sad, old lady, the SS Shuna.  She was built in 1909 so it wasn't long until she met her demise in May 1913 after hitting rocks in a storm.  It was looking a little overcast by the time we started our visit:

Things soon brightened up below the surface when we came across some of the old lady's friends, local wildlife:

That crab was huge - about a foot across (30cm in new money).

Ok, so the last photo is not so local wildlife.  Guess who? :o)  That looks like Martin's white mask below my arm.  I hadn't appreciated how much I look like an ad for ScubaPro. :D

PADI skills this time included swimming around the outside of the wreck identifying and avoiding potential hazards, mapping a wreck and marking points of interest, surveying a wreck for a penetration dive and evaluating possible entrances then navigating back to the ascent point.  David had the kettle on for us again when we reached the boat.

For our last dive of the day we had a nice, 'fluffy' dive along the wall at Calve Island.  We saw a couple of seals swimming along the shore as the boat approached the drop-off point but they hid from us once we were in the water.  This was my 50th dive so it was nice just to have a gentle, relaxing dive without having to demonstrate any skills.  There was long wall with lots of crevices hiding aquatic wildlife.  I did feel a little bit like a sheep dog by the end of the dive as we had been in buddy teams of 3 people all day and my 2 buddies (The Boy and Martin) both had cameras and kept wandering off trying to catch 'the' photo.  Thankfully The Boy is quite hard to lose as he has white fins that glow underwater.

After our last dive we headed to Tobermory where we were booked to stay the night:

After a good night's sleep and a decent breakfast it was back down to the harbour to board the Brendan again.  Our first dive of the day was a visit to the third old lady, the SS Rondo.  She started life in 1917 as the War Wonder (1), was renamed the Lithopolis, then the Laurie and in 1934 became the SS Rondo.  Ironically, in 1935,  she grounded on a lighthouse rock in the Sound of Mull then eventually slithered off the edge to land almost vertically in the water.  I was slightly worried about my encounter with her as the lowest part of her bodywork is at a depth of 50 metres, 20 metres deeper than I'm allowed to dive but I was worrying for nothing as she was extremely kind to us.  As dive number 3 in our PADI Wreck Speciality The Boy and I had skills to demonstrate - deployment & retrieval of a penetration line, for practice, on the outside of the wreck, swim along the penetration line without kicking up silt using a dive light and maintaining contact with the line, navigate back to the ascent point.  We also did a short 'swim through' in a gap between the vertical hull of the old lady and the rock face to practice following a penetration line.  If you look closely you can just see the penetration line on the right.  The air cylinder apparently wearing a fishnet stocking is mine.

Because of her vertical position in the water the Rondo is a very easy wreck to explore.  After we surfaced, David took us to a quiet bay while the air cylinders were refilled.  The sun was out and we did a spot of fishing and caught half a dozen mackerel.  We had lunch (not mackerel I hasten to add) and enjoyed the stunning scenery for a while then headed off to visit our last old lady, the SS Thesis.

The Thesis was launched in 1887 and a short time afterwards, in October 1889, she ran aground.  There is a section of the ship where the outer plating has been removed and the 'ribs' are exposed.  An ideal place to practice our last set of PADI skills, planning and performing a wreck penetration, laying and following the line without disturbing the silt and using a dive light.

After we'd done our skills I followed Martin out of the wreck and up a slope.  When I looked up to see where he was I was amazed to see a huge shoal of fish (probably saithe) swimming past right above us.  That was my first encounter with more than a handful of fish at one time.  As we explored the rest of the wreck, The Boy found a couple of Sea Hares and a conger eel poking it's head out of a pipe. To the untrained eye, ie, mine, the Sea Hares look like little pieces of curled up, red seaweed.  They are also tiny,

While we were photographing the Sea Hares a Ballan Wrasse came over to see what we were up to and hung around for a while having a good old look.  Here I am apparently doing a little underwater ballet:

We said goodbye to the Thesis and ascended the line to the boat.  That was our last dive of the weekend and were all tired, happy bunnies.  We had a slight detour on the way back to shore thanks to Nicola (aka The Dancing Queen and the only other female on the trip).  During her attempts to remove Lion's Mane jellyfish tentacles from her diving boots she dropped one overboard.  To his credit, David turned the boat round and went straight to the stray boot so it was reunited with its owner.

Afterwards David dropped us off at the pier in Lochaline so that we could pick up our cars and start the 3 hour drive back home.

Don't ever let anyone tell you it's not worth diving in Scotland.  Yes, there are times when the visibility can be bad but that can happen anywhere. And, yes you need to wear a full drysuit due to the water temperature but if I can cope with that anyone can.   I am in awe of what I see every time I dive.  When you're standing on the shore it's hard to imagine how much is going on under the surface of the water.