Sunday, 19 August 2012

Basking Shark Safari in the Sound of Mull

Slightly later than planned, here is the story of my latest adventure.  I've been waiting almost a year for this one.  After last year's trip to the Sound of Mull to do some wreck diving, Martin at Ace Divers organised another trip to find basking sharks and to do some more wreck diving.  I was really excited about the thought of actually being able to see some of these fantastic creatures in the wild and in the flesh.  For the uninitiated, basking sharks only eat plankton, unlike their kin folk who get all the (unfair) bad press.  Martin was checking up all of the news on marine wildlife sightings in the area and it was looking hopeful for being able to see basking sharks.

The plan was to drive up to Lochaline on Friday via the Corran Ferry crossing and dive off the West Pier at Lochaline in the afternoon.  We'd then stay the night at Morvern Dive Lodge in Lochaline and board the Peregrine on Saturday morning to search for basking sharks.  We'd be staying overnight on Tiree then diving on the wreck of the Tapti and any other wrecks whose locations fitted in with the tides on Sunday.

Here is a view of the quaint little lighthouse at Corran from the ferry.

We arrived as planned, found the dive lodge after a slight detour, and headed down to the West Pier to dive along the wall there.  There were shoals of tiny fish there as well as the usual shell-clad suspects and plant life.  The Boy tried to scare me by messing about with the valves on his newly acquired twinset and unexpectedly slipping down a few metres.  Thankfully he came back up none the worse for wear.  Exiting the water at West Pier:

Just after we came out of the water someone spotted two porpoises not far from the shore so Martin and I grabbed fins, snorkels and masks and ran back into the water but we were too late.  The porpoises were more interested in following the ferry than playing with us.  A seal popped up as well, too far away for us to reach.  We all went to the Lochaline Hotel afterwards and I had a lovely meal of local produce : Cullen Skink followed by seared scallops and finished off with Cranachan topped with fresh raspberries (like I really needed a dessert).

The next morning we were all down at the harbour by 9:00 to load our gear on the Peregrine.  Malcolm, the skipper welcomed us on board and set off for Tiree and Coll.  We passed the Rubha Nan Gall lighthouse on the way out of the Sound of Mull:

That's when the spotters got the binoculars out and started their vigil.  Martin got a bit excited when he spotted ......... a big clump of of floating seaweed.  The cormorants floating amongst the waves caused a fair few false alarms as well.  They did a fairly good impression of a fin in the water.  The spotters:

After four hours of false alarms we were getting less excited about stuff in the water and I think we were all beginning to believe we'd never find a basking shark.  And then..... we saw this:

This photo tested the zoom on my slightly ancient camera to its limit.  Thankfully this was only the first of many.  Everyone rushed to one side of the boat to try and catch a glimpse and a photo.  Almost as soon as we spotted a shark it would change direction or submerge so photographing them was a real challenge.  In the end, I came home with lots of photos of water, a few photos of shark fins and no photos of actual sharks.  For such big creatures they move surprisingly fast.  Fin:

If you look REALLY hard you can just see the mottled pattern on the shark's body through the water.  Sadly, the plankton bloom that brings the sharks to the surface to feed makes it kind of hard to see them in the water.  Allegedly, while I was paying attention to sharks, a Minke whale breached a little distance away from the boat.  And I missed it.  I also missed it the second time it breached because I was on the other side of the boat taking a photo of the Cairns of Coll lighthouse:

There was a lone basking shark swimming near the lighthouse and he was a big 'un so we stopped to watch him for a while:

This is the only video footage that The Boy managed to get before he started drowning when his snorkel fell apart in the water.  :)  All I saw when I got into the water was his fins in the distance and the occasional bubble.

By the time we'd finished basking shark spotting it had become clear that we weren't going to be able to land on Tiree to stay the night thanks to a south-easterly wind.  So it was a four hour sail back to Lochaline and back the Lochaline Hotel for another lovely meal.  As a result we weren't able to dive on the Tapti.  Never mind, there's always next year, but I got to see basking sharks!  We also passed the Ardnamurchan lighthouse on the way back to the Sound of Mull.  The scenery in that part of the world is stunning.

On Sunday we were back at Lochaline Harbour ready to board the Peregrine again for a days diving.  Kit all ready and waiting:

We didn't travel so far this time.  We started off by diving the wreck of the Thesis.  Next was the Hispania.  The Hispania is the very first wreck I ever dived on and it's amazing.  We had to wait 45 minutes or so for a slack tide before we could get into the water and we found we were in competition with the Sound Diver which also had a a full load of eager divers.  There was a bit of light hearted banter going back and forth between the two skippers while we waited.  In the end, our wee Peregrine was in the right place at the right time so we were able to dive first.  This time I was 70 dives more experienced and felt a whole lot more comfortable and relaxed than the last time.  The skipper offered to take us to the wreck of the Rondo for a final dive but with the prospect of a three hour drive home we reluctantly decided to call it a day.

All in all we had a great weekend.  Thank you to Martin at Ace Divers for arranging it all.  Our names will be on the list again for next year.