Lorn’ing it on Seil Island

3rd – 7th May 2013

by Tiago Moreira

The plan, set a couple of months before, was to enjoy a weekend of club diving in the waters of the Firth of Lorn, known mainly for its scenic and drift dives. The weather at the end of April has been promising, and for those of us who had missed an earlier, March club weekend in Glenuig, this was a much anticipated opportunity to escape from the diet of quarries and lakes we had been subjected to since January.  However, in the great tradition of British diving, as the weekend approached, the weather was turning out to be not the best for diving, particularly in the west coast of Scotland. Drawing from the same body of custom, we ignored the prediction, hoped for the best and were on the road by Friday afternoon.

Our base was on the Island of Seil, one of the many island in the Firth of Lorn, situated some 15 miles south of Oban, which is a Special Area of Conservation protecting the geological features – reefs – supporting marine life. One of the things any visitor to Seil and surrounding islands will notice is the abundance of slate. Indeed, in the 18th and 19th century, these islands were the centre of the Scottish slate industry. By the 1860s exports were made to New Zealand, Australia, the West Indies, the United States and Canada. Following some violent storms at the end of the 19th century, combined with labour shortages in the First World war and changes in the world markets, the slate industry in Argyll was slowly replaced by cheaper, better quality Spanish slate in the 20th century. One of the quarries in the village of Ellenabeich was breached by the sea in 1885. Being 60mts deep  it is sometimes dived, although its foremost use is serving as a training site for the World Stone Skimming Championship, held annually in the nearby Island of Easdale.

We were diving off Porpoise II, a twin engine Revenge 38 boat skippered by Dave Ainsley of Sea Life Adventures (http://www.sealife-adventures.com). Dave is BSAC First Class Diver himself and has extensive expertise both as a diver and as skipper in matching the local dive sites with tidal movements and the ever-changing conditions brought by Atlantic weather fronts. The area offers a variety of scenic dives, wall and pinnacles, Scottish sea loch dives, Atlantic and drift dives, with the advantage of being protected by the Lorn archipelago from Westerlies and, to some extent, Southerlies. The weather was not the best but at least we were in good hands.

Upon arrival, our dive manager – David Mitchell – checked with the skipper and came back with the news that it would be an early start on the next day. After a quick pint or two, we all settled in our accommodation.

Our fist dive was Cullipool Wall, a west facing sheer underwater cliff rising from 60 plus mts of water. As in many of the wall and pinnacle dives in this area, it is best to deploy a shotline which should be followed to the seabed. Once the dive site is located, it is then possible to chose your depth and enjoy the scenery and wild life. The wall is sprinkled with animals feeding on what the tides bring: feather stars, peacock worms, etc. Here and there also, medium-sized football seasquirts (Diazona violacea), cushion stars, sunstars and Devonshire cup corals. In the crevices at around 20-18 mts, small female cuckoo wrasse, blennies and goldsinnies could be found hiding.

Next, it was the Grey Dogs, a drift dive along a colourful wall densely populated by Oaten pipe hydroids, dead men fingers and white stripped anemones. We were diving it at slack water, as it is recommended, but still had fun being pushed and pulled along the wall until, inexplicably, being allowed to stop to explore a gully, an elephant hide sponge or the jewel anemones encrusted on a bolder, only to then be caught again by the drift ride. It was also fun to hear my dive buddy, a man with considerable responsibility in his working life, chuckling through his regulator as we tried to keep together in the glide. The gentle current led us onto a sandy bottom bay dotted with burrowing anemones where we regained some buoyancy composure and explored the small reefs that could be found here and there.

We sailed back to our base, crowding in the skipper’s cabin as we tried to escape the cold westerly wind and horizontal rain, and recounting the experiences of the day. In the evening, we convened in the main base Seabank Cottage for a multi-cultural, nutritious three course meal, composed of Portuguese braised pepper and chorizo, lasagne and bread pudding with custard.

As the southwesterly wind was still making itself felt around the Island, for our first dive on Sunday we chose CrabbHaven Wall, another sea loch wall. However, the marine life in this wall was noticeably different from Culipool’s: at 30-25 mts, sea loch anemones, dead men’s fingers and a wider variety of tidal feeders attested to regular water movement in this site. Further up, we spotted a few nudibranchs (Polycera Faroensis and Flabellina Verrucosa) feeding on the available forage, as well as a couple of long legged spider crabs camouflaged in the algae.

Next, we suggested that it might be worth exploring the outer waters of the Firth of Lorn and were surprised by the lack of Atlantic swell around Jeannie’s Reef, a wall named after our skipper’s spouse. This dive was perhaps my favourite of all we did in this weekend. Descending to 18 mts, we explored a beautiful reef supporting a rich habitat, with the familiar sight of plumose anemones and dead men’s fingers alongside the less familiar presence of white cluster anemones and red sea fingers (Alcyonium glomeratum), a species only found in the western and southern coasts in UK waters. At around 12 mts, we found a few rocks protruding from the wall covered in yellow and pink jewel anemones, a species also characteristic of the south and west coasts of Britain. Every other rock was covered with life and colour: you just had to relax and enjoy it. As we came to the surface, we were met by dismal weather, but the diving had been superb.

Our evening meal in the Oyster Bar in Ellenabeich did not match the previous good experiences some of our members had of the place. Wanting to hold on to the memories of the day, I chose to have oysters as a starter and must say they were nicely and competently prepared, although the main course could have received a bit more care.

A distinctive aspect of the reef was the presence of more species of squirts, hydroids and sponges on the wall, including some fine examples of golf ball sponge and  yellow hedgehog sponge (Polymastia boletiformis, also sometimes called yellow-tit sponge). Our attention was also caught by the abundance of sandaled anemones, a species never seen in the east coast. As is the case with most excellent dives, the timing of our ascent was dictated by safety precautions and wanting to avoid a deco-stop after a series of dives in reasonably cold waters.

Back on the boat, we took some group photos before landing and heading back home.

Thanks to David Mitchell for organising the trip.