St Kilda or Bust

Tyneside 114 members set off on the ultimate dive quest to reach the holy grail of UK diving, the legendry clear waters of St Kilda.

In the run up to this trip its no exaggeration to state that all Tyneside 114 participants nervously monitored the various web based weather and swell forecast programmes; the omens were not good with strong winds predicted for much of the week seemingly put paid to any hope of travelling out across the open sea to dive the waters around St Kilda. Would the weather Gods be kind and have a change of heart? We waited in nervous anticipation as the days ticked by in the run up to the charter.

All too soon we found ourselves on the railway pier in Oban, loading dive kit aboard the MV Elizabeth G.

Once all guests were aboard and safety briefs had been completed, the Elizabeth G slipped her lines and we set sail heading up the Sound of Mull for our first port of call, Tobermoray.

Berthed on the pontoon with a splendid view of the multicoloured houses of Tobermoray, we wasted no time to avail ourselves of the opportunity to visit the Mishnish for a few beers before we ventured out into the Outer Hebrides in the knowledge that this adventure would provide very limited opportunities to visit other hostelry’s in the coming week.

Next morning the Elizabeth G headed out into the Minch; the plan was to head up past the Small Isles to Canna whilst the skipper monitored the weather in the hope that a window of opportunity would arise to head out to St Kilda.

En-route an excellent dive was had by all on a wall along the eastern shoreline of Eigg.

Whilst underwater visibility was not at it’s best, the multitude of marine life found on this site made up for the limited viz and certainly kept the Seasearchers amongst the party very busy after the dive logging all the marine species and beasties they had spied.

Once everyone was safely recovered the Elizabeth G again sailed on past the other Small Isles towards Canna. On the shoreline of Rhum we noted the recent addition of a wrecked trawler, apparently lost in October of last year, a reminder that even in this age of modern marine electronics these waters are still not without risks.

The metal heads pondered on the possibility of the chances of the wreck slipping back off the rocks into 30 metres of water…

On arrival at Canna the plan to dive the outer reef wall had to be abandoned, as the swell was still too big. Instead we opted for the smaller wall within the harbour bay, which also held the additional promise of scallops. Again the underwater visibility had clearly suffered from the recent poor weather. On the plus front however a reasonable haul of scallops ensured that we had a delicious starter meal to look forward too.

Once safely berthed at Canna, everyone took advantage of the evening sunshine to go off and explore this enchanting island. This included Andy and Richard who took the opportunity to climb up Compass Hill to experience the impressive views across the waters of Skye and Rhum.

Next morning, and with strong winds still blowing, the Elizabeth G headed back out into the Minche and across to Skye in search of a more sheltered dive site. We found it at Wiay Island where we dived an underwater pinnacle. Here a shotline was dropped onto the top of the pinnacle and we ventured down in search of a small wall. Again underwater visibility had clearly suffered from the recent poor weather with the water very green and gloomy although it proved much clearer below 25 metres. Again, this site threw up a few interesting mini beasties that kept the Seasearch crowd happy filling in their survey forms and researching through their marine ID books.

On a more positive note, once everyone had been safely recovered, Rob, the Elizabeth G skipper informed us that the weather was now forecast to improve so the plan was to head across to Leverborough in the Sound of Harris with a view to venturing out into the Atlantic for the journey across to St Kilda the following morning.

En-route to Leverborough we also took the opportunity to dive the wreck of the SS Stassa in Rodel Bay.

This 1685 ton Panamanian vessel came to grief in July 1966 whilst en-route from Archangel in Russia to Limerick with a cargo of timber. Due to a navigation error she struck rocks and was towed into Rodel Bay where she subsequently continued to take on water before sinking onto her port side in 22 metres of water. Today she continues to provide the rare opportunity in UK waters of actually being able to dive a relatively intact shipwreck.

Whilst the bay in which she is situated clearly offers protection from passing winter storms, the silty bottom can all too easily be stirred up by careless finning technique. That said the Stassa dive went some way to satisfy the need to explore rusty metal amongst some of the Tyneside party.

That evening we celebrated the prospect of venturing out To St Kilda with a few pints in the local hostelry in Leverborough. Sadly for those of us who had made this pilgrimage before, the legendry local super strength brew of Berserker was no longer available at the Anchorage.

Next morning saw an early start as we motored through the Sound of Harris and out into the open Atlantic Ocean, with the next stop St Kilda. The seas had dropped considerably overnight although the recent strong winds had left a legacy of an interesting rolling motion which afflicted one or two of the guests and crew who turned green and did not seem to enjoy the crossing.

After several hours of fighting tide and swell the Elizabeth G at last ventured into Village Bay, Hirta. We had made it to St Kilda!

First dive out at St Kilda was within Village Bay, off Dun Island. Underwater visibility proved exceptional with clear blue water and stunning colourful marine life that has colonised the submarine walls that line the edge of Dun Island. We eagerly explored the small cave and numerous overhangs that are also to be found at this site.

Next dive was on the legendry Sawcut, one of the iconic St Kilda dive sites.  The late afternoon sun was now setting behind Dun and the Ruabhal hill, restricting the ambient light levels on this particular site, with the result that a good torch was required for venturing into the Sawcut as it cuts back some 60 metres into the Dun headland. The variety and richness of marine life however to be found living within the Sawcut proved plentiful, keeping Nicola busy with her camera and survey forms.

Next morning, the Elizabeth G ventured across towards Boreary. With still a noticeable swell running, Rob was just able to tuck into the lee offered by the imposing Stac Lee, another of St Kilda’s legendry dive sites.

Here we escaped the worst effects of the swell and the spring tide. Dropping down the sheer submarine cliff we encountered overhangs and ledges covered in anemones whilst the wall continued to plunge downwards into the depths below. Again conditions were somewhat gloomy as we were sheltered from the rays of the sun. In the right conditions however, with the sun shining full onto the wall it was all too easy to see why many rate this site as one of the best wall dives in the UK. The spring tide became all too evident as we headed around the point where a number of intriguing caves are reputed to be found. Instead we were reluctantly forced back by the tidal current, so spent the dive zigzagging our way instead up this imposing submarine cliff face. That said Alex and Dave did find another cave at 20 metres that they boldly explored.

Once everyone was safely recovered, the Elizabeth G headed back to the anchorage in Village Bay for a planned excursion ashore.

Fully equipped with walking shoes and a packed lunch we embarked aboard the small tender for the brief ride across the bay to be dropped off at the Hirta pier.

Here we were met by the National Trust warden who gave the mandatory safety briefing on the do’s and don’ts of exploring around the island. After this briefing we had a couple of hours to explore amongst the haunting ruins of the village, whilst pondering upon the harshness of the lives of the villagers prior to their evacuation from St Kilda in 1930.

The poignant photographs in the small museum vividly brought to life the village and its lost community, with images of St Kildan’s at work and play surrounded by the feathery remains of seabirds that sustained this way of life.

Outside the museum we explored the surrounding hills and enjoyed the imposing views across the water to the other islands and sea stacs that make up the archipelago of St Kilda.

Before departing back to the Elizabeth G we assembled at the St Kilda club shop for the mandatory souvenirs and post cards, a tradition that goes back to the days of past steamship visits to the islands which then brought valuable income to the St Kildan’s.

Once back on board the Elizabeth G it was time for a quick change into drysuits for an exploratory dive on a site around the edge of Hirta that Rob had not attempted before. Swimming around the large rock we came across some impressive gullies heavily colonised by numerous types of anemones. Throughout this dive, nervous seals flashed past seemingly always keeping to the edge of visibility.

Thursday dawned and we made an early start to fit in two dives before making the long crossing back to Tobermoray.

The original plan for the first dive of the day was to dive an unnamed pinnacle that Rob had recently come across on the West side of Hirta. On arrival at site however it soon became all too obvious that the prevailing swell was too big to attempt to safely dive the site, so instead we opted to dive another more sheltered pinnacle, Barlow’s Pinnacle, name after the intrepid skipper who found it on his sounder!

Following the shotline down we reached the top of this pinnacle at a depth of 15 metres. From here it was a case of heading north until reaching an edge that plunged straight downwards into the depths below. The submarine cliffs along this edge are covered in a rich tapestry of multicoloured jewel anemones.

On returning back to the top of the pinnacle DSMB’s were deployed and we completed our safety stops drifting gently in the water column.

With the sun now high in the sky we ventured to a dive site close to the south east point of Dun Island for our final St Kilda dive. The bright sunshine penetrating through the clear water provided a tropical blue background to this dive as we explored up a sheltered gully that cut back into the dark volcanic rock of Dun. The site was also notable for the variety of sea slugs to be found hiding amongst the kelp and soft corals.

Once everyone had been safely recovered dive kit was hastily stowed in anticipation of a rough crossing back across the open waters of the Atlantic, this time taking a more southerly but direct route through the Sound of Barra.

With a bright blue sky and a glassy smooth sea we had plenty of opportunity to watch the outline of St Kilda slowly vanish into the distant horizon.

The journey back proved a surprisingly calm affair, with the odd moment of excitement such as when a school of bottle nosed dolphins played upon the Elizabeth G’s bow wave as she cut her way through the Sound of Barra.

Later, with the sun dropping below the horizon we were treated to a magnificent orange sunset over Barra and its surrounding islands.

Most of the guests were sound asleep when the Elizabeth G gently slipped into Tobermoray bay in the early hours of Friday morning.

Next morning was again an early start in order to make slack water at 8:20am on the wreck of the SS Hispania. With a brisk wind blowing up the Sound of Mull it was quite difficult to identify what was tide or wind that was moving the shot line buoy. Nicola and Simon were first down onto the wreck. Underwater visibility was a respectable 4 to 5 metres.

What was notable about this dive however was that whilst the current certainly slackened it never ceased completely resulting in everyone having to pull themselves down the line and then make either a quick dash across the deck before plunging into the shelter of one of the wrecks holds or alternatively seek the shelter from the current in the lee of the ships hull. The Hispania however still provides a wonderful dive with its hull and superstructure covered in orange anemones.

Although parts of this wreck appear to have started to deteriorate quite badly as the combination of corrosion, strong tides and winter storms has clearly started to take their toll.

Final dive of the expedition was a scallop hunt on one of the small islands off Craignure towards the bottom end of the Sound of Mull.  The rocky gullies appear to have deterred the activities of local scallop dredgers and everyone returned with a reasonable haul of scallops to take home.

Safely docked at Oban kit was reluctantly unloaded and after the mandatory group photograph, we set off on the long journey home with the satisfaction of having successfully completed our pilgrimage out to St Kilda, the holy grail of British diving. The weather God’s had smiled kindly upon our adventure.

Many thanks to Rob Barlow and the crew of the Elizabeth G for yet another memorable week’s adventure.