Lochinver Expedition

May 2008

by Andy Hunt

After last year’s successful club expedition to Islay, the aim for the 2008 season was to find another remote area of the country where diving of a more exploratory and adventurous nature could be conducted. Like the earlier Islay trip of 2007, this latest expedition was to be a self sufficient affair, making maximum use of the two club RIB’s and the two portable compressors. With these goals in mind, the North West coast of Scotland appeared to be an excellent place for a club expedition.

After some research, courtesy of the web, two cottages were booked just outside of the village of Loch Inver and plans started to be laid for the expedition to take place in late May, with the aim of hopefully missing the Midge season. The time flew by, and all too soon, we found ourselves making final preparations before setting off on the long journey to the North West tip of Scotland.

Friday 23rd May
The first day of the Lochinver expedition and everyone had an extra hour in bed, as some trailer maintenance still had to be completed (a spare part had not arrived on next day delivery …more like next week delivery!). The towing cars duly arrived at to collect boats to find one boat ready to tow and another still on bricks with the new brake cable being attached.

Finally by about 11.00 everyone was finally underway on a seven hour journey up to Lochinver en masse in a rather co-ordinated fashion such that everyone would arrive roughly at the same time whether towing or not, and in case a towing car broke down, another towing car would be within ½ hour of the breakdown.

The sky was blue, sun shining and the long journey was largely uneventful. Unfortunately on arrival Maurice realised he’d forgotten his drysuit! He duly headed off straight away back home to collect it!

Saturday 24th May
Our accommodation was based in two luxury cottages in Badnaban just outside the fishing village of Lochinver. Placed conveniently close to a natural harbour and a makeshift slipway, these cottages provided an ideal base from which to dive Loch Inver, with many of the sites on our list within a couple of miles of the launch sites.

First planned dive was the wreck of the Scotia, a steel fishing vessel that had originally run aground in October 1995 in Camas a Mhaide. This 48 tonne vessel measured 22.9m long by 6.4m across the beam and had a draught of 2m. Five crew needs to be rescued when she ran aground.
We were expecting this still to be sticking out of the water as it had been in 2002 when Andy had spent the surface interval of a REDS expedition onboard. Unfortunately it had slipped into the water subsequently and left no trace on the surface. Without the photo to pinpoint the exact location the charted position was used as a guide in conjunction with side scan sonar recently acquired. The first dive revealed a couple of wreck shaped rocks but little else. By the second the photograph had been obtained and the precise location was pinpointed with the aid of the side scan and the echo sounder.

She now lies as the base of the rocks on a white sandy bottom that she hit when she sank in about 12-13m. The bow and masts have been ripped away and the remainder lies upright although she now appears to be resting on top of here nets and winch gear which evidently fell to the seabed when the wreck slipped of the rocks… It is possible to access the wreck but it probably won’t be too long before the winter storms completely destroy it. Kelp is also encroaching on the site with the deck and some of the bits of wreckage further up the slope now hidden by the long leafy fronds. On arrival back at the cottages we were relieved to see that Maurice had made it safely back, complete with drysuit.

Sunday 25th May
Grays Rocks lie of the east side of Soyea Island at the mouth of Loch Inver. When the expedition leader first dived in this area he recalled great visibility, a fantastic near tunnel like gulley and scallops lying in white sandy gulleys as if on a supermarket shelf waiting for the shopper to select. Unfortunately he couldn’t remember the exact site and so we set off to try to find it. The boats moored above some gulleys and divers descended down the shotlines. The visibility was disappointing in the shallows due to what our resident marine biologist attributed to as the kelp spawning. White sandy gulleys appeared and the gulleys underneath the kelp canopy was full of life and colour. However, overall it was a disappointing dive although a collection of scallops for tea made it worthwhile for some.

The second dive of the day was to find the wreck of the MV Loch Erisort. According to Hydrographic Office records this sank on the 27th May 1981 off Kirkaig Point. Although two fishermen were rescued, another two were lost. The position we had placed her in a depth of 20m to the west of Kirkaig rock but the hydro graphic record divers locating her in only 9 metres of water. Having pieced together the evidence we had and consulting a local diver (member of an Ullapool club), we finally located wreckage in 9-12m in white sandy gulleys on the NE side of Kirkaig rock (position 58 08 346N, 005 17 818W). Not much remains other than a few wood planks, and some badly rusted machinery covered in her nets and ropes. The surrounding gulleys however are quite scenic.

The diving day finished at 4 pm giving plenty of time to fill cylinders for the next day and enjoy a beer in the brilliant sunshine. It almost meant that a number of the expedition team could go to church, give thanks for the good diving so far and pray for more!

Monday 26th May
We awoke to yet another gorgeous day of sunshine with a slight cooling breeze to keep the midges at bay. The first dive was the Margo, a modern fishing boat lost on the 12th November 2000, in location 58 08 688N 005 17 475W at the entrance to Loch Inver. It is only a small wreck of some 16m x 6.1m x 2m draught and so shotline deployment needs to be precise to avoid a dive of a more scenic nature on a muddy seabed!

The hydrographic records report it “sank after striking a submerged object” which at first suggests a random collision. Local reports confirm it was a submerged object but that the object was one of the rocks marked with not insignificant beacons.

The wreck lays listing on its port size by about 30 degrees with the foremast falling away over the port side. The bows are wide open confirming the nature of the sinking which according to the hydrographic records was “bows of the vessel burst open and water entered”. Other than that the vessel is pretty much intact with most windows, lights, and equipment in place although gradually being hidden by marine growth. Massive plumrose anemones adorn the masts, the rails and parts of the superstructure, making this wreck a potential rival to the more famous but equally scenic ‘Fairweather V’ which lies off Ullapool further south.

Netting and ropes are still in place upon the vessel and potentially could still snag the unwary diver (with some large ropes extending to within 6m of the surface) but as the wreck is small and the visibility generally good, this should not present too much of a hazard. Hatch ways are generally open although sediment is clearly beginning to build up inside the wreck. The maximum depth most divers experienced was about 33m to the seabed which placed this dive beyond the capabilities of some of our Sport Divers Trainees.

Once all divers were safely recovered we headed out to Ondine rocks which are located just outside the entrance of Loch Inver to the north. They rise from the seabed at 40m to within a few metres of the surface. Mooring the boats on the 10m plateau provided a gentle introduction to diving offshore pinnacles. We descended to the kelp at 10m and then over the edge onto stepped walls. The kelp line was clearly visible at 20m (below which there wasn’t any) with the best life was found on the seaward side where rock faces were festooned with jewel anemones.

The second dive of the day for all was a site off the island A’Chleit. On the chart the 20m and 10m contours become co-incident just south of some rocks on the east side of the island. This provided a similar dive to that off Soyea but with fewer scallops!

Tuesday 27th May
Today was the official half day. Buddy pairs were swopped around and the Margo and Ondine rocks were dived again. The weather forecast indicated deteriorating weather for Wednesday so we recovered the boats at the slipway in Lochinver (this is only a part time slipway, we recovered shortly after HW) ready to move to Kylescu the next day.

Wednesday 28th May
We arrived just after the tide had started to flood at Loch Cairnbawn and given it was neap tides there was still just sufficient water on the slipway to launch the boats (although not to recover them). A strengthening breeze was developing, funnelledby the valley in an easterly direction towards us. Having confirmed that the sight seeing ferry was not operating the first dive was from the shore off the end of the slipway. The plan was to descend down the slope investigating the various wrecks of cars before riding the current and the back eddy to arrive back where you started! Boat cover was on hand this time for those that didn’t make it!

This dive met with a mixed response, some enjoying it and others not. The exit was certainly made a bit more challenging by the growing chop braking over the lower part of the slipway.

The other dives were carried of in the narrows themselves and yielded a more superior dive. Rock faces are covers in dead mens fingers and in some places between with jewel anemones. The bottom at 30-35m in places is scoured clean to the bed rock or covered in gravel. In the shallows towards the slipway there are white sandy gulleys which yielded a scallop or two but given the small area and popularity of this site with local there weren’t many.

The water here on spring tides can be turbulent with up and down currents to keep the experienced diver on their toes. Some experienced divers have reported being pulled down to 60m when diving from inside the narrows to the outside. We were diving on neap tides where the drift was considerably more leisurely allowing you to time to see the life rather than see it race by in a blur! Also we were diving on the flood tide into the Loch where the depth is constrained to about 35-40m.

In the afternoon we headed up to Loch Glendu to see if we could find the wreck of the Crown on the side scan sonar. We returned having found nothing but having lost the VHF aerial whilst battling through rough water to get to the shelter of the search site.

Recovering the boats proved to be something of an adventure given the worsening weather.

The local Kylescu Hotel bar however provided the necessary space and liquid refreshment to recover from the days diving activities. The hotel also features an interesting display of photographs illustrating the activities of the x-craft submarines that were based in Loch Cairnbawn during the last war. Two of these vessels were lost during training exercises and still lie somewhere in the depths of the sea loch.

Thursday 29th May
With improving weather and the boats already on the trailers, today was the day we would explore the wreck of the Bermuda.

The launch site was a small, deteriorating slipway at Culkein Drumbeg only about 16miles from the accommodation away. Unfortunately this is down roads signposted as ‘Unsuitable for caravans’. Some 45minutes after departing and having stopped in many of the passing places along the road we arrived.

Having a 4×4 meant we could launch the boats loaded with kit across the slipway. The area is not blessed with good VHF radio coverage but mobile phone coverage here was excellent and so we passed out details to Stornoway coastguard by phone instead.

Culkien Drumbeg is an excellent natural harbour but has many apparent obvious routes out into the sea all too many of which turn out to ‘blocked’ by very shallow water and rocks at most states of the tide. However having found the correct channel we headed to the first site of the day at Meall Mor. One group dived of the northern tip (sheltering from the wind under the cliffs) and another group dived the channel.

For some the site offered some of the best scenic diving off the trip with many species of nudibranchs present. Walls in places were covered with jewel anemones although below 25m the rock was relatively bare.

Inside the channel a small cave was located just off the little rock at the end of a gulley. Although two small to squeeze into, torch beams reflected on thousands of small fish fry turning them into a shimmering glassy mass.

The Bermuda was the second dive and the highlight of the trip for some. Gordon Ridley’s sketch in his book Dive Northwest Scotland is quite accurate. Armed with this, the visible wreckage on the shore and the side scan sonar the largest section of the wreckage was soon found. Although most of the site is covered in kelp, underneath the stern is relatively free and makes for an impressive dive.

Time did not permit us to search for the possible wreckage of the puffer that is also reported in the area. However, just off the stern one of our group made a lucky find. Having swum off to investigate a square box like object he discovered a small but intact port hole! Maybe we will investigate this site more in the future.

Friday 30th May
The intention was to dive the Margo and the Scotia again but a lack of water at the slipway meant this was not going to happen. We decided to head to our next stop for the traditional end of expedition meal at the Dundonnel Hotel but get a dive in at Ullapool on route. However the bearings on one of the trailers collapsed at the side of Loch Assynt meaning we weren’t going anywhere fast. Not having any spare bearings and with the local garage not carrying a stock the club boat was loaded onto a recover truck and was taken all the way back home leaving us with coming up with Plan B.

For most of the party this meant chilling out at the Dundonnell Hotel whilst three hardy souls headed off for a shore dive off the headland between Mungasdale and Gruinard House. The dive is opposite Gruinard Island where anthrax experiments were conducted in the 1940’s. For many years after the war Gruinard remained out of bounds until the island was apparently successfully cleaned of anthrax spores in the 1980’s and declared safe for the public to visit again. Safe in this knowledge, Andy, Fiona and Richard Clambered across the rocks into 10m of water where we soon found a trawled seabed strewn with broken shells. The underwater ‘desert landscape’ was made just about bearable by the large numbers of very large nudibranchs present. We have never seen such large nudibranchs in the UK and joked that maybe the biological warfare experiments on the island in the 1940’s had also had an effect on the underwater wildlife!

After a last evening dinner followed by a social evening in the hotel bar we retired to bed to awake refreshed for the long journey home in the knowledge that we had participated in another successful expedition.

Expedition participants:
Andy & Fiona Hunt (expedition organisers)
Richard Booth
Dave Hyde
Dave Robson
Geoff Eggleston
Maurice and Collette Daley
John Stephenson
Gordon Lambert
Alan Young

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