Out beyond Mull are the islands of Coll and Tiree, which can be reached by a ferry that sails out of Oban.
Tiree the base for this expedition, is more popular with wind and kite surfers than divers. As a result there is a very limited dive infrastructure and currently no dive centres. The only way to really dive Tiree is either by liveaboard or to look to mount a full-blown dive expedition. We chose the expedition option.
The islands location along one of the main shipping routes up the west coast of Scotland has inevitably resulted in a number of vessels coming to grief in the surrounding waters. Tiree also offers the closest potential jumping off point to attempt to reach the Skerryvore lighthouse and Mckenzie Rock, remote and exposed ‘target’ dive sites for the expedition.
The actual base for this expedition was a holiday ‘home’ called Ceabhar near Sandaig on the West side of Tiree, situated just up from the beach overlooking the Atlantic.
Owned by BSAC trained divers, Duncan and Polly, the facilities could not have been better suited for a group of adventurous divers. The shed at the back of the house even has a decent sized compressor for replenishing air fills!
Prior to the expedition we successfully applied for a BSAC BEGs, grant to help subsidize some of the costs of the expedition.
So how did we get on?
Saturday 18th May- the advance party travel via the early morning ferry from Oban to Tiree and establish the expedition base at the Ceabhar cottage.
Sunday 19th May – Diving the wreck of the SS Labrador
The first day of the expedition presented a few logistical challenges: with Hubert’s car wheel bushes giving up the ghost requiring a major garage repair and also discovering the promised launch and recovery tractor was “out of action” and that the main compressor at our accommodation was also requiring urgent attention and repair. Fortunately we had brought one of the club compressors, so were able to continue filling cylinders and diving until the accommodation compressor was successfully repaired.
However, the settled weather and relatively calm sea provided the best opportunity to venture out to the Skerryvore lighthouse and beyond. Flat calm conditions are required for this particular site and the conditions and forecast were perfect for such an adventurous trip.
We headed to the Skerryvore lighthouse before travelling on to the remote Mackenzie Rock reef to dive the wreck of the SS Labrador. Here after successfully locating the main area of wreckage, a rough plan of the site was drawn up and photographs taken with the aim of producing a ‘wrecked’ article for SCUBA magazine. The SS Labrador was built by Harland and Wolf yard and launched at Belfast in 1891. She was wrecked on McKenzie rock on the 1st March 1899 whilst on passage from St John’s New Brunswick to Liverpool fortunately without any loss of her crew or passengers. Her very remote and exposed location makes her a wreck site that is rarely dived.
The effort on this occasion proved very worthwhile and all enjoyed their dives on this iconic and historic site.
The long boat voyage back to Tiree and the swelly conditions around the Skerryvore provided Kevin with lots of useful boat handling experience.
We also encountered a basking shark on the way back, one of the first sighting of this species that year. Our report on Basking Shark Scotland website apparently generated a lot of interest on social network sites.
Monday 20th May – Tapti
The second half of the team arrived today but as the weather had changed and the Labrador would not be possible we headed to dive the SS Tapti as a consolation prize. Wave 1 launched from Scarinish, located and dived the wreck. Wave two arrived and we had a rendezvous at Milton Harbour
The Tapti however is still a fantastic wreck dive. Built by C Connel & Co of Glasgow, this steel motor vessel was launched in October 1945. She was quite a large ship with a length of over 415’. She was wrecked after running into the reef off Coll on the 17th January 1951 during bad weather, fortunately without loss of loss due to the heroic efforts of the Mallaig lifeboat. Today the wreck has been largely flattened but still has many recognisable features. It is covered with marine life and proved a popular dive site with expedition participants.
Weather worsened in the afternoon with an increase in wind speed to Force 5-6 for second wave but the Coll coastline shielded us from the worst effects of the weather. Plankton in first 6m but otherwise great visibility below. Will the plankton bring the basking sharks closer to Tiree?
Tuesday 21st May– SS Hurlford and search for the SS Bickley.
We set out to find the wreck of the SS Hurlford (possibly also the St Clair). The numbers in Moir and Crawfords Guidebook for the area proved to be excellent.
We soon discovered a large steam boiler heavily corroded with a swim through in the middle. The parts of a classic tramp steamship gradually revealed themselves as the team gently finned across the site in the slight current. We also came across the iron prop with only a single blade remaining, the remains of the steam engine and several winches.
The SS Hurlford was a small steamship of built by Murdoch & Murray, Port Glasgow, launched in August 1905. Not much is known about the exact circumstances surrounding the loss of the Hurlford due to wartime censorship restrictions. The vessel was apparently wrecked on 29th April 1917 whilst under Admiralty orders,
Dive 2 consisted of diving some numbers we had been given by a local dive charter boat skipper. These numbers turned out to be the position of reef and when cross referenced with other research yielded a potential wreck name, the SS Bickley.
Despite an extensive underwater search however we didn’t find any wreckage although the reef covers quite a large area and is densely covered by an impressive forest of kelp.
Wednesday 22nd May: Bogha Rock off Milton.
Our small 4 metre Sea Flea experienced the roughest waters yet, Force 6 – and even through the selected dive site is not too far offshore, the waves and spray provided a challenge for the Sea Flea crew. Hiding behind the breaking Bogha Rock we secured the boats in some relatively flat water and then dived to discover a nice wall and sandy bottom with a few scallops.
On return to base we discovered that the main compressor was now repaired and we gratefully shared our scallop ‘catch’ with the man who repaired it.
Dive 2 proved a little less impressive. We had a failed attempt to find wreckage of a small puffer wreck amongst kelp outside Scarinish Harbour. Extremely dense kelp made it extremely challenging to locate any wreckage.
Thursday 23rd May – a day of rest
High winds prevent diving. We take the opportunity instead to visit the Hynish Centre, the original logistic base for the construction of the Skerryvore Lighthouse. The centre has an excellent exhibition about the construction challenges of building the Skerryvore lighthouse.
We also visited the nearby signal tower, originally used to communicate with the distant lighthouse, saw the Treshnish Isle exhibitions and enjoyed dinner at a local restaurant. Hopefully tomorrow conditions will improve!
Friday 24th May – The SS Arnold (and a sneaky visit to the SS Tapti)
Kevin had the opportunity to gain yet more boat handling experience – slow manoeuvres and solo mooring. Another superb dive on the Tapti and then a successful search and dive on the SS Arnold, a wreck within spitting distance of the SS Tapti.
The steering quadrant was located on the slopes of the reef with the boilers, crankshaft, winches, hold opening located nearby. The SS Arnold was a small steamship built at the J Blumer & Co yard in Sunderland and launched in 1881. She was lost on the 17th January 1925. The wreck we located appeared to have the right proportions to be the wreck of the Arnold.
Whilst very broken up, there are still many features of the vessel that are still very recognisable including the boilers, and the steering quadrant at the stern.
After a good days diving Hubert managed to melt his under suit whilst on kitchen duty! Chef and kitchen unharmed; under suit gains a battle scar.
Saturday 25th May – Gott Bay
A very fresh southerly breeze had developed and so we resorted to Plan B and went in search of a dumping ground of wartime waste and caves off Gott Bay, but instead find a few kelp covered rocks surrounded by a sandy seabed. With weather conditions deteriorating we were forced to retreat back to Scarinish through the building seas. We arrived back at the harbour to find it empty of water and filled with soft sand.
Now was the time we could have done with the working tractor! Fortunately as we struggled to recover the ribs, a local fisherman took pity on us as we struggled unsuccessfully to manhandle Seawitch out of the soft harbour bottom sand, and kindly assisted us with his 4×4 pickup truck to recover the rib back up the beach.
We did later investigate the possibility of shore diving the site of HMS Sturdy and with Duncan as our guide, located the shore entry point, plus items of related wreckage, which can still be found amongst the rocky shoreline. However, conditions with the swell were marginal to say the least, so we opted instead for the opportunity to further explore the land sites of the island. Andy and Fiona however went surfing instead so good were the surf conditions!
Sunday 26th May: Second attempt at MacKenzie Rock and birth of the dive ninja legend.
The final day of diving and the last opportunity to attempt to head out to the Skerryvore and Mackenzie Rock, We had a brief 6 hour window of opportunity with the weather. Andy endured something of a sleepless night and after numerous repeated checks of the forecast, the decision was made to attempt the journey out to these remote and exposed sites. We arose extremely early and went for it. The conditions weren’t as calm as earlier in the week, but were good enough.
After an hour’s serious RIB coxing we arrived at the Skerryvore Lighthouse, and wary of changing conditions, dived a reef here before hastily returning to Tiree pursued by a freshening following wind and sea.
We took shelter at Hynish and again took the opportunity to revisit the Skerryvore lighthouse museum, but this time dressed in our drysuits!
Once recovered and with our energy levels restored we dived a couple of backup sites off Hynish. These included an offshore reef with depths from 20m to 40m and also investigated a possible scallop dive on the way back to Scarinish harbour. Wind and sea conditions however by now had deteriorated considerably, making for a wet and wild journey back to Scarininsh. Jubilant at our success, we celebrated the end of the expedition in true dive ninja style.
Deteriorating conditions and rebreather kit malfunctions played a significant part in delays to the day and we were glad to retire later that evening to the Ceabhar restaurant to celebrate the successful end of the Tiree Expedition.
It had been a hard but exciting day, with the ribs covering a distance of nearly 38 miles across open and challenging waters. The day took clearly took its toll on some of the expedition members who later struggled to make it through the evening’s expedition restaurant meal (pic of Richard falling asleep & Kev with bottle of whiskey)
Notes on Boat launch Sites
Tiree is not an island blessed with many concrete slipways; indeed it has no concrete slipways! We instead had to resort to launch our boats across sandy beaches all the time, mainly by hand but sometimes with assistance from a passing 4 x 4 or by the use of a rope attached to the tow bar of the car.
The main launch site we used was Scarinish Harbour; a very picturesque and sheltered bay that is often features on the tourist information’s publicity photographs of the island with a wooden wreck protruding from the sands.
The sand at the top of the beach was generally firm enough for cars to drive onto without getting bogged down. The 4×4 and trailer really struggled in the softer conditions at low water.
The other site was Milton Harbour nearer the North of the island and therefore very conveniently placed for the Gunna Sound sites. This is a very tidal harbour and hosts an active fishing fleet. The beach is coarse sand, gravel and rocks but reasonably firm down to the old ship’s boiler that can be clearly seen at all states of the tide. On springs the tide goes out past the boiler where the seabed is soft mud so this launch site is definitely one to get right as far as tides were concerned.
We only just managed a hand launch at low water that was very reminiscent of the opening scene in the film Les Miserables of convicts dragging the ship to launch it. Fortunately the recovery at high water was more straightforward.
In summary the primary aims of this expedition were:
1) To conduct an expedition to dive old and new sites around the Isle of Tiree, Scotland.
2) To coach and mentor up and coming Dive Leader and Advanced Diver Trainees within the branch on expedition diving.
3) Produce a magazine article for SCUBA magazine on diving Tiree.
In relation to the above all the stated objectives were successfully achieved. The expedition had dived a range of familiar sites, as well as explored new ones. Inevitably some of these ‘new’ sites had proved to be quite exciting sites, others a little disappointing, but that’s all part of the excitement of expedition diving. Some of the participants subsequently successfully completed assessments for first class diver and diver coxswainn qualifications, no doubt having gained valuable experience from their participation in this expedition.
An article on the SS Labrador was subsequently published in SCUBA magazine. The expedition was partly funded by a BEGS BSAC grant and was subsequently recognized by ‘winning’ the BSAC Expedition award for 2013.
The Expedition Team
- David Mitchell – FCD/NI – Tyneside 114 Branch Chairman
- Andrew Hunt – FCD/NI – Expedition Leader
- Fiona Hunt – DL/OWI – Advanced Diver Trainee – Membership Secretary – Head Chef
- Richard Booth – DL/Advanced Diver Trainee – Expedition Photographer
- Kevin Thompson – Dive Leader Trainee, New Member – Communication Officer
- Alex Joyce – Hazelgrove BSAC – Advanced Diver – Logistics and Central Heating Control
- Hubert Desgranges – AD/OWI – FCD trainee and Advanced Instructor Trainee – Sous Chef
- Gary Moir – Marine Tech Branch – Very Experienced Sport Diver (Part time team member)
Contact details for Polly and Duncan regarding accommodation used in this expedition:
Ceabhar Guest House
Isle of Tiree
Tel 01879 220684