The first thing that hits, is the spanking visibility that will greet you when you enter the water. Well, that and the slightly cooler water temperatures that us namby-pamby southerners are used to that may limit bottom time. Nonetheless, the diversity and abundance of marine life together with historical shipwrecks does escalate the Sound of Mull as one of the top UK scuba diving destinations. Interesting in that most of the wrecks here are sunk due to inclement and stormy weather. As one of our party commented:
Argyll Boat Charters
We dived for five days out of Lochaline with Argyll Boat Charters, aboard the twin diesel hard boat ‘Sound Diver’ and owner/skipper Lorne MacKechnie. A charming and knowledgeable chap who has been brought up and lived his life on and around the Sound.
When we boarded Sound Diver for the first time and with kit stored, first item on the agenda prior to the safety briefing was post dive drinks. And here’s a top tip for other skippers. Each mug was marked in permanent Sharpie marker pen with the divers’ chosen poison of tea, coffee or chocolate, with or without milk or sugar.
The vessel Sound Diver is a popular 12.5 metre Offshore 125 dive boat with twin 350 horsepower Caterpillar Diesel engines. Coded for 12 divers, there is more than ample room for all divers together with all kit. Hard boxes are welcome, which makes it easier for divers too, all kit remaining on board overnight.
Welcome news for the ladies is a sea toilet and for all, a hydraulic diver recovery lift on the stern. Unfortunately Nitrox is not available, but air fills and top ups are available via the onboard compressor between dives. With said on board refills, once your kit is loaded it can be left onboard in a secure harbour until final disembarkation.
Lochaline Dive Centre
Argyll Boat Charters works out of Oban, Tobermory or Lochaline. For this trip we stayed with Callum and Faith at the Lochaline Dive Centre and the associated Bunk House accommodation and O2 Cafe.
As aforementioned, Nitrox is not available aboard Sound Diver, so you will need to refill Nitrox cylinders with Callum at the end of each day. We found that a Nitrox fill with Callum each evening with an air top up with Loren worked well for single cylinder or twinset divers.
The Bunk House accommodation was basic but clean. Personally I have not stayed in a bunk house before and it reminded me of my youthful YHA days. Without wishing to be critical, there are no wardrobe or cupboard facilities which mandated living out of a bag and personal items strewn on my bunk, but easily liveable. There is an en suite wet room and toilet with each room. The cost per room was £60.00 a night with breakfast an added £6.50 as prepared by Faith each morning, a hearty ensemble of full English or Scottish with ample toast, tea and coffee.
Located on the Morvern Peninsula, the area is a quite remote part of the world, attracting loch, river and sea fishermen, wreck diving enthusiasts, wildlife photographers, ornithologists and walkers and cyclists. Lochaline is connected to the village of Fishnish on the Isle of Mull by ferry boat.
The village has a snack bar adjacent to the ferry slipway, a small grocery shop, post office, restaurant, hotel, social club and marina.
Grub. The Crux Of The Matter
The organiser of the trip unfortunately was unable to make the week away and inadvertently did not research facilities for evening meals. When we arrived at 6.00pm on the Sunday, the only venue serving food was the Lochaline Hotel which was known to stop serving at 7.00pm. Faith was happy to telephone Charlie and Sally to have a table reserved for us. The rest of the party were still to arrive, some hour or two behind us and so a quick telephone call was in order to allow them to eat on the way.
It became apparent at dinner that the hotel only opened their kitchen on Monday and Tuesdays to residents only. The Whitehouse Restaurant was closed Sunday and Monday, with the O2 Cafe not opening in the evenings and we had no provisions. That said, dinner for a ten was booked for Wednesday evening at the hotel.
So a wisely word of caution to visitors to the area. There are no fast food outlets or deliveries with only two eateries, one closed Sunday, both Monday and the other Tuesday, with the The Whitehouse Restaurant more tuned to fine dining with reservations required. Therefore bring your own provisions for self catering at the Bunkhouse kitchen, especially the first couple of days, replenishing supplies from the village store.
That said, Faith at the O2 Cafe made a voluptuousness lasagne on the Thursday and thanks to our Polish brethren Robert and Rychu, lashings of Polish sausage was served Monday evening together with Baptism of Żubrówka ‘Bull Piss’ vodka!
On To The Diving
As aforementioned and that’s why we went, scuba diving the Sound of Mull. Our first dive was a wall dive just off Tobermory. I think it was the east side wall of Calve Island? Not my kind of thing and although there was supposedly no tide or current, there was a certain swell against the wall which tainted buoyancy at times. Of all, perhaps the worst visibility too of the trip at some 3 to 4 metres with an abundance of Moon Jellyfish.
SS Hispania [+1954]
This popular wreck is found between the shore and the red channel marker which bears her name. Skipper Loren advised that the SS Hispania should be preferably dived on a Spring high or low water slack and this afternoon was a target Spring low water slack. Wind chill and drizzle had dropped the air temperature a little as we saw the Lochaline Boat Charters guys approaching. Although there was no current on the shot buoy, there was a good ‘medium’ current on the wreck itself. Littered and covered with thick and colourful sponges, plumose anemones and dead men’s fingers, it was difficult to steady oneself for a camera shot, though the vivid colours will remain.
As we ended the dive to ascend the shot, there were divers above and below, negatively buoyant, giving a ‘Z’ shape to the shot. As the divers below grabbed the line, we plummeted from 6 metres to 10 metres and when those above left their safety stop, we rocketed from 6 metres to 3 metres. Not the best dive, especially as I was stung across the cheeks and lips by a rogue Lion’s Mane jellyfish.
SS Rondo [+1935]
However, two fantastic and relaxing dives here. The first a stonking 10 to 15 metres visibility in gin clear waters. Let me say that again, a stonking 10 to 15 metres visibility in gin clear water. Not as abundant as the Hispania, but colourful sponges, plumose anemones and dead men’s fingers everywhere. First decent was to 30 metres and the second to 40 metres while watching NDL minutes, ascending slowly in a zigzag motion peering into every nook and cranny. Two absolutely cracking dives here were you can pick your depth and off gas as you ascend slowly. There are plenty of photo opportunities with loads of nooks and crannies.
SS Thesis [+1889]
The wreck of the small, delicate 19th century iron steamship allows a glimpse back in time to an earlier generation of steamships. She rests upright on her keel on a sloping shingle seabed, with her bows at 20 metres and her stern at about 32 metres.
One dive here on the Thesis but not my favourite. This is quite a flattened wreck but still recognisable as a ship. We were advised that ascent via DSMB may draw you into the channel and spit you out into the bay the other side of the island and point.
SS Shuna [+1913]
The Shuna can be dived at anytime and makes an excellent dive site at any tide or time of day. In a sheltered bay, she laid undisturbed until discovery by a local scallop diver in the early 1990’s. After her long years of loneliness, she quickly became one of the most popular dives in Scotland. She sits close to a fish farm, so do not be off put by the continual clicking noise as the farm scares off the seals. The wreck s quite intact for its age with the wooden decking is visible in places and plenty of sea life, including scallops. The spare propeller sits on top of the stern deck. Again a quite silty dive as she is sheltered from the currents and the holds still have an abundance of coal. You can get carried away with your exploration, so watch your NDL times.
SS Breda [+1940]
I can draw parallel in that the SS Breda is the Scottish answer to the SS Thistlegorm in Egypt. Both well within recreational dive limits, both sunk by German Heinkel bombers, both cargo transporters, both carried aircraft parts and both have magnificent swim throughs. The SS Breda is unrefutedly the most dived shipwreck in Scottish waters and ditto, the SS Thistlegorm is the reputed as the second greatest Egyptian tourist revenue generation attraction behind the Pyramids of Giza.
We made two dives on the Breda. Like the Shuna and Pelican, this sheltered wreck can be dived at any tide and with such benefit comes the disadvantage of silt. Skipper Lorne also advised that there is a fresh water Halocline down to 5 metres with water run off from the land. Not a problem in itself, but it could be disorientating on descent and ascent with a slight blurred vision to the mask. On our first dive, I also noted quite a lot of angling gear snagged to the deck area and subsequently read that this is a popular site for wreck fishing. Indeed, one of our party did get his DSMB tangled in fishing line. Although he was able to cut free, the fishing line was woven into the DSMB line which led to failure in DSMB deployment on his next dive.
With the first dive being a more of a recce, our second dive brought out the cameras and an outline plan to visit the stern, then traverse the holds to the bow. I wanted to get a photo of the cement bags and we were told a rummage of the cargo holds may result in treasure. Run time on this second dive was 62 minutes with a cheeky 32% Nitrox mix from Lochaline Dive Centre, a maximum depth of 26.70 metres at the stern and average 15.37 metres. A rather sedentary SAC rate of 15.40 LPM was the order of the day.
As first divers in the water, it was down the shot, along the decking and descend to the stern. Loads of critters in the silt here, especially the Norway lobster. The light had faded here but the visibility was excellent. Well, until Diver Tim kicked the crud with his fin. Up the hull and along the decking, traversing the cargo holds as we went. Visibility in places, zero. The inbound divers in our party were heading to the stern and we were left with the crud and silt in their wake. We shall point no fingers but we know your names. Diver Tim found what looked like a bottle of wine and posed for the camera together with his Kate Winslet look-a-like impression on the pointy bit at the front.
SS Pelican [+1895]
Located near Tobermory Bay on the west wall of Calve Island, the SS Pelican can be dived at any state of the tide. She sits upright on a mud and silt seabed in about 20 metres. We dived this site after our second visit to the Shuna as this is another fantastic dive. With a very silty seabed, divers are warned to be aware of their fin kicks and to this end, we were divided into two groups of five and four, the second group diving after the first has ascended.
Although one can argue a simple and non challenging wreck site, look close though the camera lens and there’s a lot of critters and colours. Not muck diving per se, but the limited visibility at times does focus your eye in a granular way.