Friday 8th July 2011
Months of planning for our expedition to the remote Summer Isles culminated in hiring a compressor, 7.5 ton truck for all our kit and a minibus to tow one of two club RHIBs and carry our passengers, ready for departure on the Friday evening. Despite our extensive planning we were presented by a number of challenges which threatened to derail our expedition from the outset. The courtesy call to double check our booking for the mini bus with tow bar proved worthwhile as a change in staff at the company meant our booking was no longer honoured and we had to make hasty alternative arrangements. The actual day of departure presented a number of other problems, and on testing the compressor a fault was discovered with the fuel system. The hire company did react promptly, dispatching a smaller backup replacement the same day, but it was the efforts of our two mechanics Alf and Tommy that restored the unit to working order after cleaning rust from the fuel lines and tank. This set our departure back and during the protracted loading of our truck a light was accidentally left on, draining the 24v battery which we were only able to so easily restart because of the well stocked garage our RIBS were being stored in. It was therefore late in the night before we were finally under way on our long 340 mile journey to the North West Scottish coast in pouring rain, more than a little concerned that if we faced similar problems during our actual expedition we would be less well equipped to resolve them. We passed through flooding at Inverness on our arduous journey and only arrived after mid-day on Saturday.
Saturday 9th July 2011
Collecting some of our final supplies from a local supermarket en route, disaster was only narrowly averted with a later second stop when we learnt booze could not be bought in Scotland until after 10am! Final arrival at Dorney Harbour led to the most challenging phase of our journey as along with all our supplies the compressor needed loading on to one of our RIBs. Although dry practise with a dummy weight had been undertaken with this exercise, with enhanced carrying handles rigged up from scaffolding poles and one side of our RIB intentionally deflated to make it easier to load, when we undertook the exercise in anger at the waterside it took considerable effort to ensure this equipment was successfully loaded safely. Achieved by a team already tired from our long journey there were moments of doubting from some members before we were finally done.
We were favoured by a break in the rain for the main part of our loading, and from the pier at Badentarbat we could see into the clear waters below, giving us the first anticipation of the excellent visibility which can be experienced in this region.
Sunday 10th July
The endurance of our long journey left most feeling weary, meaning a later start to our first days’ diving activities as we undertook our shake-down dives and got to grips with the practical arrangements on the Island of Tanera Mor. Both RIBs were moored a short way off shore each evening and accessed by the Islands tender, the compressor and dive gear were set up at the end of a fairly rugged shore, each adding to the daily work load and eating into our time schedule to a surprising extent. Tommy gave his compressor operating induction and we were pleased to find it working properly and that the higher capacity model we had originally hired was able to fill four cylinders within 20 minutes.
Unfortunately, during the shake down dive Bob Charles our Dive Planning Manager aggravated an existing knee injury which put paid to his diving for the remainder of the week and the expedition’s wreck survey he was planning. However, he did manage to complete his other scheduled duties as dive manager, cox’n and shore cover. It was also at this time that Heather’s neck seal chose to tear.
We did not hit the smoothest rhythm for getting all divers through the scheduled diving, with some waiting added to ensure that the appointed Cox ‘n and deputy and Dive Marshall and deputy were not in the water at the same time. All these delays had a knock on effect and after eating late, Dive Marshall planning for the next days’ activities was forced late into the night.
Our first dive of the day was the wreck of the Boston Stirling, the co-ordinates we had researched proved accurate but tides have taken their toll and even though dived only 1 hour after low water there are no longer any features of the vessel protruding from the water as much of the dive literature had indicated. Some good work on the echo sounder from Alan Brown saw the wreck located and shotted, and although the wreck is relatively shallow at 14m maximum it has an impressive abundance of life which put smiles on the faces of our divers.The weather was notably smooth, and a spell of fine sunny weather was beginning which was beyond our highest expectations, but one of our RIBs was evidently labouring when under a full load of 6 divers plus Cox ‘n.
The second dive was Conservation (or Cathedral) Cave, a scenic dive with excellent reputation. The surrounding coast line with many gullies appeared to offer a wealth of diving opportunities but unfortunately diving to either side of the cave was completely dominated by thick kelp forests. It was the cave itself here which was the true attraction and it has dramatic appeal even from above the surface, with large arched roof extending out of the water with added atmospheric lighting provided by a hole in the rear of the cave’s roof. Our dive flags were prudently employed here as whilst we had divers down a local tourist charter pulled close to the entry to the cave to enjoy the view.
Beneath the waves the cave had varied and interesting life, but the features were not as obvious as the plentiful carpets of plumose anemones and deadmans fingers seen on the Boston Stirling, and our accompanying expedition mentor, Jim Donbavand drew our attention to more diminutive but beautiful attractions such as jewel anemones and nudibranch. We had concluded our diving slightly ahead of schedule and were feeling pleased when we set off back to base… until we were cut short by Sub C 1 running out of fuel ! So with a combination of our back up Donkey engine and a tow from Orange Peel (which though fuelled at the same time still had half a tank of fuel) we still made it back by 17:30hrs
Tuesday 12th July
In order to reduce the work load on our RHIBs the next day we held a split schedule of Dive Leader training and two waves out to the wreck of the Jambo, and we found multiple but compact groups of divers to be a more efficient way to structure our diving. As an inverted wreck the Jambo was not an easy wreck to detect but again our co-ordinates proved sound and after a couple of passes it was accurately shotted. Our first dive pair went down and confirmed the location by deploying a fixed DSMB. The Jambo is an interesting wreck, still relatively young having only sunk in 2003. The sides of the wreck are far less colonised by life than other wrecks in the area allowing the original features of the vessel to be observed, but with the stern more exposed to the current there was a very aesthetic contrast between the exposed sides of the hull and the near total encrustation of anemone and soft corals on the propeller.
All divers completed the days’ diving in good time for the weeks’ hospitality night hosted by the Islands’ landlords. The food provided was good, in keeping with the excellent standard set by our own expedition catering manager Hilary Boliss, but where the evening really excelled and surprised was with the beautiful acapella after-dinner singing provided by a young local girl.
Wednesday 13th July
An early start gave us plenty of time to locate the Fairweather V, a wreck already shotted with two makeshift buoys in the universal style of local divers, and we again dived the wreck in two waves. The Fairweather is a spectacular wreck which has become totally dominated by continuous outcrops of large plumose anemones and deadmans fingers. Descending onto the wreck with near 15m vis. it was a special sight to behold, and it was remarked by one of our most experienced divers that this wreck would not have looked out of place in the Red Sea. The wreck has some accessible entry points, notably a wheel house with slender doorway and clear window allowing a relatively tight entrance. Some of our less charitable members took merriment from the fact our accompanying rebreather diver could not fit through.
We were favoured with exceptional summer weather and sunbathed between diving and there was the added treat of spotting a whale breaking the surface on our route out to the wreck, it was believed to have been a Minky Whale but with opinion divided amongst our group. Back at Tanera Mor, Dive Leader rescue management scenarios were being run, with various practical insights available to all divers such as a demonstration of lifting an unresponsive diver on board our RIB using empty weight belts to improvise a lifting harness. Toward the end of the day there was the opportunity to enjoy some local scenic diving with some divers collected tasty scallops within sustainable guidelines,
Thursday 14th July
A brief chat was grabbed with a “local” fish-farm worker (who it turned out originated from the Bury area where one of our clubs is based) and he confirmed that the wreck of the Innisjura which we were interested in was only 100m from the Fairweather V, but being slightly deeper was reported to have markedly less life on it. The days’ diving was directed on a scenic wall dive at Sgeir Neo-Ghluasadach. The weather turned overcast and a modest wind created the first chop we had seen on the sea in the past couple of days. Divers had mixed results in locating the wall which was a little less prominent than expected, bottoming at about 12m. Some successful Sea Search dives were completed on a wall section with extended fissure in it which provided ideal shelter for a variety of creatures such as Velvet crabs, Squat lobster and numerous fish, where the current hit the wall, there was an interesting variety of filter feeders such as sea squirts and anemone. On the journey back we passed a basking colony of seals which had become a common sighting throughout the expedition, though the seals were seldom seen under water being less familiar with divers than in other areas of the UK.
Having started to hit a more efficient diving routine we were back to base in good time to allow an extended program of rescue scenario training and those who had missed the original dive on the Boston Stirling were given the chance to visit it for a quick 30 min. dive. This again proved a very enjoyable dive with a lot of prevalent life considering its relatively shallow depth.
Friday 14th July
After Alan Brown’s hat-trick of successfully shotting our targeted wrecks we were not able to confidently locate the Innisjura which was not currently shotted as stated in some guide books. Given the proximity of this site to the Fairweather V rather than risk disappointment we fell back on diving her again as she was an excellent wreck enjoyed by all. Having developed some familiarity with the Fairweather V, some took the opportunity to explore some of the intrusion features the wreck presents, with our most adventurous divers reporting that the TV set in the crews’ quarters is set to BBC1. The upper level of the wheel house provided a more basic but interesting entry point complete with operating consoles and revolving crew chairs. Whilst the lower level housed the other crew areas and has an accessible swim through to the main hold area with winch mechanism and alternative exit through hatch ways leading to the upper deck. After revisiting this fantastic dive site we were able to finish our diving in good time to make a start on the considerable task of disembarking our gear, and we were able to successfully transport the compressor back to the mainland before returning for a farewell barbeque evening, which was mainly forced in doors because of a return to more usual
Saturday 16th July
That morning we finished reloading our gear and departed the picturesque and serene island which had been our home for the past week. Some of our party took the opportunity to visit the imposing tall ships harboured at Ullapool on the route back, whilst others headed straight for our first scheduled stop at Inverness, citing that ships only become truly interesting if they have been scuttled to the bottom of the sea, although the other appeal on offer was the chance to order chips from a local café for the first time in over a week. Having regrouped we commenced the main part of our mammoth return journey, during which we at least had the opportunity to reflect on an extremely successful expedition. The journey home always seems the longest and we finally arrived back at base in Leigh around 2am on the Sunday. Sorting out and unloading all the gear took another hour or so and after a few hugs and handshakes.
That’s all. Nick.