Want to escape from the cares of the world and be at one with colourful marine life? Jim Greenfield recommends sneaking off to Scotland's Knoydart peninsula - it's not that far, though it's not easy to reach either
LOW CLOUD AND RAIN SHROUDING THE KNOYDART PENINSULA on our arrival at Doune was not an auspicious start but, miraculously, our first diving day dawned fine and sunny. An early breakfast and by 9 am we were on our way on a glass-calm sea to the Small Isles, more often known by their individual names of Canna, Sanday, Eigg, Muck and Rum. ???? Porpoises and seals were spotted every 10 minutes or so. They were good omens, for the weather would stay fine and calm all week, allowing us to dive some renowned sites. ???? Take your pick from wild drifts to dramatic underwater cliffs such as Dun Mor off Sanday, where the walls plunge vertically to 50m. At Dun Mor, there is something for all, whether you like plunging down a stunning drop-off or prefer not to go so deep and take in the vast range of marine life. ???? This was an impressive scenic dive, with huge yellow clumps of sponge, masses of cup corals with their almost fluorescent colours and featherstars everywhere. It was also good to find the unusual white horny coral the northern seafan, a speciality of the area. The excited chatter back on deck and all the 'did you sees?' left no doubt that this was a superb spot. ???? A few miles further out to sea is a cluster of rocks, Oigh-Sgeir, which just break the surface. This made an excellent second dive but it is a place very exposed both to tide and weather, so it was good to have a skipper who knew the area well. ???? On the eastern side particularly, beautiful steep walls drop quickly to 30m, covered in a profusion of marine life. For those who prefer shallower, longer dives, the west side slopes more gently. We found numerous, writhing clusters of up to 20 sea-spiders on the kelp fronds and lots of elaborately camouflaged spider-crabs. There was a good variety of fish, from tiny gobies scooting about the sand patches to large cruising pollack. ???? Being a mixed-ability group, we chose not to do the frantic drift dives on offer and, as a change from walls, pinnacles and the open sea, headed one day up Loch Hourn, a fjord-like inlet where we dived effectively about nine miles inland. ???? The bottom was very silty, yet visibility was a startling 25m! The sides of the loch drop away sharply in a series of broad steps, so it is easy to pick your depth. However, I found no need to go deeper than 20m, as the life here was unlike that of the open sea, with many other types of sponge, rock faces covered in countless thousands of large sea-squirts, sea-pens and the rare and beautiful protanthia anemone. ???? There were also the inevitable tame and curious cuckoo wrasse, constantly buzzing around for handouts. One gaudy male must have been particularly peckish because he soon gave up waiting and resorted to chomping on my buddy's bubbles! ???? In Doune, a break from diving doesn't mean putting the enjoyment factor on hold. Depending on weather, the surface interval and lunch is usually taken ashore and the skipper tries to put you in pleasant spots where you can stroll on a remote beach, lie in the sun around a tiny, hardly used harbour or just check out all the seals hauled out on the rocks. ???? This is not a place for wreck fanatics. The only significant wreck is the Port Napier, which sits upright off Skye in the shallows of Loch Alsh, with sections projecting above the surface. It is a very simple but rewarding dive, as large sections of the hull are still standing. Much of it is encrusted in marine life and there is a good population of fish (despite the presence of a guy who turned up in a small boat to undertake the archaic pastime of spearfishing!). The muddy terrain seaward of the wreck is fertile ground for scallops, dragonets and some of the biggest long-clawed squat lobsters I have seen. ???? Some of the large shaded portions on the shore side of the hull are covered in what appears to be a cocoon of white fur. I couldn't make out what it was at first, so I took a few shots. ???? Only when I got my slides back did I realise that these were the tiny anemone-like polyps of the common jellyfish - thousands on thousands of them. Given that each polyp produces a great number of jellyfish, it's not surprising that at some times of the year the sea is thick with them. ???? Diving takes place from the 39ft Mary Doune, purpose-built to get to wild and otherwise inaccessible places. It takes little more than an hour to reach sites in southern Skye or the Small Isles. ???? You can be in the water by 10.30, with ample time for a decent surface interval before the second dive. The sea lochs of Nevis and Hourn are much nearer, so a later start is possible. ???? Doune lies in one of the most remote, undeveloped and inaccessible parts of Scotland. A purpose-built operation in a west-facing setting, it was hacked out of virgin territory just a few years ago. There is no road in. With mountains behind and the Cuillins on Skye across the Sound of Sleat, the views and sunsets are among the most dramatic you will see in Britain. ???? A holiday at Doune means leaving your car at the small fishing port of Mallaig and being picked up by one of the boats operated by the owners for the five mile trip up the sound. ???? Accommodation is for 12 in a timber lodge with spacious sitting room, showers and kitchen with dining facilities for self-caterers. However, the restaurant on site attracts many passing yachties and I highly recommend the fully catered option. ???? The food is superb - homemade bread each day and, for main courses, everything from venison to heaps of freshly caught langoustines. The 'all you can eat' breakfasts are a challenge, too - this is a gastronomic as well as a diving experience! ???? The coastline of the Knoydart area is extremely rugged and the sea lochs thrust 12-15 miles inland. And with islands all around, there is always shelter somewhere, so the chances of losing even a day's diving through bad weather are almost zero. ???? Doune is a highly recommended escapist experience. We were privileged to see minke whales, dolphins, otters and golden eagles, and I will never forget lying in the sun on Canna after lunch, watching three peregrines engaged in mock combat above while reliving my dive of that morning.
A female cuckoo wrasse
A sea-spider dislodged from its kelp habitat
Northern sea fan
Polyps of the common jellyfish
A decorator crab with attached camouflage
GETTING THERE: By road or rail to Mallaig via Fort William. You will be collected by boat at Mallaig Harbour. There is ample free parking at Mallaig to leave your car for a week. DIVING & AIR: Two dives daily from the Mary Doune, minimum eight people, maximum 12. Shore-diving available off the beach at Doune. A liveaboard option is available for a maximum of six people. Bring your own weights and cylinder. Suitable for all levels of experience.Two compressors, including one on board Mary Doune, pumping to 230 bar. No nitrox. ACCOMMODATION: Fully catered (with packed lunch) or self-catering. A timber-built lodge can take up to 14 people. WHEN TO GO: Any time from April to October. WATER TEMPERATURE: From 12?C in shallows to 7? at intermediate depth and 4? in deeper water. FOR NON-DIVERS: Hill-walking, snorkelling off the beach. Non-diving day trips (subject to numbers) on another boat plus daily trips to haul crab pots. COST: For groups of 8-12, one week self-catering including diving costs from£251 per head, one week fully catered£436. FURTHER INFORMATION: Doune Marine 01687 462656, www. doune-marine.co.uk