Steve Prewer is not the type to be put off by the onset of winter, even when there's snow on the hills around Loch Duich. Under water it's business as usual.
If you imagine that Scottish divers are now in hibernation until the arrival of spring, you're wrong! For those of us fortunate enough to live in Scotland, mother nature has provided some protected dive sites which, although not offering the best diving in Scotland, are easily accessible and diveable, no matter what the conditions. One such is Loch Duich, on the Scottish West Coast, which leads into the Kyle of Loch Alsh before reaching the open sea. At its mouth lies Eilean Dornie Castle, which has featured on countless tins of shortbread biscuits. But, move further up its shores and, whatever the time of year, Loch Duich's deep and peaceful waters beg to be explored. Sometimes, greeted at the loch side by horizontal sheets of rain, you wonder what you are doing there. But when the trees and the loch's north and south shore roads are blanketed by recently fallen snow, the sun has just come out and the mountains are reflected in the perfectly still waters, you have no doubts. Enter the water and your world turns to a landscape of mud and boulders, dimly lit. Visibility, though, is generally at least 3m. There are no particularly large subjects, but look closely and there is much to admire. Macro photographers will not be disappointed for, dotted in the mud, outcrops of small boulders make safe havens for various creatures. Long-clawed squat lobsters (Munida rugosa) can be found sitting in their burrow entrances, sometimes with just their claws showing. At any perceived danger they disappear inside. Then there are the common whelks which, with their mantles of black spots on white, make ideal macro subjects. Scorpion fish, butterfish, scallops, prawns, peacock worms, cuttlefish and dragonets all go about their business among the many stationary species of aquatic life. One site at Letterfearn, 3 to 4 miles down the south shore, requires a scramble down over slippery rocks to the water's edge. Less than 5m out from the shore, a mud bank shelves off steeply into the depths, passing through a thick halocline layer in the shallows. This creates a shimmering blur caused by peat-stained freshwater run-off from the mountains. Finning down the slope we have seen large numbers of queen scallops, up to 5cm wide and coated in pink sponge. Approached, they swim up into the water column, disturbing the fine mud bottom as they go, before 'clamming up' and sinking back into the mud. I have yet to get a good shot of one in flight. From Letterfearn a narrow, single-track road cuts through forest to end at Totaig, with its sheltered slip, at the mouth of the loch opposite Eilean Dornie Castle. Off this headland a very light current sometimes runs, making for a pleasant dive in at least one direction along a shallow wall teeming with macro subjects. Lightbulb sea squirts, common brittlestars, featherstars of various colours, and northern prawns survey diving passers-by from their rock crevices and ledges. Right at the other end of the loch, at the head near Ratagan, is an area that requires a short swim out over mud and boulders before you reach a steep boulder slope. I have dived here only once, but found plenty to see. Loch Duich has a maximum depth of about 90m and, in places along the north bank, drops away to almost that depth in one go. By contrast the area around Witsend, near the houses at Keppoch, tends to drop off in steps after the obligatory mud slope and queen scallops to 15m. After that, rock buttresses jut out from the face, many covered with forests of peacock worms ranging from bright orange to deep purple. The Loch is sparsely populated, hamlets such as Letterfearn having about ten houses. They have, though, been there for many years, so it is worth keeping an eye open under water for old bottles, such as lemonade bottles with marble stoppers, or cod bottles. Winter may be well and truly here, but the still, calm waters of Loch Duich remain very inviting.