Divernet

Sandwiched between the Morven peninsula of mainland Scotland and the Isle Of Mull lies that important waterway, the Sound Of Mull. Many divers will be familiar with this stretch of water, where famous shipwrecks such as the Hispania and Rondo provide impressive diving.
But even impressive diving can become repetitive if too many trips to the sound are organised. Instead of a fierce competition for places, mutinous mutterings of: Not those wrecks again! have been known to be heard.
The Hispania is probably the best shallow-water shipwreck in Scotland, and anyone who suggests that it is in any way boring is asking to be locked away in a secure institution. Recently, however, there has been a feeling in our club that we should explore less-dived sites and look for wrecks that are new to us instead of resorting to the old favourites.
Rather than turn back down the sound, we thought, why not venture further north Then, if we continued out of the sound, we could dive a torpedoed ocean liner, an underwater pinnacle rising from (so Im told) 90m-plus, and some shipwrecks lying off the outer isles in clear Atlantic waters.
Many live-aboards operate out of Oban, but for our trip we started from Lochaline.

Cliff diving
It was my first time at Lochaline Dive Centre, and I was impressed from the outset. No sooner had I unpacked than I was escorted to the dive site by a staff-member to be shown the best entry and exit points, and told about the tides. We entered the water at Lochaline Pier Cliff for one of the most exciting shore dives I have experienced.
We dropped through the clear, green water, aware of the possibility of fierce down-currents. At 30m we stopped, initially to check our buoyancy but then to free a 1m-long lesser-spotted dogfish suspended from the cliff by a fishing line.
I saw no gill movement, and thought the fish was dead. Happily, however, it went ballistic once the hook had been removed.
We continued down to 40m, the cliff still a smooth vertical face falling to the seabed at 80m. We experienced no severe down-currents, although a slight difficulty in maintaining an exact depth suggested that certain forces were at work.
The sea life was not the usual fare of a fiercely tidal area. The cliff was covered with Devonshire cup corals, hydroids, nudibranchs and sea squirts, and only a handful of the plumose anemones you would expect to see. On ascending to our deco stops, we noticed some corkwing wrasse lying among the weed-covered boulders, the vivid iridescent green lines on their reddish-brown faces giving them their distinctive appearance.
Depth is gained immediately on this dive, with no need to swim offshore or over muddy seabeds. The featureless vertical drop, coupled with the clear viz, provides a real sensation of depth, and a glide along the wall makes this an outstanding shore dive.
Swim out and the cliff stays vertical, but if you swim inshore towards the narrows at Lochaline it faults in a large gash and eventually turns into a boulder slope. Take care here, because you are near the pier, where day charter boats tie up.
If you are unsure about the tides or down-currents call in at the dive centre, where the staff will be more than happy to give you all the information you need.

Macro photographers dream
A quick steam over from Lochaline takes you to Calve Island - small, low-lying and just offshore from Tobermory. Another cliff-dive awaits at its north-east-to-north end. Here the wall drops vertically from the surface to 43m, where it is temporarily interrupted by a 4m-wide ledge before continuing into the darkness below.
We found another lesser-spotted dogfish resting here on the ledge. Disturbed by our arrival, it cruised off along the wall and out of sight.
The quality of light and visibility again lifted this dive onto a higher plane. The wall is not smooth like the one at Lochaline, but heavily faulted, forming ledges, buttresses, overhangs and cracks that provide habitats for a varied range of life. Small creatures dominate the site, but in far greater numbers than at Lochaline.
We saw Devonshire cup corals in an unusual pinkish-red colour, as well as the more common orange and green ones. Hydroids covered the face, along with many beautiful nudibranchs, painted top shells and scorpionfish. This is certainly a site for macro photography.
Travelling to the northern point of the cliff, we felt the tide picking up gently. There was a corresponding increase in plumose anemones and dead mens fingers, with small, flighty goldsinny and corkwing wrasse darting along the face, making amends for the lack of fish life found elsewhere on this dive.

Wrecks and wrasse
Your first dive site on travelling north out of the Sound of Mull is likely to be the wrecked ocean liner Aurania. Her remains lie scattered over the sea floor off Caliach Point on the north-west point of Mull. Hardboat operators know the site well and will have no problem putting you onto the wreck.
The Aurania was a Cunard liner acquisitioned by the Royal Navy during the war and used as a troopship. She was torpedoed while in ballast off Ireland and abandoned, but did not sink. Eventually the ship was put under tow, but in heavy weather the line snapped and she ended up on the rocks.
The remains lie in around 22m and are generally flattened. The Auranias scale can be guessed at from the two pairs of boilers. One pair lie parallel to each other, forming a swim-through, while the other pair have fallen at right angles to one another. Though on their sides, they rise a full 7m off the seabed.
Hull-plates litter the sea floor and some large, recognisable pieces can be found, notably mooring bollards and winches. Some box sections of the ship also remain.
Most skippers will put you straight onto one pair of the boilers as a starting point, then it is up to you. Fish life on the wreck consists mainly of wrasse. Some of the larger male ballan wrasse have bumps on their foreheads, which I had never seen before. Cuckoo wrasse are also common, and soft corals and red sunstars add some colour to the rusty steel.

So much to see, so little time
The Tapti lies in 24m of water off the small island of Soa, sheltered from the Atlantic rollers by the south-east coast of Coll. The wreck has broken up in a strange way. The bow section stands at an angle to the sea floor, pointing up to the surface, and is surrounded by handrails, which make a good photographic prop. A huge winch is also found here. The anchor chains run out through the hawse-pipes and one anchor is still secured in position.
Behind the bows, the ship is fairly flattened until the stern, which is said to be the most interesting section. I was so intrigued up at the bows, however, that I didnt make it that far down. I shall return!
Life on this wreck is spectacular. Plumose anemones abound, in orange, white and the less common green. Large pollack hide in the dark recesses, and schools of smaller specimens swim around the wreck in the clear blue Atlantic water. Both the Aurania and Tapti were home to many fish which were missing from the scenic cliffs, including some very large specimens.

The pinnacle of the trip
If Lochaline Pier and the Calve Island cliff were superb dives, the cliff at Bofascadale was mind-blowing, partly because of its location. Land is just visible in the distance, and nothing gives away the presence of the pinnacle apart from a slightly more aggressive swell and some white water.
Complete isolation and frequent sightings of porpoises and minke whales set the scene. It was as calm as it gets here when we arrived, and the swell wasnt bad. I hit the water and was stunned by the viz - 15m-plus. We easily reached the top of the pinnacle at 6m in the slight surge. It was like an escarpment, sloping up gently on one side and dropping vertically to 90m on the other.
I was lucky and found a narrow gully with dead mens fingers and plumose anemones on it which I guessed would lead me to the cliff face. At the end of the gully I was presented with a view Ill never forget. The cliff fell away and I could just make out a 1m ledge at 30m. Encrusting life was profuse, as was the fish life, including two male cuckoo wrasse in full blue and gold splendour.
Above, schools of pollack cruised along the wall. The life on this wall was like that on the big cliffs on Rathlin Island - spectacular. On our deco stop, I noticed colonies of little purple anemones covering most of the rock between the kelp stalks, along with the other small creatures that keep photographers happy, though the surge makes their life a little more difficult.
I was able to look down on the pinnacle from the surface as I waited to be picked up. I noted other pinnacles and spires rising out of the cliff and looked forward to exploring the area further.
If the planning of your trip and the weather allows it, you should make sure you dont miss out on the little pier at Coll. If you go for the live-aboard option, you are likely to tie up here for the night after diving the Aurania or the Tapti. And if you can postpone a visit to the islands pub for a couple of hours, you will be rewarded with a fantastic little bonus dive.
Photographers in particular should not miss this site. On a night dive here I was able to capture some new and colourful creatures on film.
The moment we tied up to the pier the potential was obvious. The sea floor was clearly visible 10m below. The pier legs were orange with encrusting life, and schools of small pollack dashed around them, providing sport for a few anglers using handlines. Often a darker shadow would move across the sand as a larger fish sped in for a snack.
We dived after dark, light from our torches reaching the seabed and reflecting off the white shale. Descending the pier legs we could see that the orange coloration came from a generous covering of small plumose anemones and sponges. Velvet-backed swimming crabs were numerous, and edible crabs nestled into the anemones, as did small pollack, their coloration shaded to match the browns and greens of the kelp clinging to the tops of the pier legs.
A 15-spined stickleback was a personal first for me, while other divers left this little site happily relating their encounters with octopus and cuttlefish. Amid all this good cheer, we headed for the pub to meet the rest of the party. Armed with a dodgy Q-light we trudged along the track, spooked by the eerie green light reflecting back off the eyes of the sheep. We fitted in only a quick pint before closing time, but we werent bitter.
On a weekend live-aboard, you would be thinking of returning to Oban at this point, steaming back down the Sound of Mull. This is a good time to do the famous Hispania dive and revel in the vivid orange coloration caused by its complete encrustation.
We found ourselves on her at 7 oclock one chilly morning, with sunlight streaming through the clear water. The Hispania is a majestic sight, and lying on the roof of the aft deckhouse the whole stern can be viewed, complete with railings, alternate steering gear and mooring bollards.
You can explore the engine-room, and view the now-shattered remains of the captains bath in the bridge area. Further forward lies the main mast before you eventually reach the bows.
At the end of our trip north of the Sound of Mull, refreshed by our horizon-widening experience, the good old Hispania proved as popular as ever with our dive party.





Divernet

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Take the M8 west from Glasgow and cross the Erskine Bridge. Follow the A82 along Loch Lomond and the A85 to Oban. For Lochaline turn right across the Connel Bridge just before Oban and follow the A828 north past Tralee, take a short ferry ride across Loch Linhe at Corran, then head south again on the A861 and A884.
ACCOMMODATION: Lochaline Dive Centre offers accommodation for 24 divers and arranges charters (01967 421627). Puffin Dive Centre in Oban has self-catering houses, and there are plenty of B&Bs. Boat skippers can advise on shore accommodation, or contact Oban Tourist Information on 01631 563122 (website oban.org.uk).
DIVE BOATS: Live-aboards operating out of the Sound of Mull include the Jane R (call Gordon Wadsworth on 0777 585 1150) and the recently refurbished Gaelic Rose (Bob Jones, 01967 421654). If you are based at Lochaline , a dayboat with air and nitrox aboard and well-equipped to reach these dive sites is the Gemini Breeze (GEM Marine, 01855 821 548). From Oban, Puffin Dive Centre says its Urchin catamaran, complete with moonpool entry and storage lockers, can also run out to these sites (01631 566088