AS WE HEADED TOWARDS HARRIS, the sun kissed the top of the hills and set the clouds on fire. It looked like a beautiful eruption taking place. The skies were all purples and violets, surrounding that dying golden orb of flame.
How the mood on the charter boat Elizabeth G lifted! And our elation wasnt only because of that spectacular display off our bow. A few hours earlier, when we had pulled into Portree on Skye, a mood of despondency had been starting to grip the team.
Getting to St Kilda isnt easy. Thats part of the allure of the place, or so I had thought. After a failed trip a couple of years ago, this time I had contacted Northern Light Charters, where Hannah had buoyed up my spirits by confirming that in 2005 its record for getting out to Kilda had been 100%.
This was some feat, as I knew what a poor season 2004 had been. But the magic had faded fast in Portree Bay, and I had resigned myself to another trip around Skye.
We had even had to cancel the morning dive there, because of a strong northerly wind that kept us away from Bonny Prince Charlies Cave.
Amid all the doom and gloom, skipper Rob Barlow was still confident of crossing to Kilda on Tuesday. Everybody thought otherwise in Portree until after Monday lunchtime, when the wind dropped and allowed us to explore the cave. We missed the main site, but had a good dive, with lots of lesser-spotted dogfish resting on the coralline outcrops.
On surfacing, the sky was blue and the sea reducing. Could the forecast be right The skipper thought so, so he pushed around the north of Skye.
I sat in the wheelhouse and took in the splendid sights. Passing islets, the sea started to glaze over, with only a mild swell reflecting all that golden evening sunlight. The omens looked good. The pirate talk was back; we were all excited.
I popped out of the wheelhouse to look for basking sharks or whales, but saw none. The evening sea air was fantastic, and as we neared Harris and it started to get dark, I took time to capture that breathtaking sunset. Loch Rodel was our port of call that night.
A clear but cold morning followed, and we were off out to see if the crossing to Kilda was possible. Will we make it I asked anxiously.
If we cant make it in weather like this, we never will, came the response. It was on, we were going to St Kilda!
We could see the islands from a long way off as we headed west at 8 knots. Our first dive was to be at the Sgarbhstac Arch. A good 30 minutes before we reached the site, cameras were readied and kit was being checked. Diving way out here focuses the mind.
Soon the Elizabeth G was in position, and off we went into Kildas waters. I descended to just below 30m. The walls were vertical and the soft corals you might normally expect were absent. In their place was an expanse of variously coloured jewel anemones.
I knew that the fin to the arch was around 100m, but it felt longer. From the corner of my eye I saw movement, and assumed that another diver was bidding to be first into the arch. It was no human diver, however, but one of the many grey seals that was buzzing me. We would get close to quite a few of them. What a start!
I noted a change in the wall a few metres ahead, and there it was, the Sgarbhstac Arch, one of the most amazing geological structures I have seen. Its roof is at around 30m and its base at 50. It is some 30m long and 20m wide at the base, and the whole structure could be made out, thanks to the impressive visibility. Through my viewfinder, the divers looked tiny as they finned through the arch.
I battled against the low light levels to get a good exposure. It was hard work, and I was at 50m for around 10 minutes, racking up more than 20 minutes of stops. Thats when the negative aspect of diving Kilda came home to me.
I planned a gentle ascent, taking in the sights as I went, but all I could see above 20m were walls of kelp. In the crystal visibility, kelp thrives here far deeper than I had experienced before.
Once up into the deco zone proper, the back-surge off the wall was very powerful and I found myself moving from 8 to 3m with little control.
I decided to back off from the wall and put up the delayed SMB. It was fairly ineffective, but only when I boarded the Elizabeth G did I notice water squirting out of a couple of small holes in the bag.
So my decompression was less than perfect, and when I examined the dive on my PC, I noted that each minute of deco was taking around 50% longer to clear because of penalties being added.
It was 6pm by the time we dived the Sawcut; not the best time of day to do so as little light enters the site. Also, the sky was now overcast and conditions were turning unpleasant.
I had wanted to capture a shot of a diver in the narrow confines of the Sawcut, but this was impossible to create, so I set my sights on some of the many jewel anemones in the impressive gully before entering the Sawcut proper.
I was enjoying myself. Walls rose up covered in life, and the boulders in the bottom of the gully bore a lot of anemones. I was surprised when, finning over one of these large boulders, the Sawcut suddenly fell away vertically to 30m. Its walls are only 3m apart in places and covered in marine life, though no jewel anemones that I noticed.
Its an awesome dive, and had the sun or moon been overhead it would have been right up with the best. I finned on, squeezing past a large boulder that marked the end of the Sawcut.
By now, the waves crashing on the island of Dun were reverberating in my ears and I could feel the pounding on my body. After snapping some red dahlia anemones, I decided to retreat up the gully. I found more little jewels on the undersides of boulders at the exit end of the Sawcut.
Here the dive just stopped, and a slope fell away below me. After the morning dive, I wasnt keen to go deep again, but even at 20m the wall I was able to follow was covered in kelp. I rummaged around in the hope of finding a crawfish or something interesting, but all I found were some nice anemones. As I neared the surface, the surge made these increasingly difficult to photograph.
After a while, I gave up and took in the wider picture. Above the kelp, schools of large pollack lurked. They would come very close, unafraid of divers. These were the only fish we saw frequently at St Kilda, but I could find no explanation for the general lack of fish life.
Back on board, I was in line to use the single shower. Tonight would see us visit one of the areas most exclusive establishments - in fact the only one, the Puff Inn. A warm orange glow came from this welcoming pub, decked out with flags and pennants. But first we met the ranger and were shown to the islands museum, an insight into the grim reality of life on Kilda right up to the mid-1950s.
Moved by what I had learnt, I went back to the Puff Inn for my can of Tennants. There is nothing on draught way out here.
At 11pm, we awaited the arrival of Elizabeth Gs inflatable to take us back to the boat for a wee bit of chat and whisky before we hit our bunks. In the morning, we would dive the largest sea cliffs in the UK, on the north of Hirta.
The morning dawned dull. Massive north-facing cliffs dwarfed the Elizabeth G. Light levels were so low that even above the surface I was getting a reading of only f4@1/20th of a second.
It was macro photography once again, and we dived a site just west of Mina Stac. Although it had the lowest billing of the three sites we dived, it turned out to be my favourite.
Once again I was on the hunt for those glamorous jewel anemones. I soon found some luminous green and pink ones, then orange and lastly purple.
I captured a velvet-backed swimming crab against an orange background, punctuated by luminous green jewels. The dive started to peter out, and I decided to retrace my steps.
I noted two of the other divers just sitting on a large sand-patch. Something was going on, and it wasnt long before one seal after another cruised past. My film was finished, so I just relaxed and enjoyed their antics.
Finning on, I noted a seal on the seabed around 6m below, looking up at me. As I hovered, looking down at him, I felt a gentle tug on my right fin-tip. Spinning round, I saw the culprit, giving me that endearing puppy-dog look.
This seal floated slowly to the surface, took a gulp of air and drifted back down to me, placing its snout on my fin before sauntering off. I had been cuddled by a seal in the Farne Islands, but had never fallen prey to the old fin-pulling routine.
My hour was up and, for now, so was diving at St Kilda, because a big southerly blow was forecast for the afternoon. So it was back to Harris and Loch Rodel, accompanied part of the way by a pod of spectacular white-beaked dolphins riding the bow wave.
After the extreme diving at St Kilda, the Stassa was the opposite - an intact wreck in a very silty, sheltered location. How I wished we had had a little more time out at the islands.
We crossed the Minch back to Skye and enjoyed a wonderful dive on the Doris, a broken steamship with a large four-bladed prop embedded in the seabed and a ruptured boiler among all the broken plates. At least we were back among the fish life. Skyes Cullin Hills doffed their cloud caps as we cruised down Cullin Sound and between Rhum and Eigg. The scenery was spectacular.
The big wall dive off Canna was out as conditions deteriorated, so we headed for Loch Sunart and a dive on Sligneach Mor. I had dived here before and been amazed at the life on this steep wall, but the viz was now a murky 4m at best, and the nudibranchs and fish I remembered were not to be found
The sun was out for our steam back into Tobermory, where we tied up beside Elizabeth Gs sumptuous sister-ship Hjalmar Bjorge. It had been converted and must be one of the best fitted-out liveaboards in the UK.
Its certainly a blueprint for Rob to follow when converting the Elizabeth G, a boat he had only just acquired, and still a little rough round the edges.
He planned to stow the compressor below deck with whips to feed gas to divers tanks in situ on the bench seats, and to extend the lounge and replace the noisy toilet with a quieter one, with a second on the lower deck. Another shower would help, too.
I hadnt liked the Elizabeth Gs ladder. Ropes got in the way of fins, and the stainless steel was so slippery that there were a few fallers. My new drysuit boots took a hit as my feet slipped off the rungs. Rob planned to weld ends onto them.
Slack didnt really appear on the Hispania, but we still dived it. Its one of my favourite wrecks, but time is taking its toll. I noted that the large foremast had toppled over the starboard hull.
Steaming back to Oban, I reflected on the trip. The diving at Kilda, even in less-than-perfect conditions, had been amazing. I understood the skippers restrictions on dive times, what with the massive distances steamed between dives, and the changing weather. But our three dives had been an appetiser - I wanted more.
Rob had had us in the right place at the right time to take advantage of that break in the weather. Luck is what you need on a St Kilda trip because, more often than not, the fickle Scottish weather will be the greatest challenge to your dreams of reaching it.