THE SOUND OF MULL is a stretch of water that lies between the north-western Scottish mainland and the island of Mull. Although well-known for its shipwrecks, there is far more to diving the Sound, as was admirably demonstrated on my first dive of a long weekend recently.
The small, low-lying Calve Island, which lies along the Sound not far from Tobermory, has a superb wall that drops to 75m. Its a great way to start any trip.
Dropping in at about 6m, I can see the kelp that thickly covers the rocks below. At around 20m the gloominess reflects the dull day above. Despite this, my eyes quickly adjust, and I begin to make out not only the plump scarlet shapes of red cushionstars, but the sharp spikes of large spiny seastars.
I remember seeing one in this area the previous year that must have measured more than 60cm across; a formidable predator to be patrolling these walls.
Other divers reported seeing huge patches of peacock worms at around 40m. However, knowing that life on this wall is largely similar whether you are at 20m or 30, I decide to stay around 20-25m and enjoy a longer dive.
The wall to my left stays fairly vertical for some distance, until little sandy ledges appear. These provide convenient resting places for leopard-spotted gobies, while female cuckoo wrasse glide in and out of the large crevices made by the splitting rocks.
The gobies are, as always, too fast for my camera, and I move on resignedly. Once again the wall becomes vertical, its craggy sides dotted with Devonshire cup corals, beautiful painted topshells and a variety of small anemones, including my favourite, the white cluster.
These little beauties grow in huge patches and resemble drifts of snow blown against the wall on a winters day.
They can also be found at Auliston Point, another marvellous wall dive in the Sound. It is easy to see why theyre so prolific there, as the site is situated where the fast tides bringing nutrient-rich water divide to flow on down the Sound, or into Loch Sunart.
Despite the gloomy start, I can see by the rays pouring down the rocky wall that the sun has put in an appearance - just as my dive is ending!
This flood of light illuminates the gorgeous red and pink tentacles of a very large anemone just at the edge of visibility - about 8m away.
Not wanting to miss the opportunity to capture these exotic colours, I grab a few shots before chasing my no-stop time up the wall.
The wrecks in the Sound have also become well-established reefs for marine life. The Shuna, probably the most intact, was laden with coal and mixed goods and bound for Sweden when she hit rocks during a storm in 1913.
The crew tried frantically to pump the water from her holds while heading for Tobermory, but lost the battle. Shuna eventually sank on the mainland side of the Sound, not far from the shore.

THE WRECK SITS UPRIGHT in just over 30m, but on a very silty seabed. The fine coating over everything can render visibility very poor, but on this occasion it isnt too bad, and I decide to swim to the stern to see the prop and rudder.
Along the side of the hull are large clumps of white sea squirts, while dotted here and there are pretty Devonshire cup corals, many of which glow with an almost fluorescent green.
It seems much darker down at the prop, and I can only just make out the shape of another diver. The silt has been considerably disturbed; Im not the first to arrive!
After a surface interval, usually spent in the colourful town of Tobermory on Mull, south-westerlies are really beginning to blow, making most sites in the Sound untenable for a third dive.
Diving with Lochaline Boat Charters, three dives a day is the norm and it is rare that Alan and Dave, who own and run the boats Peregrine and Brendan, cannot find somewhere to pop you in, even in the worst weather.
However, on this occasion there is little alternative to Loch Aline.
Returning past the dive centre, we drop onto a rocky seabed covered in kelp at about 6m. Swimming north and down a gentle slope to lose the kelp, I reach
a sandy/silty bottom.
Here various harbour, hermit and edible crabs scuttle along the bottom, and long-clawed squat lobsters quickly retreat under the scattered rocks.
Noticing the number of scallops lying around, I guess that the divers who have taken goody bags will find plenty for tea. On surfacing, I discover that someone has also seen three dogfish.
Working my way back up towards the kelp line, I note again the yellow tinge to the water, caused by the peaty run-off into the loch. Checking my computer reminds me of peering through old-fashioned shop windows, covered in yellow cellophane to stop sunlight damaging the goods on display.
Possibly the best-known wreck in the Sound, and probably one of the most attractive in terms of marine life, is the Hispania. It has to be dived at slack, or you can find yourself doing a good impression of a flag while clinging onto the shotline. These fierce currents do, however, explain the thousands, if not millions, of plumose anemones that smother this wreck.
With the roof of the superstructure rotted away, the cabins and corridors beneath are open and easily accessible. Their walls are liberally coated with the vibrant oranges and stark whites of plumose anemones, with not one inch to spare.
The large pollack that swim in and out of the portholes and doorways give this wreck an almost surreal atmosphere as you hang, captivated by this sight.
Hispania lies on a slight slope with its stern at just over 30m and bow around 25m. It has a slight list to starboard.
Retreating to the Sound in search of protection from a storm in 1954, little did the crew know that this would become the vessels last resting place.
She hit Sgeir More, just off the western shore of Mull and, badly holed, started taking on water. While the crew were able to launch the lifeboats, the captain refused to leave his dying ship, and went down with it.
Working your way to the stern, note the spare prop that lies at the back, and swim up and over to the huge rudder, also smothered in plumose anemones.
There is little of interest in the Hispanias holds, as all the cargo was removed, though this doesnt stop divers rummaging around in the hope of finding something interesting. Clouds of silt rise up out of the holds.
The huge winches beneath the forward mast are again studded with the vivid orange of plumose anemones, and the railings that remain along the deck are festooned with growth.
Work your way towards the bow and it becomes less gaudy, but there are still cup corals and tubeworms dotted around, while the odd cuckoo wrasse might come and check you out.

THE WRECK OF THE THESIS IS ALSO covered with life, but this time deadmens fingers. This iron steamer sank in 1889, fewer than three years after her launch, while carrying a cargo of iron bound for Belfast.
Taking a short cut through the Sound of Mull to escape the weather, she ran onto a reef just off the eastern shore at its southern end.
The Thesis is arguably as attractive as the Hispania, but in a different way. Large pollack and the more dainty goldsinny swim in and out of the skeletal remains of the bow, which is covered with the bright saffron yellows and vivid oranges of deadmens fingers.
The large metal plates that were removed during the salvage operation lie abandoned on the seabed.
Some broken ribs provide an easy entrance to view the bow from the inside, which I think is even more attractive than when viewed from the exterior. Alternatively, drop in through the main cargo hatch and swim forward past a broken bulkhead that gives access to this area.
Another casualty of the Sound of Mull was the Rondo. Swimming the length of the ship there is little left to see inside, due to the extensive salvaging that went on. It was a combination of this and bad weather that led to the wreck eventually tipping up and sliding down the rock to rest bow-first at 50m.
The Rondo was originally anchored near Tobermory while sheltering from a storm in 1935. Starting to drift, her anchor-chain broken, she ended up high and dry on the small island of Dearg Sgeir, driven there by the very storm she had tried to escape.
Plumose anemones pepper the outside of the Rondos hull, but there is little life to be found on the inside.
Conversely, rarely on a wreck dive do you have such an attractive place to investigate while doing your final stop as on this wreck.
With the Rondos stern sitting at 5m, you can take in the stunning array of anemones that smother the rudder and rudder-post. Look carefully and you may even spot a huge sea lemon, its bright yellow and orange granular appearance concealing it admirably against the gaudy background.
Another superb scenic dive in the Sound is Grey Rocks. Dropping in at around 10m onto a kelp forest, you swim south down to a sandy/gravelly bottom scattered with empty shells at around 20m.
Work your way along the rocky wall, which provides homes for a host of marine life, from velvet and edible crabs to squat lobsters and several different types of seastars, including the luxurious-looking red cushion.
In places, carpets of bright yellow and orange fingers coat the rocks for as far as visibility allows, often 10m or more.

GREY ROCKS IS ONE OF MY favourite scenic dives in the Sound of Mull, along with the site of the John Preston, a wooden schooner that sank in 1882.
However, with so little of the wreckage left, I view this more as a scenic dive. The scattered remains are on an 18m shelf, and have become home to a variety of marine life, including the very beautiful ling. The slightly paler skin of many northern ling seems to make the blue along the length of its dorsal fin stand out far more than on its southern counterparts.
Scallops are fairly common along here most of the time, and as this is a sloping, sandy shelf its an ideal place to get below them to capture some good close-up images.
Continue on and, keeping the slope on your right shoulder, watch the wrasse and goldsinny that are plentiful here.
Gradually working your way back up the slope to the kelp line and, peering in between the stalks, you can glimpse the pinks of spiky urchins clinging to the rocks below, while many beautiful painted topshells appear glued to the leathery blades of kelp.
Like so much marine life, the exquisite colours and patterns on these shells can only really be appreciated after seeing close-up or macro photos.

ONE FINAL DIVE TO MENTION is the shore dive near the Lochaline hotel. Enter the water off the tiny beach near the hotel and swim out over the sandy slope. The bottom is dotted with tube anemones, their delicate brown and white tentacles swaying with the surge.
Continue a short way over a band of weed and kelp as the seabed begins to drop in large steps, until it finally falls away and becomes a wall.
Turn towards the pier, keeping the wall on your right shoulder until you wish to return, then keep it on your left.
The more adventurous may prefer to clamber down the wall opposite the hotel and over the stones to enter the water or, as some people do, just jump off the corner of the pier itself!
Again, the sea life on this dive at 30m is not significantly different to that at 20, so I usually opt for a shallower, longer dive. Work towards the pier, and you come across a variety of colourful sponges and sea-squirts lining the walls.
Cup corals and dahlia anemones are dotted around, while long-clawed squat lobsters thrust out their arms defiantly before retreating backwards into their holes. Leopard-spotted gobies lie on sandy ledges, and dragonets often make an appearance.
A certain amount of caution needs to be exercised when diving this wall, as it drops away to around 90m and can have some fierce downcurrents. It is, therefore, a good idea to seek advice from Mark Lawrence at the Lochaline Dive Centre about tide times.
Not only is the diving in the Sound excellent, providing sites for all tastes, but I think the surrounding scenery makes this one of the most attractive places for diving in the UK.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Lochaline is halfway between Tobermory on the Isle of Mull and Oban on the mainland. Take the A830, A861 and A884 from Fort William.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Lochaline Boat Charters, 01967 421305, www.lochaline-boats.co.uk. The two dive-boats have onboard compressors. Air, nitrox and trimix are all available from Lochaline Dive Centre, as is newly refurbished diver accommodation, 01967 421627, www.lochalinedivecentre.co.uk
PRICE: Dive-boat charters cost from £360 a day
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.visitscotland.com