Divernet

FLAMING JUNE, and the flaming does not refer to temperature. This trip was not going to be a holiday, it was going to be a flaming adventure. Who would have expected a hurricane to interfere with a dive trip off Scotland in mid-June! Its just as well we were diving from a lifeboat.
It had been a long time in the planning and I was certainly looking forward to the scenic wonders that can be experienced when diving St Kilda. These would not be coming my way on this trip, however.
The weather forecast was grim. I had decided not to waste the effort worrying about the weather, which I could do nothing to change, but I and eight others felt the same disappointment when we heard the forecast.
Over the course of the week we would learn a lot about the barometer, and just what it can tell a skipper.
George Mair, owner/skipper of the liveaboard vessel Gemini Storm, had his work cut out, especially when his cook decided to do the dirty on him and not turn up for work.
In his brochure George advertises fantastic diving no matter what the weather. We would put his promise to the ultimate test. Would it stand up
The hurricane would not hit until the Monday and Tuesday of our trip, so initially we wanted to put ourselves in a position to make the five-hour run to St Kilda should a break in the weather present itself. The only fly in the ointment with this theory was that at present the Force 5 winds were south-easterly in direction, blowing straight into Village Bay, St Kildas only safe anchorage. Could it get any worse
We headed out of Oban and cruised up the Sound Of Mull, toasting the fantastic wrecks that we sailed past. It was tranquil, the wind had dropped to zero, the sunlight was reflecting off the glassy surface of the sound and the Mishnish Inn of Tobermory was only a few hours steam away. The adventure had begun.

Day One
After a further overnight steam, we enjoyed an early-morning breakfast tied up against the pier on the Isle of Canna. Atlantic grey seals popped their heads up and inspected us, and a family of eider ducks dived down through the clear green water.
We would soon join them on a boulder slope which turned into a beautiful undercut cliff. A small gully separates two little islets on the surface at the Sgeir A Phuirt site, and under water it marks the boundary where the wall gets much more interesting at the south-east end of the reef.
Here the wall is vertical and slightly undercut at points. Marine life is also a lot denser here, as the tide picks up just a little. At the base of the cliff there are caves giving more shelter for some lobsters and peacock worms. The diving had got off to a great start.
The storm was by now being forecast bigtime and we cancelled the trip over to Harris and diverted for the Kyle of Lochalsh. A splendid dive on the 10,000 ton minesweeper HMS Port Napier ensued and perversely I enjoyed my best-ever dive on the wreck.
The barometer had not moved from 1000 millibars. The sea at this sheltered point was flat-calm, and as we sipped our pints in the local hotel we wondered if this storm was just a myth.

Day Two
By now all hell should have been breaking loose, but it wasnt. A calm passage up the sound of Rassay involved a dive on a boulder slope. It was an OK dive but not my favourite, although I did glimpse a gurnard of some type, very small with vivid blue and yellow wings for its pectoral fins.
I dont think it was a tub gurnard and I am still trying to identify it.
The second dive of the day was to be awesome, if not a little terrifying. The boat was spinning around on her axis and being pushed all over the place. This was still nothing to do with the fantasy storm, just the crazy tidal streams that powered around this speck of an island two miles off the north coast of Skye.
The little island of An-t-Iasgair would turn out to be my most enjoyable dive of the trip. A kelp-topped boulder slope descended to a depth of 18m.
A fantastically coloured male cuckoo wrasse, all neon blues and gold, darted out in front of me. I tried to capture him on film, as I think these fish are the most beautiful found in UK waters. A school of large pollack darting along the cliff edge diverted my attention and I dropped over the edge, immediately feeling the full force of the tide whip me down and along the now vertical face.
Fantastic gatherings of Devonshire cup corals flew past in a neon blaze of orange and green. The vertical strata of the basalt columns that made up the cliff face made excellent handholds but it was hard work to hang on.
I decided to put the brakes on and slow my descent, managing to achieve this at a little over 46m down.
Here I let the tide push me along the wall and savoured the marine delights on offer. The wall eventually turned into a boulder slope, probably when the other side of the island was reached, and here the tide decided to spit me upwards and back in the opposite direction to that previously taken.
I noted some lovely jewel anemones in every colour of the spectrum. Nudibranchs were common in the shallower 20m water, where kelp still flourished. In the boulders here, a big conger was pointed out to me - it was just sticking its snout out of a hole and I had completely missed it.
When I went in for the photo it certainly had no inhibitions about showing off its tonsils. This dive was later to be christened the Washing Machine dive. What an exciting experience - would I dive it again tomorrow You bet!
As I bobbed up and down on the surface in the gentle swell after the dive, I savoured the gorgeous conditions and the antics of the guillemots and razorbills flying above the surface, each carrying a fat sand-eel in its beak.
The little evening dive which we had planned on the wreck of the Rhodesia sounded a great way to spend a beautiful evening.
So we were surprised when George confirmed that this plan was scrapped and that we were running for cover! It seemed that our big storm had eventually arrived, if some 24 hours late.
Loch Diubaig on the North coast of Skye would be our sheltered anchorage for the night. As we dropped anchor, a seal could be seen to form ripples on the far side of the loch.
Herons were also noted at the waterside. It may have been a muddy sea floor but I had a brilliant night dive here, with gurnards and octopus putting in appearances. How long might it be before we could dive again
Back on the bridge of Gemini Storm, George and I watched as the digital wind gauge increased from 0 to 14 knots. We noted the 10-point drop in barometer pressure, now down to 990.5mb. It was finally happening.

Day Three
I slept deeply. Our sheltered little loch saved us from the worst of the winds, even though we did drag our anchor through the mud for quite some distance as it failed to find a secure holding point.
So it was all action in the morning and I was quickly tasked - again - with stowing the anchor chain in the locker as it was winched up through all that glorious mud. Lovely!
We bimbled up the coast (the skippers favourite expression) into the lee of some big cliffs that would shelter us, and there we stayed put for the rest of the day. The strongest gust we experienced in our sheltered location was 72 knots, and the general speed was 45.5.
Life on board was most comfortable, as the sea was mainly unaffected in our location. Two hundred metres offshore, however, things were very different. There were confused white horses to be seen everywhere.
When we could make out the small offshore islands, we could see the huge seas breaking around their bases. Confirmation of the severity of the storm arrived in the shape of a fishing trawler coming in to find shelter. This was certainly the low point of the trip and Georges stock library of videos began to take a pounding.
Some hit their bunks, but as the monotony bit in by the afternoon it became apparent that we would not move for the day. Some of us needed our fixes, hurricane or not.
The drysuit was donned again and an hour of underwater relief was experienced, in which I viewed mating sea hares and some masked crabs.

Day Four
It was make or break time, and we decided to go for it. The plan was to steam to the next sea loch, Loch Bay, which had been known by some on board to produce some good diving.
The wind had dropped to 35.5 knots on average, with gusts of 56 recorded, so as you can imagine the journey was interesting. With waves crashing over her bows, the Gemini Storm soon showed her class.
As a former RNLI lifeboat, she is the ideal choice for a liveaboard vessel for charters to St Kilda with her double hull and two independent eight-cylinder Gardner engines, each in its own watertight compartment. There are also two compressors and two generators - everything essential has been doubled up.
To the original spec of the boat, George has made some alterations, adding a galley forward of the bridge and a comfortable lounge to the rear where you will enjoy your meals.
Though the original chef did not turn up, George made a fantastic job of the food. Curries, beef and ale pie and pasta dishes formed part of the varied diet and the sweets included cream caramel and banoffee pie, all made on board.
We tried our best to finish off the banoffee pie but even the most gluttonous among us failed. George confirmed that to date no party of divers has ever succeeded in polishing off a whole serving of this dish.
We reached Loch Bay safely, and with 40 knot winds whipping across the bow of the boat experienced three dives - two on the leeward side of the offshore islands, and the Loch Bay pinnacle itself. Three top-quality dives in some very unfavourable conditions - fantastic!

Day Five
With the winds decreasing and conditions improving all the time, we left Loch Bay and retraced our route around the north of Skye. An excellent dive was completed within the majestic setting of the isle of Eilean Trodday, on the wreck of the Nordhuk. But it was the planned second dive of the day that produced the most conversation.
This was Bonnie Prince Charlies Cave, just north of Portree and 1.7 miles south of Holm Island. Some divers who said they had been here before reckoned that it was a very poor dive but Matt, a marine biologist, had a mate who reckoned the site was the best dive he had ever experienced, including St Kilda.
We were all intrigued, though I must admit that I sided with the skipper and feared the worst. The chart showed a mud slope, and the sounder a steep slope, and it was only Matts faith in his friends statement that forced most of us into the water.
It was clear water, possibly the best viz of the trip. Landing on an 8m-deep mud sea floor led me to expect the worst, so in a bid to get things over with as quickly as possible I swam offshore, where a sand ridge had formed.
This fell away on one side and a terraced structure took shape, eventually turning into a marine-life-encrusted cliff. Wow! When youre not expecting it, a good dive is twice as good, and the old coral structure of Bonnie Prince Charlies reef was fantastic.
Anemones covered the reef and some splendid individual cuckoo wrasse were in evidence. Bright red scorpionfish nestled in the cover on the underside of the overhangs. The light and colour of the reef was fantastic.
Back on the sandy ridge for some deco, I noted vast schools of sand eels above me. Soon they were darting in and out of the sand as well. Small flatties also proved entertaining, and when a small reef was found, I noted a 15-spined stickleback in some weed. This site is now firmly fixed in Georges GPS, though should you join him for a trip on the Gemini Storm, chances are you will experience much better weather.
So had the skippers claims of supplying great diving no matter what the weather proved true Well, in hurricane-force winds from probably the worst direction possible, we experienced world-class diving. Even excellent dives on the Bo Fascadale pinnacle and a majestic cliff in Loch Sunart did not find a place in this storm-battered article. They could not live up to the Washing Machine and Bonnie Prince Charlies Cave in my estimation.
So if you are thinking of making the none-too-small investment in planning a trip to St Kilda but are scared stiff of the consequences of bad weather, all I can say is, Òdont worryÓ.
Your investment can produce top-quality diving no matter what the weather - and we copped the hurricane. It will probably be another 100 years before a storm like that hits again.
Choose your boat and skipper well. The Gemini Storm is the best liveaboard I have set a fin on and if you pay your dosh to go to exposed St Kilda, its redundant compressor and independent engine systems will increase your chances of getting there, and afford you certain safety margins while you are out enjoying yourself.
Next time I try for St Kilda, there will only be one boat for me.

  • Gemini Storm takes groups of 8-12 divers. Daily rates are£60 per head within 20 miles of Oban and£65 for trips to St Kilda, the Hebrides or Ireland, including all food (wine with evening meal), accommodation, diving and air. 01855 821548

  • refugees
    refugees from the hurricane aboard the Gemini Storm
    a
    a vivid red scorpionfish lurks in the shadows
    encrustation
    encrustation over old hard coral growth
    a
    a gurnard walks along the muddy sea floor
    Divernet
    Dahlia
    Dahlia anemone
    a
    a conger keeps an eye out
    coral
    coral found at Loch Sunart
    jewel
    jewel anemones spread over a wall
    a
    a greater pipefish
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    A luminous green anemone
    a
    a flamboyant nudibranch
    mating
    mating sea hares