Divernet

MARK AND SIMON WERE PERCHED ON THE EDGE OF THE BOAT. They were always ready first, despite consuming the most alcohol the night before. Behind them came Dr Steve, or Gadget Man, as we nicknamed him. He had brought two rebreathers, an Inspiration and a Kiss (one of only a dozen in the world); a scooter; two drysuits; two undersuits; numerous spare parts and various other gadgets. Next came Colin, another rebreather man, then another Colin, Dr Chris, David and me.
We dropped into the water one after the other, like paratroopers on a mission, free-falling down a sheer wall. Every crevice was crowded with anemones, sponges and hydroids; their bright oranges, whites, yellows, pinks and purples forming a brilliant vertical garden.
Several days of rain had reduced the normal 30m-plus visibility but we could still appreciate the sheerness of the wall. Drifting with the current, I kept gazing skywards and then below us, to the two yellow rebreathers near the bottom at 50m.
We were in one of Britains most remote places, St Kilda, and diving on Stac Lee, one of several amazing stacs dotted round the islands. This one was possibly the most impressive topside marker to a dive site I had seen. It reared some 175m above the water, its crevices packed with noisy gannets, puffins, guillemots and gulls. But if the scene topside was incredible, that under water was proving equally special.
A young seal pup appeared from nowhere, performing an underwater ballet for our benefit. It turned circles around us, weaved in and out of our legs and seemed to enjoy nibbling at our fins, darting up close, then retreating into the distance before doing it again.
We had novelty value - perhaps the pup thought we were distant relatives.
This was my first time diving at St Kilda. I had been put off coming in the past by the islands remoteness - 40 miles west of North Uist and 120 miles north-west of Oban. To early adventurers, it must have seemed like the edge of the world.
Even today, most dive boats take a while to reach the islands, often stopping at Skye and the outer islands of Harris and Uist along the way. It took us just 15 hours to reach the islands and we were diving on our first morning.
We were aboard an expertly converted RNLI lifeboat, the Poplar Diver, recently bought by Mark Henrys and Hannah Thompson, who also run the dive boat Chalice. The Poplar Diver is accustomed to journeying to St Kilda in one go, as it regularly ferries out the National Trust volunteers who work there during summer.
Her cabins are on the small side, though well-appointed. There is no lounge or place to sit, the galley and dining room occupying the same space below deck, and air didnt circulate well below decks once the watertight hatch door was shut, though Mark says he plans to improve that.
On the plus side, there is ample deck space for storing gear and kitting up. And, as Mark explained during our first breakfast, the Poplar Diver is adept at coping with rough seas and sits well at anchor. Thats important at St Kilda, as there is only one safe anchorage, in Village Bay.
Located on the south-east of Hirta, the largest of St Kildas five islands, even Village Bay can become an inhospitable place when a south-east wind gets up. Many a boat has dragged anchor and been smashed to pieces there.
Hirta and the other four islands, Boreray, Soay, Dun and the tiny Levenish, are all that remain of an ancient volcano which, over millions of years, has been eroded into spectacular shapes and forms. The scenery is as stunning as that found anywhere in the world.
There are the spectacular sea stacs (Stac An Armin, 193m high, is the largest in the British Isles), Britains tallest sea cliffs at Conachair (430m), arches, tunnels and caves, both topside and under water. A million seabirds nest there and seem to be everywhere, soaring, sweeping low over the water and huddled in rows along rocky ledges. St Kilda is home to the worlds largest colony of gannets and the largest colonies of fulmars and puffins in Britain.
No wonder the islands are designated a National Nature and Biosphere Reserve, a National Scenic Area, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a European Community Protected area and Scotlands first World Heritage Site!
People lived here permanently more than 2000 years ago. Only in 1930 did the last of them abandon their fragile way of living, and the remains of their cottages, some restored, can still be seen. There is a pub, however, to cater for temporary residents, who can number as many as 100 at a time.
On liveaboard trips to faraway places it is not often possible to go ashore but here, on every evening but one, we jumped ship and made for Britains most remote watering-hole, the Puffin, to enjoy a pint for£1!
Mist covered most of the islands peaks while we were at St Kilda, but on our first morning it cleared momentarily as we approached Stac Lee and Boreray, and I treasure the view.
The morning dive had gone smoothly. Our early-evening one turned out to be somewhat more adventurous. We were diving a rarely visited spot called Beaver Rock, off the northern shore of Soay, investigating rumours of a tunnel between 45 and 38m. The wind was blowing a 6 from the west and water was breaking over the rock.
The current proved too strong, and only half of our group made it down and through the tunnel. Simon was one of the lucky divers who made it, and as he climbed the ladder afterwards, he was wearing a massive grin. That was one very sexy dive! he said when he had caught his breath. We were gutted.
Breakfast next morning was quite an event, too. Everything, including the milk jug, went flying. As forecast, the wind had changed overnight from a force 6 west to a force 5/6 south-east, blowing straight into Village Bay. We had been the only boat to see out the night; two other dive boats and various small yachts had made a run for North Uist.
After our rock Ôn roll breakfast, Mark decided that the best place to spend the day was on the opposite side of the island, in Glen Bay. Here, in perfectly calm waters, we dived an old steamship called the Kumu.
The wreck was spread-eagled in 47m in the middle of the bay, on a sandy bottom surrounded by huge boulders, its ribs lying flat. The only parts still upright were the single boiler, winch, engine and a small part of the stern, complete with propeller. It was another enjoyable dive, and once again we were joined by a seal. I found several large clumps of rose coral growing on the site.
We ate lunch with a drizzly mist hanging eerily over us. In the afternoon the wind moved back round to the north-west. The sea was choppy, but the conditions didnt stop us enjoying a memorable dive at Mina Stack, just east of Glenbay.
The wall, crawling with jewel anemones, little topshells, nudibranchs and starfish, dropped down to some big boulders in 30m.
These were covered in kelp (yes, growing well beyond 30m, quite normal here), providing the perfect playground for a bunch of cheeky seals which would nibble our fins before retreating to hide in the kelp.
Most of us were low on air before we could locate the arch Mark had told us to look out for. The rebreather men managed to find it between 20-26m and relished telling us how they swam among a whole bunch of seals under the arch. How pleased we were for them!
Having now missed a tunnel and an arch, I was more than keen to dive one of St Kildas most spectacular sites, Sgarbstac, on the south side of Boreray. Here there is an arch 30m long by 20m wide, lying between 25 and 50m. Mark had promised, weather permitting, to take us there the next day. I made sure to get well-organised that night, even rating my 100-speed film to 800 to cope with the potential lack of light.
Next morning, I was ready but the weather sadly wasnt. The wind was still blowing a 5-6, so we had to make do with a Boreray-sheltered sheer rock face - more jewel anemones, top shells, velvet crabs and cushionstars, more colour and macro marine life. At St Kilda, even the plan B dives are good!
That afternoon, the wind died down but the sea remained choppy and we found shelter at another of St Kildas classic sites. Just south of Village Bay, on the north face of the Island of Dun, the Sawcut is a narrow gully reaching some 70m into the island. What makes it special is that the gully walls climb sheer from 25m to the surface, rarely more than a few metres apart.
Large boulders mark the entrance. Covered in dahlia anemones, sponges and, usually, nudibranchs, these repay close inspection. Dr Chris was nuts about nudibranchs and found a single rock here seventh heaven!
As we finned into the cut, it became darker. When we could go no further up this underwater alley, all we could see looking back was a faint glow of light.
But my favourite dive that week was at Am Plastair, an isolated islet lying beneath Soays towering north-west cliffs.
It reaches some 45m in height, with the appearance of a jagged tooth, and through the middle an underwater tunnel runs from 24m on the north side to just 4m on the other, becoming progressively narrower near the exit.
Divers have been lost in the past at this high-energy site, and even in calm conditions there can be a big swell.
The sound of the surge rushing through the tunnel echoed around me. Even though under water, it was like being close to waves crashing on a beach.
We dropped onto the deeper entrance and two of our group disappeared inside, but the rest of us decided it was too dangerous to explore. We headed down onto a steep-walled gully which opened up beneath us and turned out to hold a ledge that supported a wide variety of marine life.
There were sponges, dead mens fingers, nudibranchs, common and mating velvet swimming crabs jammed into crevices, large starfish and millions of brilliantly coloured little jewel anemones, but the creature that caught my eye was quite drab in colour.
It was perched precariously on the ledge, and at first all I could see was a grey mass. Then I noticed something moving - a feathery lure, waving back and forth like a fishing rod.
Moving in for a closer look, I could see a pair of eyes, fearlessly returning my gaze. The huge mouth was the giveaway. The anglerfish looked to be measuring me up for dinner, but I wanted to take at least one good photograph first.
The shot proved challenging, not because I was in fear of being swallowed but because of the swell. As I moved back and forth, trying to steady myself as best I could, pieces of seaweed and debris kept floating between the fish and my lens. But patience at last had its reward.
This was our last dive at St Kilda. Mark decided that the next low-pressure front forecast to reach us that night would be best avoided, so we left that afternoon and headed east for shelter, in an increasingly worsening sea. Id rather forget that ride, during which I made full use of the bin-bags thoughtfully provided by our skipper.
We arrived in Loch Maddy on North Uist in heavy rain. I was just glad to see land, dry or not. The next day we steamed into Canna, in perfect sunshine and blue sky, to make two excellent dives, and there were more to come that week, at the awesome pinnacle of Bo Fascadale, and on the wreck of the Rondo.
I will go back to the islands on the edge of the world, but if we have to make another rough crossing, I certainly wont do it lying on a bed in the forward cabin!

  • The Poplar Diver leaves Oban every second Wednesday of the month. The trips are a week long and will include St Kilda if weather permits. Cost is£500 per person. For details call Hannah Thompson on 01680 814 260 or e-mail poplardiver@northernlight-uk.com

  • Jewel
    Jewel anemones are a familiar sight in St Kilda
    Gadget
    Gadget Man gets back on board Poplar Diver
    mating
    mating velvet swimming crabs
    two
    two twins and one rebreather heading for the shotline
    Stac
    Stac Lee, with Boreray behind it
    Divernet
    the
    the popular pub where a pint costs£1
    entering
    entering the Sawcut
    more
    more of those jewels
    The
    The view over Village Bay
    An
    An anglerfish sizes up the photographer it has lured