Whatever the weather
THE LAST TIME it got really cold in Britain was in early 2013, when there were dire warnings of Arctic apocalypse. According to the forecasts for the weekend the country was to be covered under blankets of snow, the roads would grind to a halt and the supermarket shelves would be emptied of bread and milk by panic-buyers.
And what did we do We packed the car with kit and went diving, of course!
And it wasnt nice and cosy, luxury diving in some far-off tropical location. We were heading north to Scotland to dive in Loch Fyne off the open RIB Fyne Pioneer.
As we drove north, it seemed that we were out-running the worst of the snow, but it wasnt getting any warmer - it was, in fact, quite the opposite. It was bitterly cold!
The boats skipper, Simon Exley, had been offering weekend deals over the winter, with cut-price rates for diving and accommodation, and the cottage provided was on the shores of Lochgair, on the north side of Loch Fyne.
Ours was the first of Simons winter weekends, and it seemed that nobody had stayed in the cottage for a while, so when we arrived it was rather cold, but we got the heating on and it started to warm up.
It would take all night for the heat to force the cold from the thick stone walls but, insulated by a couple of pints from the village pub, sitting in front of the open fire provided some comfort.
In the morning, the advantages of the location were perfectly apparent. The cottage was right on the shore, with a walk of only a couple of dozen paces to the water, where the RIB was moored-up waiting for us. We had plenty of room on the boat, with only six divers plus Simon and his dad as skipper.
We had brought twin-sets, so we could be flexible with our diving, and it was no trouble with kitting-up benches available on board and a ladder for getting back into the boat.
Of course, what the Fyne Pioneer doesnt have is a nice, warm cabin. It was seriously cold, the air temperature below freezing for the entire weekend.
I had put on virtually every bit of underclothing I had with me, and some additional weight in my belt to compensate, but as it turned out it was actually warmer in the water than it was at the surface!
With a top speed of 45 knots, it didnt take Simon long to get us to our first dive-site but we all huddled low in the boat to keep out of the biting wind as we sped over the loch. This was proper, old-school British diving!
Our first site was Seal Island. My previous visit here had been on a beautiful, calm morning with a thin wisp of mist floating over the water; the archetypal Scottish castle in the background giving the vista a magical feel.
Today was a little different, although there was only a gentle breeze in the shelter of the island, so it was far from choppy. However, the sub-zero air temperatures certainly gave the day a bit of an edge.
This is an excellent site for a critter search. Currents here are negligible at any state of the tide, making it an easy dive. You drop onto a shelf at about 5m, and then a gentle slope leads you down to a wall starting about 10m below.
We settled at the 20m range and busied ourselves inspecting all the nooks and crannies, seeking out the life within.
Squat lobsters could be seen everywhere and various species of crab were in evidence. As youd expect, velvet swimming crabs were common, as were hermit crabs, and along the way we found some sizeable edible crabs tucked into their holes and hollows.
We stayed in the water much longer than we had anticipated, soon realising that we were more comfortable down there, so it was some 50 minutes before we headed up to the shallows where we found, grazing on the red weeds, a proliferation of nudibranchs - more than I have ever seen in one place before.
Before our next dive, we moored up at the Quarry View Cafe.
This is a favourite shore-dive site for locals, and there was a group training in the bay when we got there.
WADING ASHORE, WE WERE WELCOMED in the cafe despite our dripping drysuits, and warmed up by the excellent home-made lentil and bacon soup, followed by a steaming hot chocolate. Just what was needed to fight off the chill.
Heading out for the afternoon, we made our way to Gortien Point for more of the same.
This site is situated on the south shore of the loch, near the mouth of Lochgair, so not far from home.
It offered a series of rocky outcrops interspersed with sandy slopes, so plenty of life living within the cracks, together with the opportunity to collect scallops for dinner.
Then we headed across Loch Fyne and into the mouth of Lochgair for a bit of a bonus dive. Simon had been researching potential new sites in the area and had a few places he wanted to check out. His list included a rumour of Sherman tanks that went down during exercises in the loch during WW2, but that was one for the future.
Today we were going to investigate a possible wreck, marked near Ardcastle Point on an old chart that Simon had found. His research had turned up no record of what the wreck might be, and we had no definite co-ordinates - just a rough location from the chart.
We split our numbers and, while Simon and his buddy checked deeper water, we decided to try a little closer to shore, exploring the theory that the wreck had perhaps run aground.
We were expecting only to find broken steel plates or timbers at best but, as it turned out, not even that was evident.
We found only a clean, sandy bottom without the slightest trace of wreckage, but at least we were able to narrow the search by determining where the wreck definitely wasnt.
In the deeper water Simon had found little more, so for a later occasion we planned to go further along the shore to continue the search.
From there it was only a matter of minutes before we were mooring up outside our cottage and offloading tanks ready to be filled for the next day - an overnight service that Simon provides.
Our second day of diving was just as cold as the first, although we had a little more room on the boat, as a couple of our number had decided to pass.
Our first dive was at Stallion Rock, reached quickly after we voted to endure a short, high-speed blast to get there.
We found that huddling down into the floor of the boat protected us from the worst of the wind-chill.
This site fell in with the theme for the weekend - rocky outcrops with nooks and crannies filled with squat lobster, crayfish, hermit and velvet swimming crabs, along with the occasional monster edible crab.
I HAD BEEN HOPEFUL of encountering a dogfish or two, as wed seen some egg-sacs on our previous dives, but sadly we were unlucky on that count. However, we again found an abundance of nudis in the shallowest few metres.
Lunch was once more at the Quarry View, with a second helping of the excellent home-made soup. It warmed us enough to allow us to brace the cold weather one last time.
We were give options on where to go next, and decided to repeat the dive at Seal Island, in part because it had been our best so far over the weekend, but also because it was on the way back to the cottage, allowing us to get away that bit earlier for our drive home.
A second dive here gave us the chance to get the photos we might have missed the day before. Once more I was hoping for a dogfish to shoot, but none were to be found. Indeed, with crustaceans everywhere and nudis covering all the shallow plant life it was only fish that were not in plentiful supply, but we rarely noticed their absence.
Again, we were warmer in the water than on the surface, so we stretched the dive out to the safe limit of our air supply before heading up with just the obligatory 50 bar in reserve.
All too often divers consider the winter months to be closed season, and it has to be conceded that diving in such cold conditions is not for the faint-hearted. However, there are numerous locations around our coasts that are sufficiently sheltered from the weather to be reliably diveable whatever the conditions, negating strong winds and choppy seas.
So in the winter all that is left to contend with is the temperature. The thing is, water can really only get so cold. It never gets below freezing, and as long as youre properly equipped it isnt too difficult to manage.
Surface temperatures can get lower, of course, but all it requires is a bit of common sense and preparation.
As a wise man once said to me: Its never too cold - youre just wearing the wrong clothes!
So perhaps this year youll consider diving on through the winter, keeping those skills up and enjoying what is still some excellent diving throughout the colder months.
Boat charters and accommodation can be arranged through Fyne Pioneer in Lochgilphead, www.fynepioneer.co.uk, 01546 808085.