Trip Report

Isle of Mull


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June 5th-11th 2021 – Trip report written by Jack

This trip had been a long time coming, I think I’ve been talking about diving in the sound of Mull and the week long trips my old club used to do up there since I first joined Hackney. I’m fairly certain I only managed to fill the boat because everyone agreed it was the only way to make me shut up about it!

The west coast of Scotland and especially the Isle of Mull is an amazingly beautiful part of the world, even before we get to the diving. Even the journey up is amazing, as soon as you pass Glasgow the road starts to wind through scenic glens and around stunning lochs, finally arriving in the picturesque harbour town of Oban. The main reason I love it so much though is (unsurprisingly) the diving. The Sound of Mull is a narrow channel between the island and the Morvern peninsula. Because its so narrow it gets a strong tidal flow which brings lots of nutrients from the Atlantic making the life there vibrant and abundant. it was also historically a very busy shipping lane and the unpredictable tides and hazards have provided plenty of wrecks for those of us hankering for some rust!

The plan was a tried and tested one, I’ve run a lot of similar trips in the past albeit when we lived much closer to Scotland. Go up to Oban, take the ferry over to Mull, stay in the large house in Salen by the pier and get picked up on said pier by Malcolm on the Peregrine to do some lovely dives in the sound.

My plan was slightly scuppered by covid restrictions meaning we couldn’t all stay in the same accommodation and I had to book what appeared to be the only remaining places to stay on the island at the last minute. The other places were of… varying quality, 6 of us were in a half-empty Salen pier house while the families had their own places. The Hart of Mull, while probably excellent as an off-grid retreat wasn’t particularly well suited if you want to use your phone or wifi, or wash your clothes… Thankfully the relaxed indoor mixing rules on the island meant the unfortunate souls staying there could hang out at the pier to get their internet fix and use the dryer and they were really cool about it despite drawing the short straw!

The first days diving was a relaxed shakedown day shore diving from the pier. The sun was blazing down and the viz was excellent. Its an interesting little dive, only about 15m max but there’s lots of junk that’s been chucked off the pier over the years to poke around in and lots of life, marshalling was easy as we could see the divers at the bottom from the pier! The diving might be easy but exiting the water at low tide isn’t. A precarious scrabble over the slippy rocks later and all were back safe, thankfully it was a lot easier for the second dive at high tide! 

I did my best Otter impression trying to lift a massive haul of scallops to the surface on my back which was well worth it when we fried them up with lots of butter and garlic for dinner! Later on a few brave souls jumped back in for a night dive which in the gloaming was more of a twilight dive, (it only really gets dark for a couple of hours in summer) they still saw lots of hunting critters and plenty of squat lobsters and took some amazing photos.

The next morning Malcolm met us at Salen to load up for the weeks boat diving. Having the pier right outside where we were staying was ace for meeting the boat in the morning but not great when  trying to load at low tide, it took many journeys up and down ladders and lots of knot tying practice and winching but we eventually got underway and headed north up the sound to Auliston point. there are a couple of great scenic dives here at the mouth of loch Sunart, a rocky bottom with numerous dogfish and a spectacular wall dive covered in anenomes and soft corals. A perfect day to ease people in to the week of boat diving. The sites are non tidal which is good when folk haven’t dived for a while and a lot of faff is going on!

On Tuesday we got the wrecky side of the trip off to a good start with 2 of my favourite dives. The morning was the Rondo, an 80m 2363 tonne tramp steamer wrecked in 1935 against the small islet Dearg Sgeir near Salen after breaking anchor in a storm. This is a really unique wreck as when the ship sank it slid down a steep wall bow-first coming to rest almost vertically with the bow in 54m and the stern between 6-9. This is a great wreck for mixed-level groups as each pair can pick their depth and dive a nice profile slowly ascending up the wreck. Brad and I planned a deep dive on this one as we were both on twinsets with 80% deco gas and its a great wreck to deco on as you can hang off the rudder on your stops! We descended down to 40 and both immediately felt very narked, there’s not that much to see down at the bottom anyway so after climbing out of our own heads we ascended up and spent most of the dive around 30m exploring the remaining superstructure and some very cool swim-throughs between the wall and the keel of the wreck. Finally we ascended through a large school of fish sheltering in the U of the remaining hull before doing our remaining deco around the rudder. This dive is already one of my favourite in the world and I’ve done it probably a dozen times over the years but I don’t think i’ve ever seen it this good, the viz was phenomenal, its usually good in Mull but it must have been 15m at times. Being able to see so much more of the wreck at once gave me much more appreciation of the size of the thing and meant you could comprehend it more as a whole vessel rather than just spots of wreckage in a torchbeam. 

The afternoon brought us to the SS Thesis. This steamship was lost in 1889 while carrying a cargo of pig iron. This is also a dive I remember fondly but I hadn’t dived it for many years due to tales that it had been hit by a scallop dredger and mostly destroyed. Thankfully the tales are somewhat exaggerated. While the damage to the bow section is extensive and sadly the anenome-covered hull ribs which made the wreck such a popular site for photographers are no longer there, it still makes a fascinating wreck to explore, the holds have opened up and you can now explore more of the internal areas and the main boiler still identifiable standing proudly in the middle of the wreck covered in dozens of large sea hares.

Unfortunately despite a conservative deco plan followed to a tee I found later that evening that I was suffering from minor DCI and had to go back to Oban and spend the night in the (thankfully close by) recompression chamber. I won’t go into detail about that here as there will be a whole juicy incident report if you are interested. Sadly though this meant no more diving for me on the trip, thankfully it ended for me on a high with a fantastic days diving and a real trip down memory lane to some of my favourite wrecks.

The next morning’s plan was the SS Breda, we were out with the affable Bodie this time while Malcolm had a couple of days off to get some diving in himself. This huge wartime cargo ship was 6941 tonnes and 122.69m long, Her 5 cargo holds were full of concrete, wire, cigarettes, aircraft and trucks as well as horses and dogs bound for Mombasa when she was sunk by Luftwaffe Heinkel bombers not far from Oban harbour in 1940. She now lies upright between 20 and 30m. As this wreck is further down the sound towards Oban it required driving down and loading up in Craignure. This also meant that I was able to meet the boat in the morning near the site after my thorough tour of the inside of the Dunstaffnage chamber! The afternoon’s dive was a scenic site in the sound of Kerrera, south of Oban and a quick detour via the puffin dive center for drysuit repairs and a lot of glue before returning to Craignure.

The next morning was an early one, the reason being the first dive of the day was on the Hispania, a 644 tonne Swedish steamship. This is a very tidal site in the narrowest part of the sound meaning catching slack was critical. Some of the buddy pairs were victims of the unpredictable currents on this wreck first hand, having to shelter from the tearing current, others were lucky in their timing and had a more relaxing dive exploring the anenome encrusted deck in exceptional viz! The enduring fact many share about this wreck is its one of the most recent known examples of the captain of a vessel choosing to go down along with his ship. Eyewitnesses in the escaping crew reported seeing Captain Ivan Dahn saluting them from the deck as the Hispania finally sank beneath the waves in December 1954.

The Calve Island wall was the afternoon’s dive, not far from the Hispania on the edge of Tobermory bay. The sheer wall is covered in life and the great visibility made for a spectacular sight as the divers were gently pushed along by the current. A lot of smiling faces after that one, especially since the morning’s dive was a bit hairy for some!

For the final day we met Malcolm up at Tobermory and ventured not far at all to the only site of the week that I hadn’t dived before myself, The Pelican. This wreck was originally an iron paddle steamer but had been relegated to a coal hulk permanently moored in Tobermory bay when it dragged its mooring in a storm and foundered against the west shore of Calve island in 1895. The thick sediment and proximity to the shore mean the viz is often very poor  and as such its often ignored in favour of the more reliable sites elsewhere in the sound (hands up, that’s why I’ve never done it). Considering how clear it had been all week we decided to try and were well rewarded. The divers were treated to a spectacular view of the clipper bow rising up out of the seabed and plentiful life in the wreckage. It was great to see this oft-overlooked wreck getting an opportunity to show its mettle (metal?) and I hope i’ll get a chance to see it next time!

Votes were overwhelmingly in favour for doing another dive on the Calve island wall to finish off the trip on a high as everyone had enjoyed it so much the previous day. We had it on a flood tide this time so the divers were able to explore the other direction and found it just as impressive.

We then popped back in to Tobermory to unload and bid Malc and the Peregrine farewell before heading back to Salen with a chippy tea and some well earned beer.

Favourite moments

As I wasn’t able to do a lot of the dives justice in my descriptions I also asked some of the other folk on the trip to share their favourite parts.

Driving in Scotland

Mull: well planned, well managed and well fed. A big thanks to Jack and Lizzie for looking after us and feeding us!

It was well worth the long journey to the Isle of Mull and where we stayed, Salen Pier Lodge, is a beautiful House overlooking the pier with scenery that’s something to behold.

Every dive was scenic with colours and lifeform in some amazing viz, and for me, the last day was memorable (when everything came together), cruising along the wall of Calve Island at nearly 20m and over the wreck of the paddle steamer, the Pelican with Anna.

It was well worth the long journey!

Elaine
Shrimp

Led by Jack & fed by Lizzie, with everyone pitching in when it mattered to make it a well orchestrated trip, thanks

The viz on all the wrecks, Rondo, Thesis, Breda, Hispania, Pelican was great, the colours to be seen on the walls of Calve Island quite stunning

I especially enjoyed    the Rondo, being positioned vertically gave an absolutely amazing clear & colorful view being covered in life, while looking back up into the Sun from 20m to the stern.

And not to forget the scrumptious meal of Jack’s impressive Otter inspired catch of Scallops, wonderfully cooked by Lizzie.

Chris
Tobermory harbour

The Hispania was the first ‘proper’ wreck I ever dived, back in 2012. While the currents on that wreck didn’t work out quite so well for Chris and I this time, it was wonderful to be back in Mull for what I think was my 5th or 6th trip there.  The journey is long, but staying on the island (rather than in Lochaline on the mainland, as many divers do) provides an amazing feeling of being removed from the rest of the world and any trip there feels like a true adventure.  

I’ve consistently had some of my best dives in Mull and this trip was certainly no exception, with the visibility topping any previous trip there.  Cooking for only 6 in the main house rather than the usual 18 ravenous students (as on previous trips there) meant that I frequently over catered.  The man organising the Tesco click and collect in Oban certainly wondered why we needed quite so much bread! I am already looking forward to another trip there and hope that we are all able to stay in the main Pier house next time around!

Lizzie
Squad lobster

My standout highlight of the Mull trip was diving on the Rondo and is probably my most enjoyable UK dive so far.  The spectacular setting of the wreck pointing bow down almost vertically with every surface covered in life, combined with the great visibility and bright sunshine illuminating from above made for a memorable experience.  We were able to spiral around the Rondo allowing exploration of the deck and also the side and bottom of the hull while a large school of fish hovered above.  The final part of the dive gave a stunning view of the stern with the rudder and prop shaft assembly, rising up towards the surface.  Hopefully in the future I will get a chance to dive this wreck again.

Robert
The attack of the jellies

A bag full of scallops,
A tasty fried snack.

A night dive from Salen pier.
A graveyard of shells ahead,
feasting creatures everywhere.

Angry, disturbed by divers at night,
Crabs, starfish, goby and shrimp in bright light.

Fee
Catfish

I think it was clear to everyone on the trip just how important diving in Mull is to Lizzie and I, We both did our first UK dives there and its the only place where I’ve consistently been back throughout the years I’ve been diving. That said I think the conditions were the best I’ve ever seen. The weather was changeable but the seas were calm and the vis was exceptional. I think the lucky 13 on this trip really did experience the best West Scotland has to offer and while it was disappointing that I missed a lot of the diving it didn’t matter so much as I was still able to share these sites which I love so much with new people who haven’t experienced them before. It does however mean that I will be even more compelled to run the trip again (even if I wasn’t already made to promise) so I can apologise to the Pelican in person for ignoring it all these years.