Freesteel Blog » Scotland kayak dive Loch Sunart and Loch Ailort

Scotland kayak dive Loch Sunart and Loch Ailort

Monday, June 20th, 2011 at 12:07 am Written by:

The week of hard boat diving in the sound of Mull with the club carried off very well, though we shall not speak of the incident with the octopus.

Unusually, the dogsbody assistant on the boat was far more senior than the skipper. His name was Alan and he had run a dive charter business in the area for many years until he retired. For some reason, he chose our week to spend some time out at sea. This was fantastic as he knew all sorts of dives which the skipper didn’t know about, and was trusted. Because of him we double-dipped the Falls of Lora.

Alan had strong opinions about what places were good, and what was over-rated (eg don’t bother with the Summer Isles, they’re a waste of time, the diving’s no good there) — which was amazing because he had never once himself been underwater. Everything he knew came from dropping his paying divers in different parts of the ocean and listening to what they had to say when they came up. He gave completely accurate dive briefings.

I brought all my maps on board over the next few days and extracted as much information as I could from him about some other dive sites we could do from our kayaks.

On Saturday, when everyone else was driving back to Liverpool, we drove north to Loch Sunart and pitched our tent in Resipole. Then we went to check out a site near the confluence of Sunart and the Sound of Mull on a rock called Sligneach Mor, northwest of Oronsay. We were advised to do it on the second half of the ebb. Unfortunately, the timing put us there on the second half of the flood. The seals bounced themselves off the rocks as we approached. I tried to anchor on a six metre shelf to the north east. We got in the water and started to kit up tied on by our bungie cords. The current was hard to fight against and I noticed that the nose of my kayak was being pulled underwater. Something had tangled up the anchor line and was making it pull vertically down.

Dive aborted. Anchor abandoned. The buoy at the end of the rope bag went beneath the waves until the bag broke and more rope was able to unravel. Fortunately, the current was a problem that was going to go away once high tide approached. All we had to do was wait. I lay down in the sun for a while. Becka was being unusually mellow. An hour later we tried again.

Alan had told us that you had to get the location exactly right as only ten metres of the edge was any good. I was prepared for a search. But when we pulled ourselves over the kelp and off the edge into the channel we found he was entirely correct. There was a huge overhang above a 50 metre hole (depth according to the charts) with the largest plumose anemones I have seen. One of them was two hand breadths wide. We swam back and forth along the face twice, not daring to go any deeper than about 9 metres into the abyss. Then we quickly surfaced and paddled the three kilometres back to the car (which we thought we’d lost for a while as we couldn’t see it till the last hundred metres).

Dive 2 was at the the inner end of Loch Sunart off an island called Eilean Mor at NM758603 for the flame shells. Was there going to be any current? asked Becka. Probably not, I said.

There turned out to be quite a lot of current coming out that last seven kms of that narrow loch. We paddled across hundreds of metres of 8 metre seabed (according to the echo sounder) until it began to shelve off to deeper water, then we kitted up free hanging downwind and up current of the standing waves. I didn’t use an anchor because I knew what it would do to the flameshell nests.

We landed on a mat of brittle stars. This gave way to a black spongy seabed punctuated with holes the size of my big toe. This was the flameshell nest. Becka didn’t notice it, even when I put my hand into it occasionally and pulled out some hazelnut sized flame shells with their orange frills wriggling. The current carried us on fast. There were gigantic dailia anemones planted here and there which evidently feasted off unlucky flame shells. One was actually eating a crab. Eventually the habitat gave way to patchy sand with squat lobsters standing guard, and a very small number of scallops. Becka found a thornback ray and tried to pick it up, having mistaken it for a flatfish. It’s tail flexed.

Back on shore the midges were out. Their density increased until we were at the centre of an angry duststorm. We had to wear our hoods and diving masks in the carpark while packing up. Inside the car bag loads of midges bounced against the windscreen.

The midges were very bad at the campsite too. I ran around scratching and occasionally whimpering while Becka sorted out the tent. Then I climbed in, threw my infested clothes outside, zipped up all the doors, and waited for the now finite number of midges on the inside to finish biting me and fly to the corner. I cooked dinner on the trangia entirely inside the tent, which you’re not supposed to do.

The midges were still there in the morning.

Day two was a tour round the Ardnish peninsula from Loch Nan Uamh to Loch Aiolort leaving everything crammed in the car at the side of the road.

Alan had pointed out a place called Anemone Point on the north side of the peninsula. We didn’t get it right and only found a rubbly slope. Then there was a quick stop for lunch at the tip behind Eilean a’ Chaolais, before an attempt a Priest Rock.

Priest Rock felt quite far out. I reached it using the GPS on my phone, which was difficult to read through a plastic bag in the sunshine when it doesn’t have an app to steer you there, so the coordinates had to be written down on a piece of paper also in the bag which kept sliding in front of the display. Fortunately, the target area was massive. Also, the sea state was flat calm, otherwise I would not have had the confidence to dive so far out. Unfortunately, we didn’t find what was so good about the site as it seemed to be nothing more than a kelpy barren slope down to 20 metres. Very good visibility for a change, but it has to have a lot more than that to detain me for very long on a kayak dive.

Then we paddled eight long kilometres along the length of Loch Ailort against the wind (which was not in the direction that had been predicted) in sunshine (rain had been predicted).

There was a mysterious gas bubbling out of the shallows in the area approaching Eilean Buidhe.

The final destination was the north island of Eilean Dubh on the northwest side. The anchor came unstuck as we were kitting up and we had to swim ourselves back while towing the kayaks.

This dive had everything. There were smooth rock walls laced with brittle stars and these giant worm tubes bigger than hosepipes. There were attractive pink anemones clinging to the tubes (though the worms themselves were nowhere to be seen). Two large dogfish got disturbed. Then there were these huge spiny starfish (Marthasterias glacialis) whose arms were extremely fat and bloated like they couldn’t eat any more.

Here is a video on the BBC discussing and handling one for some reason.

There were also these avalanches of empty mussel shells, which I couldn’t explain at all. Up near the surface in 3 metres I found gigantic oysters the size of my hands glued to the rock. They might be these.

Night was spent in Glen Etive where the drizzle finally got going. In the morning we went for a flea bitten soggy down to the river with the intention of leaving for home as soon as possible. However, the blackness of the water looked so tempting that we carried our kit down the track and dived in it in the rain. It was pretty attractive, like underwater canyoning. I saw two small fish. Drive home took 8 hours.


  • 1. Robert Burgess replies at 7th July 2011, 11:34 pm :

    I reckon Alan Livingston was the best dive boat skipper working the sound of Mull. He always judged the tides well, remarkable considering he was not a diver.

  • 2. Robert Burgess replies at 7th July 2011, 11:40 pm :

    I reckon Alan Livingston was the best dive boat skipper working the sound of Mull. He always judged the tides well, remarkable considering he was not a diver. I’ve enjoyed reading your kayak diving blog for a few years. This year I finally went and bought my own although I’ve only been out in it three times so far.

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