Freesteel Blog » Skye Dive Kayak


Skye Dive Kayak — June 2007

It’s been a whole year since our last lonely kayak dive adventure. Too long. After five years: still no other pair in the whole of Great Britain to go out with in safer numbers.

As usual, this write-up is for my own reference in years to come and not intended to be suitable to the general reader. Stick to the pictures for a good time.

It was the experimental psychology conference season again, this time in Edinburgh. I had been wanting to dive around Skye for years and re-dive the wreck of the Port Napier which I had once done in 1994. Becka’s best friend from school lived close by and was an extreme sea-kayaker. Perfect. We could stay at her place and get the low-down on local knowledge.

Unfortunately, she went with her family on a sea-kayaking holiday to Alaska the week before. We headed north anyway without any bookings.

seapens crabeatfish
We dived in the mud just along the shore in Cuil Bay and found these sea pens. They pull themselves down when you tickle them. I know the photography is terrible, without the necessary flash and so forth. I just like how this crab is poised while eating its fish.

The original plan was to start around Arisaig, just south of Mallaig on the coast west from Fort William, and cross over to Skye after we had checked out the sheltered lochs and marine reserves there. Unfortunately, the hotel in the area was no longer offering dive compressor services and the only source of air I could find on the internet was in northwest Skye. This would be the limiting factor, so I had insisted in packing six tanks into the car to give us the range.

With kayak diving you can get three dives of twenty minutes each out of a single tank. As you are not paying per dive there’s no reason to breath down to the bitter end when you have already seen everything that’s there. It’s easy to come up and move on.

Having taken no interest at all in the books and maps I had been buying in the weeks ahead, Becka read them on the drive up and designed a plan far better than anything I had. Plans are so often ruined by the weather anyway, so there’s almost no point in making them in the first place when you’re just a couple.

changebeforecastle castle
We launched straight from the campsite in Dornie and paddled past the castle Eilean Donan along the length of Loch Duich.

One of the usual stopping points is Loch Fyne, as it is very sheltered and has good diving. I wanted to go more north than that, so we camped just south from Fort William. The man running the campsite was pretty odd and Becka wrote down a false address in his visitors book just in case.

Then we got midged totally. After scratching myself raw and inhaling them half the time while cooking our food, I ran round to the other end of the tent to climb in, hoping they wouldn’t follow. I could hear the patter of little bugs on the tent fabric until Becka came back from her cycle ride. By the morning they were all inside but no longer biting. Maybe they were all full up.

Deep rocky wall dives are all very well, but where do you put the anchor? When we came down it was hanging in mid-water and we had to swim for the cliff.

Our initial plan to paddle out from Cuil Bay one mile from the campsite to the island Eilean Balnagowan was quickly scratched owing to the offshore north wind and all-round chickenness. Since it was the first dive of the trip it would be a shame if it became a disaster. While we could get shelter close in to the south side of the island, the proximity to land wouldn’t be useful if any of our gear failed and one of us had to run for help, since we’d be stuck on an island. Instead we dived fifty metres off-shore in the next cove and saw sea pens.

Then we drove further north to Loch Duich. Two shore dives are listed in the Scottish West Coast diving guidebook. The campsite was on the shore overlooking the castle. In the morning Becka parked the car at the other end of the loch and cycled back. It would be down-wind for us all the way.

Just east of Eileen Donan castle there was, as advertised, a vertical field of peacock worms. If you don’t have a canoe, the shore access is over a very difficult pile of jagged slippery rocks that forms the supporting base of the loch-side road. After the dive, we headed towards the other site at the southeast end of the loch, said to feature “all three kinds of British sea pen”. Unfortunately, we didn’t reach the right place and dived some sloping muddy hollow below a stately home where there were only brittle stars and feather stars.

peacockworms footballjersey
It’s a wall of Peacock Worms poking out of their tubes. The fronds are lovely red peacock colours which your eyes somehow see when you’re underwater, even when your camera does not. It’s very green in this loch. Finally a photo with a flash to see a Football Jersey Worm. These things seem to string themselves out across the landscape willy-nilly and appear to have no means of propulsion.

We headed north onto Skye all the way to the end and onto the Waternish Peninsula where Gordon runs a dive centre where we could get air. It was unfortunate he didn’t have any punters that week to whom we could show off how to put his dive charter boat out of business. Instead he loaned us a lovely field full of buttercups and midges to camp in. I’d bought some chemicals in the supermarket in the form of a roll-on odourant that only partly worked.

Pitching up in the spare field in the village of Stein. It has a pub, a fancy seafood restaurant which we didn’t use, a huge carpark, a gigantic slip, and the dive centre is that white house to the left of the visible road. From there Gordon can watch the squally rain shower coming down the bay through one kitchen window, and see two people not packing their tent away quickly enough through the other.

The next day Becka planned the trip by choosing a page from the “Scottish Sea Kayaking: Fifty Great Sea Kayak Voyages” book which began in Loch Dunvegan at a seal colony, and went all the way round the peninsula and the islands of Isay and Mingay, and back to the village of Stein in Loch Bay where we were camping. It was scheduled to take 4-5 hours and would have the side-effect of calibrating the times as measured with proper sea-kayaks compared to how long it would take on our sit-on-top over-loaded plastic surf-canoes. To complicate timings, we also did two dives and pulled up once on a beach entirely composed of snail shells, but as usual took no food which would have factored into a lunch stop. We completed it in about seven hours.

After the comprehensive evening midge attack (I could see them like little fleas all up and down Becka’s clothes) we changed the tanks and went back out on the water at 7pm to dive Loch Bay Pinnacles, which were indeed very pinnacley. The coordinates in the dive book were wrong, so I will post a correction onto wikiscuba.

deadwhale puffin
This is the only whale we saw on the trip. And this is my only photo of a puffin. The seal photos were even worse. They dive as soon as you take the camera out, even if you had ten of them following you like a flotilla of disembodied heads.

Having filled our tanks at Gordon’s, we moved on to probe the east side of Skye where the kayak guide advertised an amazing coastline between Staffin and the launchable cove of Port Gobhlaig described as a sea-level continuation of the scenery at the Quiraing.

We went soft and opted for the bunk-house at Flodigarry, shared a bottle of wine, and then I used the internet to write up an email cc-ed to all sides involved in a business dispute on-going with my software at the moment. Quite relieved I got away with it.

All the jellyfish were in one spot which must have been a back eddy. Their tendrils get a little bit long and unavoidable. We both experienced a “jelly-moustache” on our upper lip by getting one trapped between the regulator in our mouth and the the bottom of our mask while swimming forward.

I had seen a path up from the shore to the bunkhouse, and made a plan to park the canoes at the bottom of it overnight after our day of paddling south from Port Gobhlaig. At least the distance was short and I was beginning to get tired. The weather was so-so, but there was a deep swell in the ocean which meant it was far too treacherous to go anywhere near the rocks, caves, and interesting arches like we wanted to. You could hear deep booming noises from the dark cracks in the cliff. The wind, always from the north and cold, carried us on to Eilean Flodigarry. We paddled between these islands, which was a bit more scary than anticipated, and decided not to dive.

To avoid the day being too short, Becka wanted to continue to Staffin Island before heading back to shore. We gave up after a kilometre on realizing how hard it would be to paddle back into the wind. Before it gets to the level of impossibility, paddling gets far too tiring to be enjoyable. Somehow we landed on the slippery rounded loose boulders on the shore below the hostel without wiping out, but agreed that it had been a very bad idea.

There was a path up through the vegetation heading straight for the fancy hotel situated beside the hostel. The hostel warden was adamant belonged to him because he put it in and the hotel had objected even though all their guests used it to go down to the sea. In the morning we discovered something else that used it — the trench down the side of the path carried the sewer pipe from the hotel, which partly explained why the boulders were so slippery and smelly there.

badbeach flodigarry
The worst ever beach we have intentionally landed on. Flodigarry island. Better for paddling than diving. Kelp all the way down.

After struggling across these rocks in the morning, we reached Flodigarry Island, and then had a rubbish dive which I aborted after seven minutes. Nothing but kelp and bad visibility all the way down. If I am going to risk myself diving off a canoe in the open ocean at a place with no hope of rescue, it had better be good. We paddled to Staffin Island and then onto the new slipway there in an utterly desolate patch of coastline in the rain. Becka cycled back to fetch the car.

View from our private hostel room in Carbost two steps away from the pub where the locals were practicing their traditional music to themselves in a circle at one end of the room on a random collection of instruments including a flute. We could only hear the bagpipes which were pumped by a squeeze-box beneath the elbow rather than blown into.

And so we moved on to investigate Loch Bricadale on the west side of Skye. The weather was not great. We parked at the usual launch spot near Harlosh Point and considered going out until some guy pulled up in a car and told us about how we should be phoning the coast guard before kayaking anywhere, because last year the rescue had been called out unnecessarily after people reported a car by the shore after dark (some sea kayakers had gone to camp on a nearby island). In anticipation of this, I’d always written down the route plan on a slate and left it in the car window so anyone checking would know where we were.

Coast guard notification before the trip is really only to prevent false alarms, like when we were diving down in Plymouth Bay last year and people on the cliffs had evidently reported two empty canoes floating off in the sea, or when kayakers are doing rescue practices and don’t want to cause alarm. If you notify the Coast Guard of your trip plan in advance, they write it down but do nothing until someone else phones in to report you missing. They don’t call out the rescue themselves, but it comes in useful if the person who calls them up doesn’t happen to know where you were intending to go.

ardtrecklaunch oronsay
Launching from Portnalong slip. The fish farmers have their own private slip. This is the coastline of Oronsay, the first island we met. I’m thinking if the rest of it was going to be as full of caves as this, it was going to take some time.

As we had no such shore person covering for us like this, the club radio we were carrying was probably broken, and we don’t even own a mobile phone (I think I’m going to deal with this pretty soon), we were being pretty stupid. But we survived because the weather was good, we stuck with on-shore winds, and we weren’t going outside of bays. It was certainly a lot safer than a number of cliff walks we have done. One thing about canoeing: there’s no chance of falling to your death anywhere. Unless you get stranded on an inaccessible beach and attempt to climb out.

Becka looked at the map and found an alternative launching spot for the next day with different neighbours. We moved off to Carbost and had an early night in yet another fine hostel before quietly paddling out of Portnalong in the morning to go round Wiay Island. The kayaking book told us of a deep cave on the south side. We went in some way. The swell was with us still, carrying us up and down, with a dark rumbling explosion as it hit the beach further in out of sight. A cormorant in its nest leaned its neck out and growled at us repeatedly. Outside the oyster-catchers with their thin red beaks as long as your forefinger circled and whistled at us to get out of the way. We dived the cliffs in the cove opposite the cave. The sea floor was 18 metres down but the drop-off shelved at 8 metres and was topped with kelp. Most of the life was near this edge, including jewel anemones and sponges. The ocean swell made it difficult to remain in place.

beckain1 beckain2
beckain3 beckain4
The obligatory How-To-Get-On-Your-Kayak sequence. Much, much easier than climbing into a RIB, even with help. Mind you, divers are so lazy now that the charter hard boats are all getting electric winches so you only have to stand on a platform and wait till you can walk in.

No matter how little we drink, and how recently we’ve had a pee, we both tend to finish our short dives with absolutely bursting bladders. Removing the lead weightbelt doesn’t seem to relieve the pressure because there’s something about sitting upright in a canoe that makes the situation unbearable. Becka has a self-donning suit which means she can strip it off without my help (most dive suits have a zip that goes between the shoulders at the back, and requires someone else to do it), which is fortunate since she always beats me in a race to the beach and wouldn’t want to have to wait for me to catch up. This time, just this once, I didn’t make it. One of the few best and most expensive purchases of diving gear I have ever made has been for our undersuits. My trousers soaked it up quite well. When I washed them out later that evening, the water came out dark grey, suggesting that there is quite a lot worse building up in the fabric than just piss.

To avoid the day ending too early, we paddled around Tarner Island and then dived beneath the tall cliffs where the rock and sand sea bed sloped away beyond the depth of rope I had let out on the anchor. Not much to see beyond one sea lemon and one sea hare. After dragging our canoes across the land bridge at Oronsay, we dived beneath the lighthouse in Loch Harport where there was also not a lot to find. According to the charts it was supposed to be a muddy bottom, but we missed it. Mud often supports more life than sand because things can burrow into it, unlike sand which collapses.

unpackfornapier powerfornapier
We spread everything out to dry before putting it on. Another team of divers arrived after us to dive the wreck of the Port Napier as well. The site is straight across the sea behind them on the strech of coastline visible between the two lamp posts.

The sea was not as deserted as we had expected. There were not many sailing boats or yachts, however there were a lot of fishing boats. Many people make a living out of scallop diving and obviously have their own compressors in their shed, so there must be air everywhere, except we don’t know where. We decided that, having missed two days of diving, we could avoid driving all the way back to north Skye and instead eke out what we had left.

The night was spent in a lovely bunkhouse in Portnalong with no obvious reason to be there. Becka made me walk to the end of the road to see the sunset (see below), and then failed to find a shortcut on the way back. There was no law against it. However, there was a ravine and a lot of brambles. I had read the folder of guidelines for the Scottish Land Reform Act 2003 — their version of the Right to Roam — and it was a bit depressing because it is so well done. This law gives the public right of access to all open countryside — including for riding bikes, canoeing, caving and camping — with very few restrictions. Certain places can have this right of access suspended for certain purposes, but only for a limited number of days. Compared to this strong single-malt concoction, the English implementation of the 1997 New Labour manifesto commitment to this public good is just piss water. One theory I have is that the Scottish Parliament, being new, hasn’t been so thoroughly penetrated by established vested interests as the Westminster Parliament whose highly experienced MPs have been trained to understand that their duty is to argue for and impose the narrow interests of the elite on the public — not the other way around.

napiersurface napiersilt
The Port Napier. Hurry hurry. We wanted to get down there and stir up all the silt before anyone else got there.

In the following grey morning, we headed to Kyleakin still on Skye but in the shadow of the Skye Bridge, which had been recently bought from its owners, the Bank of America, for 27 million pounds after it had been built and maintained for ten years using standard construction technology for less than 30 million pounds during which time 33 million pounds of tolls were collected. People had gotten fed up with paying 11 pounds for a round trip, higher than the price of the ferry crossing that had had been there before, and made their voices heard. That was the first Private Finance Initiative project in the United Kingdom. As it was a complete success for business (not for the public, who incidentally do not have the right to see how their money is spent owing to “commercial confidentiality”), the model was rolled out across the rest of the country for most other government funded capital projects for the purpose of ripping us off.

The Port Napier sank in the bay two kilometres away in 1940 after being loaded with mines, catching fire. She was towed off and cast adrift to get on with the inevitable, which was to become a very fine wreck in 22 metres of water on its side with part of its enormous superstructure poking above the surface at low tide. The only time I’d dived it was in 1994 on a 10 day Scottish dive trip with seven other guys from Bristol University. This was pre-Becka, pre-kayaks, pre-living in Liverpool and pre-job. I was a whole other person back then.

We paddled out ahead of a group of three other divers with one wife to drive the boat. They arrived on the pier with their trailer and their tatty looking power boat and we hurried to get underwater ahead of them (a 20 minute paddle). This is a silty wreck with quite a few places to swim into. What’s fun is to pass through the holds and enter these large canyons formed between the floor and the ceiling which are open to the sunlight because the navy had removed the plating on the top side in order to salvage their mines. The decking is made of wood and covered with sea squirts that look like bunches of water filled condoms stapled to every surface. Becka has never followed me into a wreck before, so I was thrilled. We finished the dive with 100 bar in the tanks before the other crew arrived with their big supplies of nitrox. Clearly there was going to be no point in visiting the wreck again after they had stirred up the sediment. They found us back on the pier as we were packing up. No comment about our kayaking; just a grumble about the visibility not being very good. We did not cover much of the wreck, so it could not have been just us.

squatlob rockfish
Sometimes the flash works, with this squat lobster and rockfish that looks like it has lichen growing on it. The darkness in the lower right hand corner is the shadow of the sticking out lens in the flash.

We headed for Plockton on the shores of Loch Carron. The bunkhouse by the train-station was empty. When Becka booted up my computer, it logged onto someone’s WiFi from across the railroad tracks, and we had the internet. We thought we had it made until a crowded minibus of Edinburgh students rolled up and filled every space in the room and we retreated to our beds.

The dive in the morning was straight out from Stromeferry (no ferry) across the loch to the ruins of Strome castle. I used my hand-held echo-sounder to search for a pinnacle in the middle of the loch and discovered that there was indeed a 3 knot current there, as reported by the marine charts. The water was smooth and you couldn’t really see or feel it. Over by the cliffs in a cove which you can shore-dive was a drop-off to 18 metres. In the fish-tank clear waters you could dangle in free space and see both the sea bed below and the canoes floating far above on the undulating surface.

carronsurface julianraft
At dive sites, Becka gets on with things, while Julian falls asleep. I had been hoping to persuade her to tow me back to the beach, but I couldn’t catch up once she began to paddle off.

We up-anchored and paddled up-stream to the point overlooked by another house and struck gold. For no reason, Becka had ceased being terminally terrified of currents. “What’s the worse that could happen?” We’d be swept along the shore and into the next cove. My small grapnel anchor just barely took hold on something. We hauled ourselves down the rope to the sea floor to see it embedded in a muddy bottom with the flame-shells hopping around like disturbed scallops. I had known about them for years from books, and had always wanted to see one. What a treat. We tried to head up-stream but the current was too great, so we lifted the anchor and drifted, and saw no more flame-shells anywhere.

The sea floor was unusual, being of a kind of crusty texture and, although shallow, entirely free of kelp. I believe that the current has something to do with it, by tearing up any plant by its roots once its frond had grown too long.

beckatorch julianuw
Various underwater scenes, with a rare picture of me in my crappy eBay bought baggy dive suit. I’m going to look for another one for Becka because I prefer to use hers.

We were swept to another place where there was a field of maerl, an unusual red algae that appears to secrete pieces of branching coral that don’t quite join together to form a reef. There were white anemones of the kind you get at high energy sites. We held ourselves steady by grabbing a car tyre embedded in the ground until, running out of air, we headed shallow and out of the current.

We paddled back to Stromeferry and changed to the tanks we’d used for the Port Napier to have a third dive. I tried the sand anchor this time and we returned to Flame Shell Point.

Then we discovered what was going on. If the anchor hadn’t torn through the strip of clotted mud on the sea floor forming their nest at just the right place, we’d never have known where to find the flame shells. Woops. Hopefully they can repair the damage if nobody else makes this mistake. Dredging would obviously be entirely fatal to the colony.

Although it was three hours later, the current still showed no signs of weakening. As we ran out of air, I found a patch of sand to embed the anchor into so I could trail the rope up past the cliff and see all the brittle stars dangling off the feet of the kelp stems. The water was so clear you couldn’t believe it if you had any experience of diving in Britain. It was without doubt the best dive of the trip. I would come all the way back here just for this.

flameshells hungryanemones
Two flame-shells hopping around out of their nest. Then one went too close to an anemone which swallowed it whole in an instant. Becka stuck her fist into it to rescue it from digestion.

We surfaced and paddled down-stream to Plockton, past the seal colony, and shared a portion of chips. Then Becka cycled off to get the car and we zoomed off to a fairly crap child-infested four-star (how do they get that?) hostel just outside of Fort William who’s main selling point was that they had WiFi.

The next morning we got all our tanks filled by the commercial dive training centre at Fort William (it’s a service they don’t advertise) and we drove down to Cuil Bay where we had done our first practice dive. It was cloudy. There was some rain, but not much. But Becka was at last beginning to feel a bit tired. It was the beginning of a five day psychology conference the next day of which she was on the committee, so she needed to get prepared. We drove off without diving, as we had a trip to St Abbs to look forward to after the conference.

flameshellhome maerl
This is the land where the flame-shells live, beneath a mat of sticky encrusted mud. You would never have known they were there unless you had broken the crust and found them all embedded like easter eggs. The pink stuff on the right is maerl, a type of coraline algae. This place was nearby, but we were swept across it by the current. The only way you could stop was to hold on to the rim of a car tyre embedded in the floor.

The day before the conference started was a workshop on Haptics, the experimental psychology of touch. I photographed an interesting set of concrete tiles on the pier at Fort William which they presumably use to train commercial divers to detect defects in oil rig platforms possibly by touch. I can think of no other commercial trade where professional workers would be taught tactile textures as part of their qualification. Now, you would hope that academics would leap towards the apparent connection between with their field of study and something happening out there in the real world and want to investigate it. Likewise, the curator in the natural history museum might be interested in climbing the stairs if he believed that a living dodo had landed on the roof. However, all you get is excuses from people these days to avoid taking advantage of serendipity. It will be decades before one of these academics, spending their full research time producing studies on the psychology of touch, bothers to call up Fort William diver training school to ask for permission to sit in on one of their lessons. And that’s my rant of the day

juliansleep forthaptics
Becka cycled back to fetch the car, as usual. I’m much more patient at waiting with the stuff than she is. In fact I fell asleep in the rain, and she was able to drive past, park the car, steal the camera that I was looking after, and photograph me. The second photo appears to be a training aid for commercial divers on the pier at Fort William where they learn how to discriminate various types of imperfections in concrete. Refer to the rant in the text.

I’ve been in Edinburgh for three days so far. A friend has lent the use of her flat, which has been very handy. We get our internet fix by standing on the pavement opposite a WiFi enabled pub in the morning. And it looks like I’m going to spend the whole time not making any contact with any programmer in the Scottish Parliament down the road who works in the Informatics department and with whom I could share a lot of common knowledge gained from the Publicwhip project. In my paid work area, business is consumed by a ridiculous dispute about what counts as permission for what, and which could be summarized by the following exchange:

Friend: Go on, come down to the pub with me.
You: No I can’t. My mother will get cross.
Friend: I promise you, this is a great pub. There is no way she would be cross if you went there.
You: I did as you said. She appeared to be pretty cross when she found out. You lied to me, didn’t you?
Friend: No I didn’t. It’s a great pub. There is no reason she should be cross at you for being there.

In other work, I’m going to have to write a function to intersect a circle with an ellipse. I asked a friend who works in separate company if they had already done it, but he said there’d be a problem with giving me information because the boss believes it’s important to keep it secret to retain their competitive advantage. What this achieves is just a waste of my time, because I’m going to have to do it myself, and I will then publish it so all their competitors can find out about it. Which they won’t because, like academics, they’ll be too lazy to take advantage of stuff. It’s always easier to knuckle down and do a day’s work, than drift around with an open mind looking for ways to make that work obsolete. It’s a habit picked up at school where — let’s face it — 100% of the work is without a point to it in and of itself, and it’s difficult to shift out of that when you leave the learning environment.

I hope to get underwater again soon.


Julian Todd 2007-07-04

Sunset over Loch Bricadale