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United Kingdom: Oban

1st October 02

SCOTLAND - Oban and the Sound of Mull by Chris Ingham

heatherislandThe plan was to end the diving 'season' with some truly world class diving, and we did! I had never dived in Scotland before and was expecting something spectacular. I was not disappointed. Oban is a relatively small town, but nevertheless has a busy harbour, as it is the departure point for most of the ferries travelling to the Western Isles. Oban is approximately two hours drive from Glasgow, North along the shore of Loch Lomond, and then West over mountains of Argyll. The town is rightly known as the 'diving capital' of the West Coast of Scotland.

1.1 Why go there?
Intact wrecks, abundant sea life (which generally seemed much larger than I am used to seeing in the south of the UK), breathtaking scenery. It's a thrill just to cox a fast RIB among the islands, surrounded by spectacular cloud covered mountains, and spotting the occasional seal basking in the autumn sun on nearby rocks, or a bird of prey high above you.

1.2 How to get there.
The best way to get to Oban will depend on where you are starting from. From Bristol it took us ten hours to drive, towing boats. Several of our team travelled to Scotland the day before, effectively breaking the journey into two days. Two people took a plane to Glasgow, and then hired a car. Their heavy equipment (cylinders and weight belts) was transported up with the boats. If you live close to a regional airport this can work out cheaper than driving, and is certainly much less tiring.

1.3 When to go.
Diving in Scotland is definitely seasonal. Our expedition was from the 10th - 13th October 2002. We were taking a bit of a chance with the weather. However the islands provide lots of shelter. Although bad weather prevented us from diving all the sites we had originally planned to there were plenty of relatively sheltered sites to use as alternatives. I suspect the weather would have to be very bad indeed to stop diving completely.

2. Dive Sites
There is no shortage of books, magazine articles and web sites describing the famous dive sites of the area. Local dive operators have permanently buoyed most of the more popular wreck sites. Local divers were happy to provide us with advice and information. The following is just my personal impression of the sites we dived.

2.1 Breda
When asked where he would like to dive, a customer at the Puffin dive centre was heard to reply "anywhere, so long as its not the Breda". I feel that this sentiment is somewhat unfair to a wreck that is very much worth diving. The site is non-tidal, so can be dived at any time. The down side of this is that there is a relatively large amount of particulate matter in the water. A good torch is essential to enjoy this dive. At over 400 feet long there is a lot of wreck to explore. Large holds make for very interesting diving, although the Breda is a very well dived site so do not expect to find items worth salvaging.
Marine life on the Breda includes common starfish, velvet swimming crabs, edible crabs, feather stars, sea squirts, pollack and dragonets.

2.2 Thesis
With the bow at 15 metres and the stern at 30 metres this is a very interesting dive. You can pick your depth according to how long you want to spend underwater. This vessel was wrecked in 1889 and most of the superstructure and decking is gone. This means that it is easy to explore the entire wreck. Strong currents sweep this site, so appropriate care needs to be taken. The advantage of this is that the visibility is relatively good.
Some very spectacular sun starfish as well as blenny, ballan wrasse, scallops and squat lobsters can be found at this site.

hispania 2.3 Hispania
Apart from wooden (long since rotted away) and brass (salvaged) fittings, this is completely intact wreck. Covered in sea squirts, with lots of squat lobsters. There were also scallops and velvet swimming crabs. A fantastic dive! Although we dived this at 'slack' water there was always a current.

2.4 Lochaline Pier
About five meters from the pier the sea bed drops off vertically from a depth of 10 meters to (according to our echo sounder) over 90 meters. A rocky wall absolutely covered in marine life. I saw more squat lobsters on this dive than on all the other dives I have ever done put together. They were in every nook and cranny. Although it got dark below 30 meters the abundance of life continued.
Needless to say this dive requires good buoyancy control, but is equally spectacular at all depths, and so suitable for all levels of experience or qualification.

2.5 'Heather' Island
Between Kerrera and the mainland, just north of the ferry crossing there is a small island that has an impressive drop off on its eastern side. Close to Oban and sheltered, this site makes an excellent bad weather option or a non-tidal second dive. The wall had the usual population of squat lobsters. At the bottom of the wall the seabed is home to some large scallops.

2.6 Shuna
Although the deck structures have long since collapsed the hull of this vessel remains intact. The holds still contain her cargo of coal. The wreck itself was completely covered in sea squirts. Several cuckoo wrasse were also seen.

3. Dive Centres and Launch Sites
The Oban area has lots of dive centres and charter boats. Three we found particularly helpful and friendly were:

puffindivers 3.1 Puffin Divers.
Have their own charter boats and a well-equipped dive shop. They let us use their car park and slip way for no charge on the understanding that we purchased our air (?2 per fill) etc. from them. They also let us have the use of a changing room. A PADI training centre, but clearly used to meeting the requirements of BSAC clubs.

3.2 Lochaline Divers.
Drove down to the dock and collected our cylinders to save us a walk up the hill to the dive centre (?2.50 per fill, ?3 for O2 clean cylinders). When one of our divers asked if she could use one of their rooms to change into dry cloths, they offered her free use of a shower (and a pink fluffy towel). The centre is SSI affiliated, and also offers NAS training.

3.3 Oban Divers
?5 per boat per day launching fee (offered us a very good deal of ?10 per boat for 4 days) and will launch boats for you with their own 4 wheel drive vehicle at no extra charge. A very modern compressor (?2 per fill). They also run a charter boat, the Gannet (?30 for 2 dives including air fills).

4. Accommodation and Food
Our team stayed at Cologin Country Chalets, about 3 miles south of Oban. ?50 per night for a very well equipped 'Inner Hebridean' chalet which sleeps 4 (one double bed, 2 singles). Good food (and beer) served in the 'Barn'. The site also had ample parking space for the boats. Oban is not short of reasonably priced restaurants that provide good food in pleasant surroundings. We all made sandwiches for lunch as it was hard to find anywhere to eat between dives. I suspect this was due to the time of year.
5. Things to consider when planning an expedition to this location.

5.1 Take your own boats?
kerrera The advantage of taking your own boats is that you are in no way limited as to the sites you choose to dive. Also it generally works out cheaper than hiring space on a commercial boat. Travelling to the dive site in your own boat is (in my opinion) as much fun as the diving itself. However a number of factors may make it more advantageous to make use of a local dive operator:
If you are travelling from the South of England you may well find it cheaper to use a charter boat. If you are a large group you may well be able to negotiate substantial discounts.
If your group fills a charter boat, you are in a much better position to insist on the dive sites of your choice.
The area presents a number of hazards for divers (see sections below on tides and weather). If this is your first visit to the area it may well be prudent to rely on the experience and local knowledge of commercial dive operators.

5.2 Skills mix of your team
Our team consisted of 1 First Class Diver, 2 Advanced Divers, 4 Dive Leaders and 4 Sports Divers. Varied dive sites allowed everyone to enjoy the diving. We completed 8 dives over 4 days mostly at depths of 20 to 30 meters. The more experienced divers taking it in turns to buddy the less experienced ones to ensure everyone got to enjoy the diving safely.
When planning which dive sites to visit, you need to carefully consider the experience of your group. Some of the dives in this area can be very challenging.

5.3 Tides, currents and slack water
Tides and slack water can be unpredictable in this area. This is one of the reasons that there are so many wrecks. On many of the sites the tide is never completely slack, and you should not consider diving these unless all your team members are happy to dive in a current, and have some previous experience of doing so. All divers need to be equipped with delayed surface marker buoys, and support boats should be aware that divers might surface some distance from the dive site. On the plus side it is worth recording that, due to good visibility we were always able to easily find our way back to the shot line.

5.4 Weather, and alternative dive sites
If the tides are unpredictable the weather is even more so. It is essential when planning an expedition to this area to have a number of alternative dive sites if the weather makes your original choice unusable. Fortunately the islands and lochs provide a large number of worthwhile dive sites in sheltered locations.

6. Additional Information
Moir, P. & Crawford, I. (1997) Argyll Shipwrecks. Moir Crawford, Inverclyde. ISBN 0 9513366 1 4.
This excellent hardback book lists over 300 wrecks. For each wreck there is a short history of the vessel along with a description of the site today. High quality transit charts and site plans are included for many of the wreck sites.

20th October 2002
Chris Ingham