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The Corryveckan, Slate Islands, Scotland

by Richard Scarsbrook

In November 1997 a group of us had dived the pinnacle in Corryvreckan, and the purpose of this 4 day trip was to dive it again, weather permitting. Unfortunately weather didn't permit so this is an account of what we did manage to do. Corry or not, this was to be four days of very adventurous diving, so I had invited only the most experienced of divers. The ten divers were Les, Phil, Dave, Connie, Steve the DO, JU, Jen, and myself from Trafford, and John Wright and Andy Cronshaw, old friends from Darwen BSAC who had shared many adventures with us in the past. JU's wife Nora, who doesn't dive, came as well.

Jen and I set off for Oban on Wednesday afternoon, just escaping the worst of the rush hour queues on the M60 round Manchester. I always enjoy the drive up to Oban, even though it averages about 5 hours for the 300 mile journey. The traffic was pretty tedious as usual for the first hour or so until north of Lancaster, but after that the roads get emptier and the driving gets more pleasant . The M6 through the Lake District is one of the most picturesque bits of motorway in England, and the next 100 miles to Glasgow goes through some equally attractive hills. On this trip the clouds were above the hills, and were beginning to break up as we drove through southern Scotland, giving spectacular sunset colours for nearly an hour. North of Glasgow the dual carriageways finish and the route goes up the side of Loch Lomond and then west via Loch Awe and Loch Etive to Oban. This is real highland country, with rugged mountains all the way. Although it was dark by now, you could see the outline of the hills. There was quite a bit of clear sky as we approached Loch Etive, and some unusual shafts of white light to the north. We stopped to have a better look, unsure if this was the Northern Lights. I'm still not sure, but others who arrived later reported seeing green lights, and when I got home there was an aurora-watch alert on my email, so maybe they were.

We were staying at Cologin Chalets, self-catering accommodation just south of Oban on the Campbelltown road, a place we've been using for years. It's in an unspoiled valley surrounded by hills, it has a bar which serves reasonable food, you can come and go as you please, and it's considerably cheaper than a B&B (which to my mind are rather overpriced in Oban). We arrived to find JU and Nora already there. The Darwen lads arrived soon after and we adjourned to the bar, where the rest of the party arrived just before last orders. We didn't need to be at the boat until 11 the next morning, so we ordered extra nightcaps and took them back to the chalets for more craic before turning in about 1 am.

After a leisurely breakfast our small convoy set off to meet the boat. It's about a 20 minute drive south alongside Loch Feochan and Loch Seil and over the much photographed Clachan 'Bridge over the Atlantic' bridge to Seil island and the small sheltered jetty at Balvicar. The sun was shining and the scenery was full of autumn colour - green and gold hills and brilliant red berries on the mountain ash.

For this type of diving you really have two choices - do it yourself in RIBs, or charter David Ainsley's boat Porpoise. Except perhaps in summer, I prefer the comfort and stability of a hardboat, so I had chartered Porpoise. She is an Offshore 105 giving a comfortable diving platform for 10. David has been working the Firth of Lorne south of Oban for many years and has unrivalled knowledge of the local dive sites. A marine biologist by training, David is an active and highly qualified diver (BSAC First Class/Advanced Instructor) who has personally explored many of the sites and understands the requirements of adventurous divers.

I had chosen one of the smallest tides of the year, reaching its minimum on Friday and Saturday. The plan had been that everybody would arrive fully worked up for deep dives in strong currents. Unfortunately bad weather and trips cancelled during the fuel protests had partially thwarted these good intentions, so Thursday was set aside as a work up day.

For the first dive we picked a site on the east side of Eilean Dubh Beag which offered a 30 degree slope from the shallows to beyond 50 metres. David told us to look out for a rare species of anemone which lives on swiftia sea fans at this site (he also told us about another rare species whose name escapes me). Everybody had a good dive and went deep enough to get pleasantly narced. The vis was about 8 metres, and there was a ridge of bedrock running all the way down with small steps and crevices hiding various types of squat lobster. I saw the rare anemone at 42 metres and again at 24 metres.

We anchored up in a sheltered bay east of Eilean Dubh Mor for lunch. As usual there was plenty of craic and good humour. For the afternoon dive we went to a site David calls Tombstone, a reef at the north end of the Sound of Luing. The site gets its name from some spooky-looking pieces of slate about a metre high which stick up from the sides of the reef. It is a pretty site with life typical of the current-swept sites in this area - a dense covering of orange and white alcyonium (dead men's fingers) and the anemone actinothoe. We dived a little before slack, and Les and I drifted down to the end of the reef then 'mountaineered' hand-over-hand against the current back to the starting point.

An hour and a half later we were back ashore, enjoying liquid refreshments at the Tigh an Truish Inn at Clachan Seil after loading 20 cylinders into David's truck for filling. John and Andy kept everyone entertained with a stream of jokes and stories. It had been a good days diving and it was clear that everybody was dive-fit. We headed back to Cologin for food and an earlyish night, ready for the big dive the next day.

Corryvreckan pinnacle is reckoned by some to be the most challenging dive in the UK. There is certainly no doubt that it is totally unforgiving. The Gulf of Corryvreckan lies between the islands of Jura and Scarba. It is about half a mile wide and a mile long, with tides of 8 knots or more. The average depth is over 100 metres, and there is a pit of over 200 metres at one point . A ridge of rock runs out about 200 metres from Scarba 50 metres below the surface, rising to a pinnacle at 30 metres at its southern end. The tide hits this wall of rock and creates massive turbulence with overfalls and down currents. The whirlpool thus created is said to be the third largest in the world, and featured in a recent Channel 4 Equinox science programme. Slack water is hard to predict and only lasts a few minutes. The down currents can start at any time. When we dived it in 1997, although the dives were uneventful, you could feel the power of the tide all the time. This dive is only for the most capable and experienced of divers, because if anything goes wrong that you cannot cope with right away you will be swept down into undiveably deep water in an accelerating tide. In other places you might dive in much fiercer conditions knowing that the currents eventually slacken off and that you would be able to sit on the bottom at 50 metres with enough air left to sort yourself out. It is the sheer scale of the Corry that sets it in a class of its own. Needless to say, without perfect conditions you don't do it. As we approached the entrance to the Corry I could see white water at the western end and I realised that the dive would not be on. We went and looked at the overfalls on the pinnacle anyway, and sure enough the west going flood tide was meeting a swell from the west and the overfalls were breaking. The conditions were nowhere near bad enough to make it dangerous for the boat, but were enough to increase the risk of gusts of downcurrents at slack water.

After a quick discussion we decided to head for the Grey Dogs, the channel between Scarba and Lunga to the north. Sometimes called the Little Corryvreckan, this site is a relatively easy dive (for divers of Corry standard). Because this was such a small tide we took the opportunity of the unusually long slack to explore the gullies at the eastern end of Eilean a' Bhealaich, which sits in the middle of the main channel. They were full of life, but we found an area at the top of the gullies at around 10 metres where there was some silting amongst the kelp, implying that this area is sheltered from the main tidal stream. This was a surprise since the tide runs at several knots even on the smallest neap.

In a search for something to set the pulse racing we chose Cuan Sound at maximum ebb flow for the second dive. Entering just south of the ferry, you fight your way down onto a cliff which runs from 10 to 25 metres. If you miss it the tide would blow you over the top into the shallows. Nobody missed it. The wall has plenty of life on it, and the tide moved us briskly along in vis of about 8 metres. The channel which is bounded by the cliff narrows and shallows as it passes an island at the south end of the sound. It isn't sensible to drift through here because of possible boat traffic, so on reaching the telephone cables just north of this point we let the tide take us over the top of the wall into the shallows. At this point the water becomes quite turbulent and buoyancy control becomes quite interesting. You fly rapidly over the kelp, and watch the little vortices of bubbles while making your ascent. Then it's back aboard Porpoise for the short run back to Balvicar.

Friday night involved a taxi ride into Oban for a curry at the Light of India followed by drinks at the Oban Inn. This right next to North Pier, where most of the liveaboards moor up, so on a Friday evening it's full of divers and dive boat skippers. After catching up with the gossip from the skippers, it was back Cologin by taxi.

On Saturday morning the weather had continued to worsen, and with the strengthening wind opposing the flood tide and creating nasty overfalls, all the really fast drifts were out of the question. We opted to do a deep dive instead, and chose a rarely dived pinnacle to the west of the Garvellachs. It was about 35 metres to the small, flattish top, with a wall dropping steeply to well beyond air diving depths. The wall was covered with the usual Firth of Lorne life including devonshire cup corals and various sponges, notably the goblet shaped axinella infundibuliformis. Right next to the shot was the intact skeleton of a large dead crawfish. Everybody had a good dive, doing their decompression stops on the shot line. JU, now in his 70th year, followed his standard practice of doing a stop at half his maximum depth, half his 1st stop depth, and so on, with slow ascents between each stop. With several thousand dives under his belt and no bends, it seems to be working ok so far.

Although very adventurous diving was our objective safety considerations led us to choose a slack water dive for the afternoon. On the ebb there would be plenty of possibilities for very fast drifts running out into calm water in the Sound of Luing, despite the wind. Unfortunately being thrown up and down in a turbulent drift dive following a very deep morning dive is a good way to get a bend. Therefore we opted to dive a reef which David calls Goldsinny. It is one of several reefs which lie in the strong tidal stream between Ormsa and Rubha Fiola. It has a wall from about 10 to 25 metres, running out onto boulders. The wall is covered in orange and white dead men's fingers and has plenty of cracks and crevices full of creatures. It was a very good dive.

For Saturday night we stayed at Cologin. Some of us ate in the bar there, and the others cooked for themselves and joined us later for another round of jokes, stories and general good humour. On Sunday the wind had freshened further so for the first dive we picked a wall in the sheltered Sound of Shuna. I fancied a day driving the boat, and Jen fancied a day off, so we were down to 8 divers. They all seemed to enjoy the dive, I enjoyed driving, and Jen enjoyed doing nothing. So that was OK. For the second dive I thought we should do some exploring so after studying the chart I picked a reef in the Sound of Luing which David had never dived before. We found it without difficulty, but it didn't look too promising on the sounder. I hurried the divers up before David got cold feet about the site (he's a born worrier) but there were a few suspicious looks since I was having a day off. As it turned out everyone said it was a really nice site and David made some notes about it in his little book. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

After that it was back to Balvicar; unload the boat; away by half past four; and home in Manchester by 10. Despite the weather it had been another weekend of good diving in beautiful scenery and in excellent company. We didn't get to do the Corry this time, but we made the best of the weather, and it's still there, and it's a reason to organise yet another good trip in the future.

Richard Scarsbrook,
First Class Diver, Advanced Instructor,
Coastal Skipper
Trafford Sub Aqua Club

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