Some of our favourite dives

    THE SOUND OF MULL  - We usually do a couple of trips a year to the Western Isles  (not to be missed).

A deep stretch of water, some 25 miles long and between one and two miles wide, the Sound of Mull separates Mull from mainland Scotland. This narrow stretch of water offers some fascinating dives, with the added benefit of good visibility and protection from rougher waters further out. Many ships have sought out this sheltered passage for refuge from the fiercest Atlantic storms, only to fall prey to the many islets and shallow reefs that bespeckle this channel. However, the appeal of the area is not solely the number of wrecks - the fast currents that flow here also make for a rich marine biodiversity and set the scene for exciting drift dives. In addition, many of the reefs drop away vertically, with walls covered in marine life and visibility that averages between 5 and 10m.

Mull is the second largest of the inner Hebridean Islands (Skye is the largest), and also one of the wettest. At first it can seem quite forbidding, and the grey clouds that circle the highest peak - Ben More - are hardly welcoming. However it will not be long before its unique atmosphere wins you over.

As you enter the Sound, it is not difficult to imagine that you have travelled back in time several hundred years when you see the picturesque Duart castle, standing like a sentinel to the waters that lie at the foot of the hauntingly beautiful island.

The Hispania
56.34.55N 005.59.13W

Undeniably a masterpiece in the Sound's medley of dive sites, the Hispania is often described as one of the best shipwrecks in the UK. A Swedish steamer, she was en route from Liverpool to Sweden in 1954 when she encountered atrocious weather. The captain chose the more sheltered route between the Scottish Islands, but in poor visibility the ship struck a reef close to the Mull shore. The crew abandoned ship, but Captain Ivan Dahn chose to stay with his sinking vessel and went down with his command, saluting as she sunk beneath the waves. Today, his ship lies as a beautiful shrine, covered with orange and white anemones. The wreck remains virtually intact on the sea bed, with a slight list to starboard. The gangways and handrails are all still in place and the cavernous cargo holds are ripe for exploration.

The Rondo
56.32.18N 005.54.45W

One of the most thrilling dives in the area can be found further down the Sound. The Rondo was lost in 1935 after breaking her anchorage in a fierce storm. She ran aground on the islet of Dearg Sgeir, and after a salvage attempt, slipped down the cliff, coming to rest almost vertically - the bows are in 50m of water while the stern is just a few metres from the surface! Only the hull remains, along with various debris, but the wreckage is rich with anemones and large schools of fish. The Rondo has to be one of the few wrecks where you carry out a deep, multi-level dive, starting midships or deeper and finishing in the shallows at the stern - it's a spectacular dive.

The Thesis
56.29.56N 005.41.28W

Without doubt one of the most atmospheric wreck dives in the Sound of Mull, the Thesis was a steamship that sank in 1889 carrying a cargo of pig iron. This 50m-long wreck lies on a slope between 20 and 30m and must be dived at slack water, as the tides that whip between the Sound of Mull and the Lynn of Morvern (the stretch of water to the northwest of the island of Lismore) can be fierce. The ship's superstructure and decking have all but disappeared, leaving the ribs of the hull exposed in many places - it is possible to swim the length of the ship below deck level. The deep emerald light beaming through the many holes in the ship's side make it a truly unforgettable dive.

The Shuna
55.33.26N 005.54.52W

This 73m-long steamship sank in 1913 after running aground in a storm. The Shuna now sits upright in 30-36m of water, with the decks at a depth of 16-20m. The sides of the ship are covered with thousands of brightly coloured sea squirts, and the propeller is still attached - a rare treat for UK wreck divers. The holds carried coal and as the Shuna is covered in a layer of silt (the result of lying in a sheltered spot), careful finning is required to keep the normally good visibility intact.

Lochaline Pier

The waters beneath the pier at Lochaline slope steeply before dropping off vertically to depths exceeding 70m. The cliff is covered with kelp, giving way to gullies and overhangs teeming with life. It's a beautiful wall dive, and can also be shore dived - although local advice should be sought about the tides, as dangerous downcurrents can occur at certain times.

Calve Island

One of the finest scenic dives can be found on the northwest of Calve Island, just outside Tobermory Bay at the northern entrance to the Sound. The site drops to more than 45m, with chimneys and gulleys covered in life dropping off vertically in places.

SS Breda
56.28.32N 005.25.07W

 The SS Breda has long been a favourite among British divers. Requisitioned as a supply ship during the Second World War, she met her fate on 23 December 1940 while anchored in the Lynn of Lorn. Damaged by the bombs dropped by a German Heinkel 111 bomber, she limped into Ardmucknish Bay before finally sinking. The ship remains one of the shallowest intact wrecks in Scottish waters, with the decks sitting 8m above a sea bed that slopes from 24 to 30m. Standing upright, the superstructures have largely disappeared following the work of salvage divers in the 1960s. However, the cargo holds are full of artefacts and the stern is covered in dead men's fingers and anemones. Good buoyancy control is essential, as the wreck catches the silt deposits from Loch Etive, and normally good visibility can quickly deteriorate if divers are not careful.


Port Napier

N 57º15.59'
W 005º41.12'

This twin-screw steamship sank in Loch Alsh in November 1940, the year which also saw her construction. The vessel was working as a mine layer and was loaded with explosives when she caught fire. Efforts to put out the fire proved futile, and the crew were understandably quick to abandon their stations. The ship was towed into Loch Alsh where she subsequently exploded, showing a wide area with debris. The dive Today, the Port Napier lies where it settled on its starboard side, 300m from the shore at Sron na Tairbh. At low water, the port side appears above the waterline, the wreckage resembling the ribs of a carcass. On sunny days, the wreck benefits from shafts of sunlight which penetrate the shallows. Head for the stern, where you can still see mine-laying chutes with rails running forward into what remains of the superstructure. Follow the rails, and you should find yourself in the main storage area, where mines would have sat on trolleys, ready to be deployed. The remains of the mast can be found in the midships area at a depth of about 20m, and are well worth a look as they are encrusted with life. From the main deck, it is possible to penetrate the wreck through several hatchways. It's a relatively easy penetration as the hull is open and there's heaps of light. You will still find a 4in gun at the bow; as far as anyone knows, it was never fired in hostility. If you have time fin along the length of the exposed keel. It's quite featureless, but it does give you an idea of the length of the ship. Given its explosive demise, it is remarkable that the Port Napier is still sufficiently interesting to rank as one of Scotland's favourite wreck dives.



James Egan Layne  Whitsand Bay Plymouth

For more than six decades the James Eagan Layne could claim to be the most dived wreck in the English Channel. Sunk by a German U-boat in 1944, the ship was carrying a mixed cargo which now lies in about 25m of water in Whitsand Bay, Cornwall.

The James Eagan Layne is a classic wreck, sitting bolt upright on the sea bed. In the 1950s and 60s, locating and diving the wreck was easy as one of the masts broke the surface. This collapsed in the 1980s, but the wreck continued to attract divers from all over the country, drawn by the Layne's short, tragic history but more importantly, the ship's mixed cargo. Without divers knowing it at the time, the James Eagan Layne was the UK's Thistlegorm.

Over the years marine growth has colonised the structure and thin bulkheads have rotted away to make access into the holds easy - the wreck is the perfect combination of visual attraction and safe diving. With a maximum depth of no more than 25m, divers have plenty of time to take in the detail and explore the contents.

In 2004 the sinking of HMS Scylla as an artificial reef, close to the James Eagan Layne, somewhat stole the Layne's thunder. This new dive site became the talk of the town and divers flocked from all over the country to make a new entry in their logbooks. Three years on and the Scylla still remains an attraction, but the James Eagan Layne has fully emerged from its shadow - the Layne is a wreck bedecked with colourful marine life, holds full of history and a structure opening up to reveal yet more secrets.

The James Eagan Layne was one of the many Liberty ships built by the US to replace the large number of Allied boats that had been destroyed by German U-boats. The ship was 120m long and weighed just over 7,000 tons. During March 1945 she was on a voyage from Barry in Wales to Ghent in Belgium, loaded with United States Army engineering stores. By the afternoon of 21 March the ship was about seven miles from the Plymouth Breakwater, just on the edge of what was one of the most dangerous of all the U-boat hunting grounds. At 2.35 that same afternoon U-boat 1195 hit the Layne with a torpedo, which sliced a great hole in her side. Her holds quickly flooded, as did her engine room, but the Layne was not going to sink without a fight. For nearly eight hours the crew kept the vessel afloat, but the captain, realising that she was finished, set course as best he could for the shore, hoping to beach her. He very nearly made it. By now the James Eagan Layne was taking in water faster than the crew could get rid of it, and at half past ten that night the ship went gently aground in 21m of water on the sandy bottom of Whitsand Bay. Thankfully there were no casualties, and eventually most of the main cargo was salvaged. In the end, the loss to the war effort was minimal, but the gain to the future generations of sports divers was to prove considerable.

Today, the James Egan Layne still lies upright on the sandy bed, but the superstructure and masts have long been swept away by the winter storms and now lie scattered around her on the sandy bottom. After some 62 years, the wreck is starting to break up, but it is still possible to see what the ship was once like. The bows are still intact and well defined, as are the sides of the hull, which loom out of the sand like black cliffs.

The storm damage over the past few years has actually made the inside of the wreck more accessible. The holds are jammed with twisted iron plates, pipes, old ladders and all the other paraphernalia associated with a wrecked ship. Even so, there is little danger of getting lost, as you can easily see an exit hole either from the hold that you are entering, or in the side of the ship itself.

While the mixed cargo might not be as exotic as that found on the Red Sea's famous wreck the Thistlegorm, the Layne offers plenty of variety. One of the holds contains hundreds of pickaxe heads all neatly lined up in rows. If that doesn't appeal, you can take your pick of various locomotive wheels or pulley wheels. Near the stern, the ship is virtually cut in half where the torpedo hit it, and again there is a mountain of metal debris, with one of the masts hanging out from the ship's deck and supported by the rest of the wreckage. There are lots of holes and caverns to explore, but some care should be taken as pieces of metal frequently fall from above into the holds and could cause a nasty accident. This whole area is littered with bollards, winches, coils of wire hawser and many other deck fittings.

Most established wrecks have plenty of marine life, but the Layne seems to have more than its fair share. The holds are often full of bass, while the bows are patrolled by watchful shoals of pollack. Pouting make up most of the bottom cover, weaving over all the debris, and lurking almost underneath the keel are some very large ling. There are also wrasse in all shapes and colours, large green and pink plumose anemones, small starfish with colourful coats… the list is endless.

On a summer's weekend this wreck is better than a tropical reef and almost as colourful. Unfortunately, it's almost as popular! Storms permitting, both the bow and stern are buoyed. The stern is in about 25m, so it is best to start there and work your way up to the bows some 130m away where the rails rise up to about 5m - perfect for a safety stop or decompression.

Since the 1960s many other wrecks have been discovered all over the British Isles. But not withstanding their popularity, the Layne has become almost a national dive site, and very many divers have a special regard for her. So much so, that when the shipping corporation Trinity House proposed to disperse the wreck with explosives, there was such a howl of protest that the company was forced to reconsider. Time, however, will soon do the job for Trinity House. So if you want to dive on a piece of history, do it now, because soon only the legend will remain.



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