SCUBA magazine: On the edge of the world
Updated: Jun 4, 2018
1,600miles by car and 555 nautical miles by boat was all it took to get JaneMorgan to
St Kilda and back. So, was the diving in the UK’smost remote outpost worth the journey?
The headline I saw on the BBC as I headed out the door was “Floods as torrential rain hits
Britain”. I’d checked the journey and I had 819 miles to drive.
““You’re mad, you’ll never leave port,” were the stark warnings from my friends. But I thought, “Hmm, you don’t know the skipper” as I kept everything crossed.”
Anyway the lure of St Kilda, however iffy the weather, was far too strong for me to consider pulling out of the trip. I drove across the country, with the weather front nipping at my heels
practically all the way from Penzance to Scrabster. I arrived in Orkney the following day and the weather forecast was not looking good. It may be odd to talk about diving the wreck of the German Grand Fleet light cruiser Köln in Scapa Flow as a consolation: it’s actually one of my favourite wrecks, but my mind was set on places further afield. Anyway, despite the
wind we managed to get out into the flow on day one and enjoyed a couple of cracking dives. Day two and with a forecast looking annoyingly similar we headed out to Burra Sound. To our great delight, after the first dive a window of weather opportunity opened up and
we battened down the hatches and were on our way.
Now, as we left Orkney there was talk of rough crossings so as usual when the going gets tough I went to sleep and missed all the fun. I woke as we arrived in Loch Eriboll six hours later, just in time for an afternoon dive. This is a 10-mile long sea loch that has been used as
a safe deep-water anchorage for centuries. It is the most spectacular loch on the north coast of Scotland, with a backdrop of high mountains and wild, unspoilt terrain: truly lovely. The skipper decided that the place marked Cliff 15 on the chart looked like it could make an interesting dip. There was a fair amount of plankton in the water at the surface, but this lessened as we descended past the kelp line. The rocks and boulders were smothered with cup corals, starfish, urchins, top shells and edible crabs. We even saw a couple of dogfish swimming through the kelp – not a bad start to the expedition.
Cape Wrath is the most north-westerly point on the mainland. Next morning we opted for a dive at Geodha Glas, on the north face of Cape Wrath. It was a stunningly beautiful dive site with an incredible amount to see. Squid eggs were twirled around swaying kelp fronds, top shells were hiding below.We swam out over the sandy bottom to find flat fish, scorpion fish and crabs. At around 30m there was a reef strewn with life in a myriad of colours including
sun stars, sponges, anemones, tunicates and urchins. In between there were busy little hermit crabs going about their business and nudibranchs weaving their circular egg patterns across the rock face. Back up at the kelp line we saw dogfish and conger.
That afternoon we dived Tolsta Head – the first promontory south of the Butt of Lewis. The bay to the north was the site of top-secret biological warfare experiments in the early 1950s. This involved the release of toxic agents, such as bubonic plague, from the HMS Ben Lomond, a converted tank landing craft, and the assessment of the effects on animal subjects. The tests almost ended in disaster when a fishing trawler strayed into the area.
The area has now been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its geomorphology – the science behind landscapes. Despite its history, this is without doubt one of the prettiest reefs I have ever dived. The rocks and boulders were hidden beneath a carpet of brittle stars. I was wondering where to point my camera when I had a feeling I was being watched, so I glanced over my shoulder and saw a guillemot swimming past. By the
time I realised I had a bird peering over my shoulder at 20m, it was too late and I’d missed the shot. At the bottom of the reef there were a startling number of dahlia anemones jostling for space. We saw an octopus squeezed into a crevice, large numbers of nudibranchs with eggs and a family of around six scorpion fish all hanging out in one spot. I ascended feeling most cheerful until I got off the lift to hear the skipper waxing lyrical about the minke whale
he had just seen.
After spending the night at Stornoway, we headed 12 miles south to Kebock Head – a steep, rocky headland on the east coast of Lewis overlooking the Minch. This was another superb dive site with a wealth of nudibranchs on the rocks and hydroids at around 30m. We also saw pincushion urchins, light-bulb tunicates, Sagartia anemones and moon jellies, but the highlight of the dive was at our safety stop where we saw a huge crawfish, or spiny lobster, hiding in the kelp.
That afternoon found us back on a wreck, this time the Stassa, an 82m long steamship that ran ashore in Loch Rodel on the Isle of Harris 1966. It lies on a very silty bottom, so the visibility wasn’t quite what we were used to, but there were plenty of interesting critters on the seabed including strange anemone carrier crabs, and there was also an enormous conger eel peering out of a large pipe on the wreck itself. We spent that night in Leverburgh on Harris before finally setting off early the next morning across the seas to St Kilda.
I went to sleep in Leverburgh on Harris and by the time I stumbled out of my bed the following day, we were off North Uist, 100 miles west of the mainland, the remotest part of the British Isles was standing proudly on the horizon. The islands of St Kilda: Hirta, Boreray,
Soay and Dun. Here are the highest sea cliffs and stacks in all of Great Britain. The islands and skerries that you see were once the rim of a volcano, which first erupted 50 to 60 million years ago. People lived on the largest island, Hirta, continuously for about 2,000 years until
in 1930 the remaining inhabitants were evacuated at their own request. The remains of the village still stand and one of the houses has been turned into a museum. The islands were the first place in Scotland to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our first two dives were on Stac Lee – one of the tallest sea stacks in Britain – towering 165m above the water and giving us a perfect introduction to St Kilda’s underwater world below it. We found a large cave that went quite deep into the rock face, some great swim-throughs and a group of seals playing on the seabed. The kelp just outside the cave entrance was smothered in beautiful nudibranchs and the walls were covered in encrusting sponges and jewel anemones. As we surfaced, the water turned into a clear vibrant blue and way above our heads hundreds of gannets were circling against a beautiful blue sky.
After overnighting in Village Bay, the only possible anchorage, next morning we headed for Sgarbh Stac, off Boreray, to dive an impressive underwater archway, which opens up at about 30m and drops to the seabed at 50m. Unfortunately it was a cloudy morning and as we dropped down to 40m it was quite dark.We swam through the gloom with the wall to our right for a few minutes and just as I was beginning to think that we were going to run out of
time there it was. A huge dappled green archway, beckoning us in. The walls were decorated with an assortment of beautiful anemones. It was like swimming through an enormous cathedral – all I really wanted to do was just hang in the water and marvel
and the dramatic scenery.
South face of Dun
This was a macro photographer’s paradise where practically every single kelp frond was a home for some critter or other. There were numerous nudibranchs feasting on the sea mats (bryozoans), tiny shrimps, blue-rayed limpets and some strange looking amphipods.
The Saw Cut
This was probably my favourite dive at St Kilda. The dive site is basically a crack in the rock that is around 3m wide and runs around 60m deep into the Dun.We didn’t have the 40m visibility that St Kilda is famous for, so I opted for a macro lens. Of course as soon as we entered the fissure, I realised that the vis inside was crystal clear and would have made a fantastic picture. However I certainly wasn’t stuck for small subjects to photograph, the floor of the gully was stacked with dahlia anemones. On the way back out the walls in shallower water were festooned with vibrantly coloured jewel anemones and the only difficulty was
managing to focus in a hefty surge. When I downloaded my pictures, I realised that that the
anemones themselves were full of tiny critters, so not only did I want to go back with wide angle but super–macro too.
We spent that afternoon exploring the island of Hirta – being dive bombed by skuas whenever we stumbled too close to their nests. Looking down at the seabirds from the top of the highest sea cliffs in the UK was a pretty dizzying experience. The views are absolutely stupendous. The dangerous seas surrounding the islands have always prevented a fishing culture from taking hold on St Kilda; the population depended largely on seabirds, which formed a major part of the St Kildan diet and provided goods to trade. During the spring and summer months, the men clambered barefoot down the steep cliff faces on ropes, to
harvest young gannets, auks and fulmars; while the women took puffins from their burrows on the nearby island of Dun.
At one time it was estimated that each person on St Kilda ate 115 fulmars every year. In 1876, it was said that the islanders took 89,600 puffins for food and feathers. There are not many mammals on St Kilda but you do have the company of the wild Soay sheep and the St Kilda field mouse. The St Kilda house mouse died out when the islands were
evacuated in the 1930s.
This was another great site for critters. We dived here twice and my favourite subjects were the ghost or skeleton shrimps. They were quite prolific, my favourites living on some encrusting orange sponge where there were two large individuals and hundreds of small ones. Having read up about these caprellids since, it seems unlikely these would have been two adults and their offspring as I had thought, because the female often kills the male after mating by injecting venom from a claw within her feeding arms. Aside from the ghost shrimp communities, I also saw octopus, nudibranchs, carpets of basket stars decorating the sponges, a number of sea hares and an assortment of starfish.
Sadly, the time had come to leave St Kilda, however the next morning we had a surprise in store as we stopped off 70 nautical miles away at the Shiant Islands, in the Minch between Skye and Lewis. This is one of the great bird-stations of the northern hemisphere, with some 250,000 seabirds, including puffins, guillemots, razorbills, shags and great skuas, arriving in the summer to breed. For us it was perfect timing to see hundreds and hundreds of puffins. It was an awesome sight to see so many birds, but when there are so many feathered friends overhead you really should wear a hat!
The next couple of days saw us passing back through Loch Eriboll and onto the west coast of Orkney. Our last dive at Nipple Rock, close to the Old Man of Hoy was on particularly beautiful walls stacked with anemones. Unfortunately, occasionally I forget to tuck in my neck seal on a dive and this beautiful dive was a tad chilly.
So, did St Kilda live up to expectations and was it worth the journey? You bet; I can’t wait to go back.