Scottish Snorkelling Holidays

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You don’t have to go abroad to enjoy a water sports holiday.  Scotland is one of the top global destinations for enjoying sub aqua sports.  I joined BSAC in February 2019 as a Snorkel Diver member.  One of the aspects I like about BSAC is that it is progressive organisation and embraces all forms of activities that come under the umbrella of the world of Sub Aqua.

For me, Snorkel diving is a happy medium between Scuba and Free Diving and in Scotland I much prefer to wear a drysuit.  Scotland is an excellent place for Snorkel diving and I feel so lucky I live within a few hours of the sea.

There are 3 members of our club who enjoy snorkelling and we will meet up to snorkel dive at Fife Ness on the east neuk coast of Fife.  I would say I’m the club’s hardest core snorkeller for sure – I love it!!

I did my snorkel diver and Sport Diver qualification with Perth Scotsac and have no interest in scuba diving anymore.  With snorkelling I can concentrate on photography and filming which is why I took up scuba diving in the first place.  I enjoy the freedom of not carrying the heavy scuba tanks, stab jacket and regulators although my dive bags still have the same amount of gear for snorkelling!!  I use a dry suit and an Ameo Power breather system which is modular and has to be built up and dis-assembled each dive then meticulously cleaned.  I take my snorkelling gear very seriously and clean it after every dive.  I use a dive watch and compass, torch and go pro camera with me on most dives.  Filming blogs and photography is my main focus of snorkelling but sometimes I’ll not shoot anything and just enjoy the experience.  I have a weight belt but don’t use it as I can’t duck dive in a dry suit as it’s too positively buoyant.

The Harris trip in June was very much a last minute affair.  I contacted Steve Lilley our Diving Officer (Perth Branch) a week before the trip to ask if myself and Natalie could join them. We were welcomed on the adventure and I started organising the ferry bookings.  I could only arrive on the Sunday, a day after everyone else.

I had 5 hours to get from Kinross to Uig in Skye to catch the ferry to Tarbert.  I made the mistake of stopping for a toilet break for 20 minutes by Eilean Donan Castle.  That 20 minutes nearly caused us to miss our Ferry!!  Across Skye I was stuck behind every tourist bus and caravan leisurely winding through the backroads at 45 mph.  I was panicking as at one point I had 20 minutes to travel 20 miles – in a Micra!!

Arriving at the ferry port, the ship was still there and we were the last car on board – what a relief!!  After 5 hours of mild anxiety, I could finally relax for the rest of the week and look forward to the adventures awaiting on my first trip to Harris.

Our club was divided into two air bnb type accommodation houses, both self catering.  Myself and Natalie stayed at Tigh Chalein on the Mharaig Bay and others were staying at Tigh Na Mara on the Carragraich Bay.  Our house had drying facilities, perfect for scuba diving gear and both RIBS were kept at the house.  Our Clubs orange RIB is named Deep Dancer and club member Mark Edward’s boat is called Proper Job.

We had a beautiful ensuite room and the house had all the mod cons including a washing machine and dryer. In Tarbert there are a couple of small mini market shops that can provide you with most everything you’ll need.

Arriving in the late afternoon to our house, the divers were just returning from their first dives at Mharaig bay.  Our house had a handy slip for the boats to enter and I started helping to load the gear from the RIB to the house.

After that, I tried taking my quad copter up to get some aerial photos and videos of the bay while the evening sun set.  I discovered that Harris is not the easiest place to fly as there are constant strong winds and power lines everywhere, I had to use the quad copter very sparingly.

DAY 1 MHARAIG BAY

 I was up reasonably early and at 8.30am the scuba divers were finishing breakfasts and preparing for that day’s diving.  Steve Lilley asked if I had researched the North Harris Snorkel Trail.  I actually had not even thought of researching anything as I had just concentrated on organising our ferry tickets.  I looked at the Scottish Wildlife Site’s guide and was intrigued to discover a snorkel trail map.  There are 6 sites in all, the first being where we were staying.

There was a variety of club divers of diverse abilities and qualifications.  Steve Lilley the BDO (open circuit and instructor) Paul Scott chairman (open circuit and closed), Two boat drivers (one sport and one instructor both closed circuit), two trainee ocean divers, two sport divers (open circuit) and three non divers.

During the trip the Scuba divers dived Mharaig bay twice, Scalpay bay, and had to abort Hushinish Bay due to choppy waters.

After organising the breakfasts, I got myself kitted up armed with my GoPro – for me sub aqua is all about image capture as well as great aerobic exercise.  I enjoy taking photographs and started shooting my next snorkel vlog. Sometimes if there’s not much to see, I will simply start recording a vlog with handy snorkelling tips for those interested.

Mharaig bay however had a fair bit of marine life.  I was surprised at how large the jelly fish were and I snorkel swam out to a small island.  I could see crabs and hermit crabs and I enjoyed gently fining along to see if I could get some good photos and video.  My GoPro has no viewfinder so I only find out in the editing what is usable.  For me a GoPro is perfect for snorkel diving, there are just two buttons and the camera does the rest.  I use a selfie stick and I have developed a technique where I can float on my side and put the GoPro back in my trouser pocket when not needed.  I do this very carefully so as not to drop the camera.  The beauty of snorkelling is that you can stay in the water as long as you like – that is, until of course you need to go to the toilet.  For me an hour and fifteen minutes is  my average  limit before the emergency toilet break is required,  It must be something about being in the water that causes my  bladder to complain.

After my dive and hanging my gear up to dry, we decided to take a trip in to the famous Harris Tweed shop in Tarbert where we bought some gifts for family members.  On returning to the house I took some more aerial shots of the bay.  We had a nice communal dinner that evening sitting in the sun lounge which had a view of the bay.  We stayed up late talking and enjoying some drinks and discussed what we’d do the next day,

DAY 2 RHENIGIDALE BAY

 After breakfast myself and Natalie headed for the 2nd location of the snorkel trail.  We climbed some very high roads that snaked off into the hills opposite our house, and often had to be respectful of the lambs and sheep which are everywhere.  Rhenigidale bay was very small but perfect for a shore dive.  Natalie was a God send as I needed her to help me zip and unzip.  With out her I would not really have been able to dive every day.  She was happy to take some holiday snaps of me entering the water and general tourist shots.

I shot lots of kelp and plankton was everywhere.  I also viewed some tiny tadpole like fish.  I snorkel swam out to a small island trying to make sure that I could still see the entry point.  When you’re in the water it’s easy to lose your bearings of the entry point when you’re below the rock lines.  I stayed in the water for an hour and a half and explored both sides of the bay, recording another vlog tip for the day.  I would aim to shoot a new snorkelling tip video each dive.

After my bladder sent me the warning signs it was time to get out the water.  After I changed I took some aerial shots and at one point my heart was in my mouth as I watched my quad copter flying away from me without my control.  I didn’t realise that winds can flow higher in the air even when the ground air is  completely still.  Fortunately I was able to guide my copter back to shore and learned my first Harris Flying lesson – do not fly if the wind is strong!!

That evening we had our first group meal.  Paul Scott’s wife Tara made us a fantastic meal catering for both vegetarian and non vegetarian diets, complete with local fresh shrimps that were delivered to the house.  We all helped to prepare the food and set up the tables as all the club was attending.  Myself and Natalie got to know the other members more and I spent the evening talking with Paul about one of my favourite subjects – cameras!

 DAY 3 SCALPAY

 This time I was invited to join the scuba divers on their RIBS and we headed for Hushnish Bay, however on arrival it was thought too choppy for the RIBS to disembark – the water was just too violent and the rocks would have caused some damage to the boats.  So we headed off for Scalpay bay.

We divided ourselves up into the two RIBS and headed out the bay.  I got dropped off at a wall to explore and do some filming.  There were lots of interesting rock structures for me to do swim throughs.  Of course I can’t duck dive in a dry suit even with weights, so I can only bob about on the surface.  Hamish and Lewis, a father and son team had reported seeing an octopus at 15 metres.

I saw many brown coloured jelly fish which was a first for me and I also had a shot of driving the club’s RIB too which was a fantastic experience.  After the first dive, the group decided to go either exploring or a 2nd dive.  I was dropped off at shore so that I could get my quad copter shots.  It was a very satisfying day, and every day was enjoyable.

DAY 4 HUSHNISH BAY

 I decided to return to Hushnish.  The water was still very choppy as I made my way down the slip, being photographed by Natalie.  I gave her a final wave before I plunged off the slip.  In the distance you could see sandy beaches with torquoise water.  But here was a totally different environment.  The waves caused me to bob up and down like a cork.  I felt as vulnerable as a cork.  One of the thrills I get from snorkelling is when I get moshed by the waves, a little scary but enjoyable when you let the sea take over – the same powerful sea that could take your life if it wanted to.

I recorded lots of kelp fields and swam round the bay.  I had a slight panic when my right fin became loose.  I realised that trying to fin back to shore with one fin was futile.  When this happens the important thing is to not panic and just take deep breaths while you work out what to do,  If you panic, adrenaline in the brain can reduce your ability to think – it’s a survival mechanism but for land based danger only!!

After taking a few breaths, first I needed to put the GoPro in my pocket so that I could use both hands to secure my fin.  Fortunately my fin was well stuck on my foot so it wasn’t too difficult to remedy the situation, although in a dry suit it is not so easy to bend your body well.  After the panic was over I realised that I was lying on top of kelp fields and was in danger of getting perhaps trapped so I finned back out to sea as quickly as I could until I was free of the kelp.

I shot another snorkel tip vlog and headed back for shore avoiding the kelp as much as possible.  I was relieved to see Natalie waiting for me on the slip and had had my first little bit of danger but by no means regretting it.  We stopped at the nearby beach which was a short drive from the slip and admired the gentle blue waters and perfect white sands – it looked like a scene from abroad.

That evening it was the birthday of two club members so we celebrated by having a meal at the Harris Hotel – well done to Fred and Maureen for organising that for us!!  There was a lovely chocolate birthday cake waiting for us at the end of the meal which was consumed by all.  That evening I was asked if I might like to join the scuba divers the next day and I agreed,

DAY 5 CARRAGRAICH BAY

 I slept in that morning so was too late to join the scuba divers.  Instead we headed off to the other house which was the next location of the snorkel trail.  It was nice to see what Tigh Na Mara house was like and it had a fantastic view of the bay.  I had the luxury of changing in house then made my way down the slippery rocks onto the water.  I swam around the bay, taking shots of jelly fish and more kelp.  I recorded another vlog and then realised that I couldn’t see the entry point.  A slight panic arose and I started fining hard.  The problem is that when the tide has changed you sink below the skyline and can’t see over rocks.  As I started fining hard I could feel my muscles getting pins and needles.  I then decided to start swimming out to sea again to see the shore line better but I didn’t have the energy.  I felt I was at the outer limits of my diving experience and the furthest out in the Atlantic Ocean I had ever been.

Fortunately I saw the chimney pots of the house sticking out above the rocks – I felt some relief as even if this wasn’t the house, it was civilisation.  I calmed down and finned along gently until the house came into view.  More relief swept over me as I realised I was going to make it back in one piece and the anxiety melted away.

I had been in the water for two hours,  The longest snorkel swim to date.  I learned a very important lesson and from that day on, I would always keep the entry point in sight,  When you’re ego tells you to just go a little further – don’t listen to it!!  Just be safe and you live another day.

I especially enjoyed tanning two cups of tea when I got back to the house.  The sun was out and I was alive and happy.  I took more quad copter shots and we headed back into Tarbert.

On returning we again stopped to do some exploring and shopping.  We spoke with a young woman who was working in the Essence of Harris shop.  She was interested to ask about our scuba club trip and didn’t know there was a Harris snorkel trail.  She explained that her fear of snorkelling would be if she looked and saw the sea bed was some meters down.  We then stopped off at the Harris Hotel for coffee.  I always feel so lathargic after a snorkel swim and very relaxed.  We enjoyed the view of the garden for a couple of hours, just watching the world go by as you do on holiday,

When we got back to the house we exchanged our diving experiences that day with the rest of the club.  Everyone was in good spirits and we were having a most enjoyable holiday.  Some of the club had headed back for mainland so there were fewer of us.

DAY 6  AIRD ASAIG

 After our final breakfast we all had to be packed and out of the house by 10.30am.  We headed off to the final location on the trail which was a short drive from the house on the way back to Tarbert.  Remembering my lesson from the previous day I realised that I would be very safe.  The water was calm and the bay was completely enclosed so I couldn’t get lost out at sea.  There were many fishing boats anchored in the bay, and all were tied up to the shore or anchored.

We were greeted by some chickens who were curious to know if we had any treats for them or just wanted to know what we were doing on their land.  I chose to get my quad copter shots before going in and a curious sheep was fascinated to see this alien device – she was partly fascinated and partly scared,  She stopped for a minute to watch take off then decided to take her lamb to safety.

There wasn’t too much sea life to shoot in the bay so I enjoyed doing a final vlog and pottered round the boats.  I did get caught up in a few of the rope lines but was very careful not to get myself trapped.  I remembered that the sea can take you any time it wants to.  On exiting the water a friendly local man had a chat and told us he was a professional scuba diver fisherman. The people on Harris are very gentle and friendly folk and we were always treated very cordially  by the staff in shops and the ferry boat.

After I was dressed we said good bye to the chickens and headed of for Callanish to see the Standing Stones.  We arrived at the Stone centre and had a nice lunch in the cafe.  The sun was out and I couldn’t wait to get some photos of these ancient stones which date back 5000 bc.  They were in tact and I was amazed that we were not charged money to enter the site!!  I took some aerial shots of the main stone circle and visited a smaller circle near by.  There were in fact 3 different circle sites that we could see from the road.

We returned to Tarbert for a final coffee at the Harris Hotel where we met some of the club who were getting the same ferry back.  The boat left for Uig at 9pm so we faced a long drive through the night.

I intend to do the Ullapool trail in October and the Berwickshire trail in 2020 which I have recently discovered.  More adventures and articles await!!

 

 

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Drysuits vs Semi Dry Suits

me angus wide2 - Version 2As a keen member of Perth SubAqua club I have spent most of my 23 dives to date in the cold Scottish Lochs on the west coast.  I have dived in Ballachulish, Loch Fyne, Skye, Oban, and Ullapool which is one of the top dive sites in the world (sea horses can be seen here.)

For the first year my diving was hampered due to starting off my training using what’s called a Drysuit that was several sizes too big.  The drysuit doesn’t let water in, so the diver stays dry(er) however, if the suit is too big it can fill with air pockets which cause the diver to shoot up to the surface – this can be dangerous by causing the ‘bends’ condition where nitrogen forms bubbles in the blood stream.

My diving started to improve when I had the opportunity to purchase one of my club member’s Scubapro Novascotia Semi Dry suit.  At the time I didn’t even know what a semi dry suit was, however the first time I tried it at the Farne Islands last September (2015) I saw a dramatic difference in my ability to stay under the water.

Semi Dry suits let water in much like a Wet suit does, however the semi dry keeps that water in via the seals on the neck, wrists and ankles.  This allows the body to heat up the water to retain a liquid layer of insulation.

The advantages of the semi dry are that it’s cheaper to buy than a drysuit.  The semi dry clings to your body, eliminating air pockets.  It’s also simpler to dive with as there’s no chest valve to inflate – you can only inflate your BCD / stab jacket – so less technical bits to worry about.

The disadvantages – WARNING – semi dry suits are not designed for diving in the Scottish Winter months!  Due to my passion for diving I have used the Novascotia in temperatures down as low as 7 degrees centigrade.  The feeling is quite unpleasant and often I am shivering, so that after 30 minutes, I don’t want to be in the water.  I think I am one of the few club members that still dives with a semi dry.  I later was given a handy tip from one of the more experienced club members and discovered that wearing a wool jumper underneath helps a little, to retain some warmth in a semi dry.

The other disadvantage of the semi dry is that it’s made of neoprene which tends to tear more easily on rocks.  The new Novascotia 7.5mm suit has much more protection on the knees than my older 6.5mm version.  However saying that, Scubapro kit is award winning, so it’s a very good standard of  dive suit.  Semi drys are much more suited to water temperatures of 12 degrees or above, as I discovered in the warmer Farne Islands dive.  If you’re not cold you’re going to enjoy the dive more.  No matter how hard you try, if you start shivering the dive becomes a chore and that’s a shame.

Here’s an excellent  video review by Jeff Goodman on the new N0vascotia 7.5mm Semi Dry Suit

 

Maintenance:  after a dive I can spend up to over an hour and a half rinsing and cleaning my diving kit.  I invested in a bottle of McNett suit shampoo which I use to wash over the Novascotia, my Stab Jacket and well, pretty much most of my kit.  I realised that I spend the same amount of time cleaning my diving kit as I did cleaning my motorbike.  (I decided to get rid of the bike as I much prefer my diving.)  It’s worth it though, to keep your kit nice and clean after being in the sea lochs.

It takes approximately 4 to 5 days for my semi dry to dry out, so at least in theory, I could use my suit every Sunday if I wanted to.  Last Sunday myself and two colleagues from the club set off from Perth to Furnace quarry near Inveraray on the Scottish west coast.  We always dive on the west as the water is usually warmer and calmer, getting some of that gulf stream flowing in.

This was my second dive at Furnace quarry – the first time was in December last year and I remember it was so cold that I was shivering when I still had my clothes and coat on!  This dive is a cold and dark one, although there’s enough visibility at 24 metres to see some Wolf fish that look like mini sharks.  One of our colleagues had a problem with his chest valve leaking so he was out the water before getting in.  It was then that I realised the advantage of the semi dry.

The temperature was COLD!  Eight degrees and after 15 minutes I was shivering and wanting to just get to the surface, however, I persevered to the end and felt much better after completing the dive safely with my dive buddy.  I often check the water temperature online and I think the sea temperature has now gone up by one degrees since the winter.

I look forward to the day when I will be able to go to Malta to dive in the warm water, just wearing my Scubapro Everflex wet suit.  Meantime, I will persevere and look forward to updating you with another blog on my next dive – and more often too!

For more information on semi dry suits available check out Simplyscuba’s website.

Underwater Cameras

Yesterday I thoroughly enjoyed my first dive for many months at St Catherines Loch near the west coast of Scotland.  After my diving club buddies and I descended down to 15 meters we could see an abundance of marine wild life including a purple Scorpion Fish, Crabs and even Lobsters.  As a trainee diver, taking underwater photographs is not encouraged, and I should have resisted taking out my Intova compact underwater camera.  The dive leader signalled to me not to take any photos so I tried to put my camera back into my trouser leg pocket, but for some reason I couldn’t seem to fasten the pocket shut, so I put the camera strap around my wrist.

Unfortunately when my auto dump was refusing to release air as we glided into the shallow part of a reef, I started shooting up to the surface.  Unknown to me my camera had unhinged itself from my arm and was lost for good.  In the commotion, my diving buddies had seen my camera shoot up to the surface but it was nowhere to be seen afterwards.

I searched all along the coast line to see if my camera had been washed ashore but it had gone.  So my advice to other trainee divers is – not only should you not take photos on a training dive, but leave your camera at home until you get qualified and more experience.  With more experience comes greater awareness under the water and you are less likely to lose gear which may be expensive to replace.

I have learned my lesson and won’t take another camera into the water unless I’m on a dive specifically for photography – after I’ve finished my training of course.