LET go buntlines and clews! Haul away on the mainsheets! The disembodied orders came from our first mate somewhere above us. All the divers obeyed, pulling hard on their respective ropes until the mainsail was up and billowing to the command of oceanic winds. Next we had to set the course sail, the top sail of the forward mast, then the foresails out over the bowsprit. Our captain leaned out from his position in the wheelhouse of the Jean de la Lune, and told us we were under way to St Kilda.
Positioned about 100 miles west-north-west off mainland Scotland, St Kilda is a group of seven islands, which are often inaccessible to divers due to unforgiving weather. They appear on the map like a maned lion with an open maw roaring at Scotland and the Outer Hebrides, many hours sailing away.
Few, if any, of the divers aboard the JdL for our late-summer dive cruise had prior sailing experience, particularly on a square-rigged sailing ship like this brigantine. Under the guidance and command of its first mate, however, many of the guests were soon scurrying up the rope ladders, or ratlines, and swinging out over the yard-arms to release vast folds of canvas to the winds.
Darkness fell, and strict safety guidelines kept us from going out on deck unless in pairs. The ship was blown over to a constant list of between 5-10, and waves occasionally slewed in through the ports, sloshing along the starboard deck and then out again somewhere near the stern.
Most of us retired to either of two wood-panelled saloons or our berths for a few hours sleep, eagerly awaiting the next mornings dive. Curled up in my ample bunk below decks, all I could hear was the wind humming gently, an occasional flap of sail and the soft trickle of the sea past the hull.
After sailing for eight hours we reached St Kilda. In total darkness several volunteers went up on deck and hauled away on the sheets, to instructions yelled from the foredeck. Huge wind-filled white pillows of sail had now been hauled into baggy folds of canvas, flapping about on their three respective yard-arms.
Right! On with your harnesses, up the foremast and onto the yard-arms; we must make the sails fast! said the first mate.
We were dumbfounded. Surely she didnt mean us! We squinted through the rain to try to see the uppermost yard-arms, way up in the night sky. The divers kitted up in harnesses and ascended the wet ratlines. One by one they stepped out onto the thin cable slung beneath each yard-arm to pull up the sails and make the gaskets fast.
Later, after a hearty breakfast, ten divers kitted up for the first dive at a site known as the Sawcut. Just a short distance from our anchorage in Village Bay, just off the main island of Hirta, it is located under the dark cliffs on the north-east face of the small island of Dun (pronounced Doon).
Large Atlantic grey seals, their heads bobbing on the surface like fishing floats, greeted us as the skipper eased the 49m ship right up to the rocks. He put the 360hp engine in reverse, before cutting it completely and shouting: Go!
One by one, we shuffled forwards penguin-fashion, through the door in the deck rails and into the clear waters below. We descended the kelp-decorated slope to a ledge at around 20m. My buddy led the way to a vertical gash in the rock that seemed to have been made by a tremendous chainsaw. At 23m we entered the Sawcut. The gap between the walls here was about 3m wide, and the gully gradually deepened and narrowed to about 27m depth, with only 1.5m width. The sheer faces ascended some 20m either side of us, while multi-coloured mats of white, pink, orange, blue, and green jewel anemones vied with large Devonshire cup corals for our attention. We found ten different species of nudibranch, as well as sea spiders, edible crabs, swimming crabs and sea hares.
Gossamer-thin colonial hydroids like long white kite streamers hung like vapour trails overhead. Below these, thousands of tiny fry with bulbous blue eyes were swept aside as we finned on deeper into the rocky slit.
After about 35m, we reached the end and turned back to savour it all over again. Vivid blue cuckoo wrasse and menacingly pointed sea-scorpions eyed us with suspicion. Great yellow cliona sponges bulged out from the gully walls, while millions of small comb jellies made the water around us appear to be effervescent. Back near the entrance to the Sawcut, an enormous grey seal swerved and wheeled around the few boulders on the seabed, daring us to keep up with his aquabatics. Once the dive was over, and mindful of the skippers warning of a huge tidal race at the south-eastern tip of Dun island, we finned north-west back into Village Bay to be collected by the JdLs inflatable.
The seas were favourable, and our visit to St Kilda promised to be a long one, so we decided against a second dive that day as it would have incurred fizz penalties on us all for an early deep dive on day two. Instead we went ashore that afternoon to walk around the island of Hirta. With only a small military base, a park warden, and a few volunteers who work on restoring some of the cottages of the old settlement here, there are few people on the island. There is certainly no port or dock area, and visits require a calm sea in order to land from the inflatable onto the kelp-covered steps of the short jetty.
Village Bay, the largest of two anchorages around St Kilda, is flanked by Dun to the south and the long, heather-covered slopes of Hirta to the west and north. On the lower slopes of these, just above the shoreline, are the dull grey MoD buildings of the St Kilda detachments of both the Royal Engineers and the Royal Artillery.
Above the camp, rocky slopes glide up into the clouds, which often shroud the 426m summit of Conachair, the highest peak of all the islands. Liberally dotted over the nearby slopes are the ubiquitous cleits or cleitean. Dry stone constructions, the cleits have roofs of turf and were apparently built to store all the seabirds the islanders caught.
For 4000 years man has inhabited this bleak group of islands, raising squat, brown Soay sheep and collecting seabirds for food, feathers and fat for their lamps.
We made an evening trip ashore to visit St Kildas famous military-run bar, the Puff Inn. It consists of a large room with various objets darts, including lifebelts, sheep skulls and even coffins. The next morning at about 6am, many of us were aware of a dull, almost imperceptible clunk. My buddy John and I donned our weatherproofs and ventured out on deck. We were surprised to see the first mate and another crew member busying themselves on the focsle. The anchor chain had broken in the winds that night. But for the prompt action of the first mate on duty, the JdL would have been on the rocks of Dun or Hirta!
St Kilda often experiences extreme weather, and the diving can be equally demanding. In his seven years as skipper of the JdL, the captain has been noting and collating tidal streams and information on currents for the benefit of his diver-guests. Sitting in relatively uncharted waters and with no accurate publication on such crucial information, he is the divers best hope.
It is not uncommon to find yourself in a surface current that will sap both your energy and air before you have even reached the seabed. Conflicting currents and extraordinarily deep waters demand a level of respect not usually found in British diving. There are rewards, however, for those experienced enough to deal with such diving.

LIKE the nose of a friendly spaniel, the bowsprit of the JdL seemed to be nudging the dark cliffs of Geo na Muirbhuaile. The site is more popularly known as Seal Cave.
As we dropped into the water, the 12*C water temperature initially tightened my ungloved fists. My buddy and I finned towards the cliffs, which seemed to rise and fall out of the sea with unnerving regularity. Dipping my mask below the surface, I was surprised to find 20-25m visibility.
I could see the vertical lines of rock continuing below the surface with the same straightness they had above. Set in this dark submarine curtain of solidness was the blacker mouth of a cave, resting on a clean sandy seabed at 27m. It drew us all in.
After the twilight gloom of the entrance came the deepening blackness of the caves belly. The cave floor began to shallow, and I could read 20m, then 15m, then 12m on my dive computer. Large smooth rock sculptures jutted like geological hernias into the passage of the cave. By the time we were about 100m into the tunnel, we were encountering an increasing amount of suspended detritus and chopped vegetation. In marked contrast to the clear water up to this point, the end of the cave - obviously the shallowest part - served as the collection area for all the rubbish that had found its way in.
Back outside the cave entrance, the evening light reflected off the sandy seabed. A few large boulders rested on the sand, while thousands of tiny delicate transparent comb jellies bristled their minuscule iridescent scillae to swim their minuscule distances.
Having exited the cave and turned right, my buddy and I were following the cliff walls when a dazzling mat of jewel anemones invited us closer. Only after I had used up my last two frames of film, did the seal make its appearance.
Twirling easily between a cleft of rock, its sleek mottled grey coat shed a few trapped air bubbles as it skewered the water, and its eyes shone black and wide into mine. We hung in the water, reducing our breathing to a minimum, so that our noisy exhaled air bothered our new friend as little as possible. Back he shot, buzzing us closer this time, his eyes and head fixed on us, as if moving independently of his swimming body. Each time he disappeared, I could only berate myself at not having any film left in my camera.
Finally the seal twisted and turned to a position a couple of metres away. He then stopped and stared at me. Almost daring not to breathe at all, I slowly moved my left leg out towards him. In return, he dropped to deeper water, never taking his eyes from mine. Gradually, cautiously, the wild animal then moved in closer to my fin. His snout and whiskers jutted out towards my foot, and his eyes, never breaking his stare into mine, rolled back into his head.
While his snout and whiskers wanted to investigate me further, his eyes wanted to be as far back as possible. He began to mouth the full end edge of my left fin. It was not a bite, or a tug. He merely caterpillared both his upper and lower lips sensitively along my fin edge as if performing some strange ritual. That complete, he withdrew slowly, his puppy dog eyes dolefully regarding me as they had throughout. And then he was gone.
On day three, the weather was continuing to hold, so the JdL sailed about five miles west to the island of Boreray. With the masts creaking and groaning a little, we passed the sinister-looking Stac Lee rock, on to reach Stac an Armin. At 196m, this is reportedly Britains tallest monolith. With the weather forcing us to dive on the east side, we were soon dropping down a kelp slope of about 50-60* to a boulder garden at a depth of between 35-40m. Patches of pale deadmens fingers, Devonshire cup corals and jewel anemones loomed up at us. There was only a vague hint of colour, unless we used our torches, the life forms here had obviously been forced into small rockery-type patches by the prevailing weather conditions. The viz was a comfortable 20m plus. Back on board we moved on, cruising past the east side of Boreray, with its impressive skyline. Rocky pillars clawed skyward, the tips disappearing from view inside the low cloud hanging over the island.

Great skuas, gannets, fulmars, blackheaded gulls and a few guillemots played like children. The chaos of beady eyes and soaring snow-coloured feathers seemed to be caught in a vortex of wind as it swirled around the many peaks of the east side.
A memorable dive here was at a site known as Rubha Bhrengadal. The seas surface had every appearance of being at slack water, but on entering I found a current more than equalling my modest efforts to fin in the opposite direction. Little would be achieved by struggling against it, so my buddy and I hailed the ever-present inflatable and used it as a taxi to a more suitable entry point further upstream.
Once below the surface, we were obliged to dump all air from suits and BCs as quickly as possible to get out of the surface current and down in the lee of the reef. I believe these oceanic currents (and we were only experiencing their slightest power at slack water) keep away the mass of sea life I was expecting at St Kilda.
At Rubha Bhrengadal the seabed was a little spartan, save for a few tenacious urchins and the ubiquitous barnacle. With a temperature of 13*C, and basking in 25m viz, we plunged as quickly and as safely as possible to the rocky seabed at 33m. Past the furiously fluttering kelp fronds, we finned down and parallel to the 40-50* slope. We recognised the overhang of rock at about 29m and, swooping down beneath this, found ourselves staring into the gaping diagonal-slash entrance of the cave.
Probing torch beams picked out the caves crimson and orange throat, which was full of life. The cave was somehow smaller than I imagined, approximately 2m between floor and roof and about 3m side to side, with a very black interior. Once inside and my eyes accustomed to the dark, I looked back towards the entrance and saw the shadowy gyrating forms of seals some way off in the distance.
Later, a rare twist in the weather system allowed us to get out around the south-west side of Dun island. Here, the ruggedness of St Kildas submarine environment was extreme. Hundreds of comically flapping puffins heralded our arrival at An Fhaing. Apparently, 50 per cent of Britains puffin population resides in St Kilda. Below the surface we again enjoyed fabulous 20m-plus viz as we finned along acre on acre of gully wall festooned with life.
Encrusting sponges, nudibranchs, urchins, starfish, beadlet jewel and plumose anemones, purse sponges, and much more, seemed to be in carnival mood for us that afternoon. Our small diving group found two large lobsters under the boulders on the sea floor at about 30m. Now, swimming inside a cave large enough for a small boat to enter at the surface, we rounded a corner to swim down a different gully.
As we finned back towards the JdL, we saw a third, much smaller, gully running parallel to the second. This was a site known as An Fhaing Geo. Finning out seaward along this gully, I was struck by how dark and forbidding it was, due to the fact that both gully walls leaned over to our right. One of its sides leaned over the top of us, almost forming a roof, yet above us and to our right I could clearly see a white lacework of froth being blown by the wind on the seas surface.
The walls of this narrower gully were coated with sponges as well as soft and hard corals. As we moved along its length, the seabed dropped inexorably into much deeper water.
After the excitement of this latest dive, we were all a little depressed to hear that a serious low-pressure front was now moving in. Bearing in mind the distance we had to travel to the next safe anchorage, the captain decided to leave St Kilda as soon as all divers were aboard.
On the way back, a minke whale was spotted arching its back and dorsal fin above the waves. It moved alongside the JdL and started to play under our hull, diving, dodging our bow and resurfacing. We watched for about 30 minutes, until a second minke moved in. Finally the two swam off together.

  • The 14-berth JdL is moored at Oban in Argyll, Scotland. Dive charters are organised between April and October at a cost of approx£750 all-inclusive for ten days. Trips tend to be heavily booked.
  • Contact JDL Marine, 75 Oxgangs Rd, Edinburgh, EH1O 7BA. tel/fax 0131 4454686.

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