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Ardmair Bay - the beginning

by Jean and Walt Deas

 

UK

It was a cheerless day in July at the southern end of Ardmair Bay, north of Ullapool on the west coast of Scotland, that I was introduced to diving by my husband, Walt, and his friend David Dye. The year was 1955.

Taking part in that summer's adventure were Bill Hail, Jeff Wilson, Alec Black, David Dye, Waft and myself. We left Dundee in brilliant sunshine, but in Ullapool next morning we were greeted by heavy rain. Camp was pitched, on a grassy knoll near a sparkling burn overlooking the wide bay, battered flat by the rain. Some holiday! Waft, who had picked the location, said the area had some of the longest hours of daylight and sunshine in Britain and we would see some palm trees. Eventually when the rain cleared two days later, we experienced the warmth of the normally mild climate and did locate a few odd 'palms'. These were in the hotel garden!

Early that same morning we ventured into the clear water, the visibility being excellent, 60 feet or more. The sea bed was rocky with white sandy patches, the tops of the reefs were covered in a variety of seaweeds. Fish encountered included dogfish, pollock, mullet, wrasse, scorpion fish and a large tope, which caused a few nervous twitches at first sight. Depth of the water ranged from 10 to 50 feet. There were anemones and sponges, the odd nudibranch and other forms of marine life which we were unable to name. Later that day, Alec speared a large Thornback Ray. It weighed 12 lbs. On examining its stomach a number of small crabs were found. Alec filleted the ray and we had some for lunch and dinner. That evening we baited a large sandy patch, which was in about 10 feet of water, to see what would come in. Bill and Wait patrolled the area until late. Although it was quite dark above the surface, one could see about 20 feet or more underwater. They gave up because of the cold and only crabs were feeding on the bait when they left.

During the night the tents were nearly lost due to a fierce gale that sprang up. This fortunately did not last long, tents further around the bay were blown away!
When we were not diving, we visited the fishing town of Ullapool. The name is Norse, meaning Ullo's Homestead. In 1783 the British Fishery Society built the town as a centre for herring and cod fishing, and during recent years it has again become a busy fishing port and ferry base. The fish landed here were taken by lorry across Scotland by way of Garve and Inverness to Aberdeen and other main cities.

In the summer Ullapool is an attractive place and a mecca for many tourists. There are a variety of hotels and guest houses and also a Youth Hostel. We remember a very cozy pub with a sign above the bar 'English money accepted here without surcharge.' For those that like exploring on land as well as under the water, there are brooks and ancient forts not far from Ullapool and the surrounding countryside offers wonderful hill climbs and picturesque walks. Looking out from the camp base we would see the Isle of Martin, named after Saint Martin who came on a pilgrimage to the Highlands to propagate the Gospel. The ruins of his chapel are on the west corner of the island. Without a boat the island was a long, long snorkel and not for the faint hearted as was the diving. Gloomy cliffs extended down underwater.

Further out we could see the Summer Isles, but they were just tantalizing glimpses on the horizon. Especially Horse Island as history records that Spanish 'treasure' was hidden on the island. At the end of the last century a shepherd fell into a hole. When he returned home he found a gold coin in his shoe. Along with friends he returned to the island, but could not remember where he had fallen. Could this be the treasure from an Armada shipwreck?

Towards the end of the week we went in search of a drifter sunk before the war. Our first try was canceled due to choppy seas and lashing rain. Back to our waterlogged camp. The following morning the sun broke through, we went snorkeling and came across a monster of a jellyfish with tentacles at least 20 feet streaming out behind ft. As we snorkeled, some people were walking along the low tide mark looking for amethysts, cornelians and moss agate. Seemingly this part is quite well known for these 'gems'.

In the afternoon we set out again to look for the wreck and this time we had the help of Arthur B. Hopkinson, a keen underwater enthusiast from Leeds, who was working on the new pier at Ullapool, as an engineer. Arthur had appeared one day - an apparition totally dressed in white, he had made his dry suit from surgical rubber sheets. But more incredible he had an Agfa 35 mm camera in a homemade underwater housing made from a form of fibreglass, quite a modern unit compared to the one's that Wait had been experimenting with, made from marine ply and perspex.

It was Arthur who had located the wrecked drifter in his many explorations around Ullapool. Alec and I swam behind the small boat we had been loaned, as it was filled with our breathing apparatus. As we were towed gently along, the cabin of the wreck loomed up in front our eyes. Here before us lay our first reasonably sized shipwreck and it was a magnificent sight. She lay in about 30 feet of water (at low tide) and as we secured the anchor, a large conga eel oozed out of a hole in the cabin and glided down to be lost in the shadows of the hold. A large school of fish patrolled back and forth and a dogfish could be seen near the bow. With gear on, we swam over the ship, still in good shape and swathed in a light mantle of weeds. We dived, glided and swam, no longer tied to the surface for the want of air, with the fish that swarmed near the wreck. Alec made the cabin, ft had nothing but a large lantern, corroded beyond further use. A conger eel (the same one) scuttled through a hole in the stern to see who had invaded his domain, but soon retreated into the depths of the wreck. Many fish were encountered throughout the wreck and a large shoal of fish, all 18 inches or more in length, let us pass right through them without seemingly appearing afraid.

As our air supply diminished we had regretfully to leave 'Arthur's' wreck. This area has more possibilities as two large sailing vessels and a whole fishing fleet foundered nearby.

Saturday came all too soon and we had to leave this most beautiful and historic region of the west. Our thoughts will dwell on a wonderful and at times wet holiday and a very fruitful underwater expedition.

Jean recalls: 'I can remember that day at Ardmair Bay as if it was only yesterday. I can't say I was over keen as 'frogmen' were something new and a female diver was a totally new concept. I wasn't thrilled with my first plunge - what with remembering the multitude of rules and all I could see were creepy crawlies. I'm not sure if it was my imagination but the hordes of crabs on the seabed became a million menacing creatures as I invaded their domain. The cold 10 water didn't help either! However the lure of the underwater world was implanted and has never been lost. In the early days I used to carry Walt's spare camera, but beat that problem by obtaining my own - and Walt borrows it for the odd shot he can't get with his outfits.'

Jean has become an underwater photographer in her own right, winning various photographic competitions. In 1975 she was the BSAC Photographer of the Year. Now a qualified NASI, CMAS and PADI Instructor and Commercial Scuba Diver, Jean says 'It can be a hard sport at times for women. lugging heavy gear up and down rocky slopes, beaches and in and out of boats. Crawling out of the water like a dejected water rat while other non-diving wives sit back sunning themselves. But armed with waterproof make-up, tough but respectable clothes, loads of enthusiasm - its worth it for the beauty the underwater scene holds, the fascination, the excitement and the sheer escapism from city life and if you're lucky - a patient boyfriend or husband. Part of a minority - yes - a minority which has contributed a great deal to the diving scene.


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