Travel as far north and as far east as you can in Scotland and you will find yourself in the county of Caithness, famous for John O’Groats, the geographic opposite of Land’s End in Cornwall and home to the embarkation point for the Gills Bay ferry to Orkney. Orkney is a diving mecca, thanks to the wrecks of 74 German First World War ships, scuttled by their own crews to avoid passing in to British hands. Perhaps less well known are the dive sites on the mainland which dot the rugged coastline between the area’s two largest towns, Thurso and Wick. A visit to these remote bays and harbours is highly recommended, even for those with an aversion to submersion; as well as underwater wonders they offer beautiful views, walking trails and wildlife spotting a plenty.
Staxigoe is two miles north east of Wick, roughly five and a half hours drive from either Edinburgh or Glasgow. Its name comes from Old Norse and means inlet of the stack, referring to the large rocky pinnacle that sits in the middle of the harbour.
Divers enter the water from the shore, following a slipway and, keeping the rocks on their right on the way out, and on their left on the way back, can while away a happy 40 minutes to an hour exploring the crevasses of the stack and the creatures that live there.
Scarfskerry is the most northerly settlement on mainland Scotland, on the coast between Thurso and the ferry terminal. Its name is also Old Norse, meaning Cormorants’ Rock. Another shore dive, access is easy, with divers simply stepping off the end of the slipway at high tide. Here, if you can find it amongst the kelp, lies the wreck of the SS Linkmoor which went down in 1930, all lives saved. The fishing industry is waning here and any boats you encounter are likely to be watching for wildlife; seals, dolphins, seabirds are all found here. We were lucky enough to spot a basking shark from the shore during our time at the site in early June.
The natural harbour of Portskerra is hiding a secret, a sea arch or tunnel that connects the calm inner bay to the sea beyond. The entrance can be found in the right hand arm of horseshoe shaped bay near to the end of the reef. Care should be taken when entering the tunnel as the current can be strong, particularly when the sea is rougher than the water in the harbour. Lots of sea life makes the tunnel its home and during May and June Dogfish (also known as Catsharks and pictured below) come here to breed.
Of the sites we visited, Papigoe is the least attractive to non-divers. It is accessed through a housing estate on the outskirts of Wick where the road ends abruptly at a steep cliff. The scramble down is steep and quite difficult even without carrying diving equipment. Multiple trips will be needed to and from your car will be needed, don’t be tempted to overload yourself. It’s also advisable to stop and gather your breath before entering the water, otherwise you’ll have sucked your air supply dry in no time.
Papigoe is worth all the effort. The series of gullies are full of life and some interesting rock formations, including some small caves and a narrow ‘window’ opening. The dive is not particularly deep, meaning that there is lots of light for photography, although a good flash system always helps.
This post is an introduction to the sites only. You should always research any new sites thoroughly in advance; if there is a local dive centre or club they will have valuable tips and may be able to provide services of a guide. Always dive within your qualification and experience. Never dive alone. Having shore cover present is always preferable but if diving in a pair without it make sure someone knows where you are and check in with them before and after. Always check the weather and the tide and don’t be afraid to cancel if the conditions are not right, or you feel unwell or uncertain.
For the previous post in the series click here. Our next stop on this insider’s tour of Scotland will be the history packed island of Orkney.