It was part of the deal: I moved from Paris to Scotland to finally live surrounded by the sea. Of course, the water is not really at a tropical temperature but since I am a dry suit diver, what is the problem? Yet, after 10 months in my new country, I have to admit it, I have dived in Scotland only twice. Nothing to see? Nowhere to go? No, it was indeed the opposite. To reach the underwater treasures of Scotland, the thing I needed to learn was that knowledge, networking and preparation are necessary.
Scotland, dreamland for explorers
Inspiring land for many travellers, it is an ideal destination for road trips. In only a couple of hours driving from Edinburgh, its beautiful and mysterious capital, you will pass colourful lochs and glens (lakes and valleys), ancient castles and abbeys, wild forests and cliffs. Nonetheless to see the most breathtaking landscapes of Scotland, stating you just need to drive North in the direction of the Highlands won’t be enough. I agree any loch surrounded by a forest with a ruin on an island in the middle has an incredible charm. But with some research, I finally discovered what Highlands meant to me when I drove from Loch Ness to the Island of Skye and from Glencoe to the Trossachs. Most of the time, I was so hypnotised with what I saw that I forgot to look for a place to park the car and to take pictures.
The club issue: a matter of networking
With 9910 km of coastline, I was sure I would at least find a couple of interesting scuba diving sites in Scotland. With my first researches, I found that couple of them were accessible with a reasonable car ride from Edinburgh. Unfortunately, my dreams of diving almost every weekend faded away after 3 months. Of course, first, I needed time to settle in my new country. Then I have faced issues with rental dry suits as I explained in my “quest of the perfect dry suit” blog post. By the way, be ready to show your dry suit certification and prove your experience with drysuits in your dive log. Finally, the thing I was not expecting at all was to struggle to book diving anywhere anytime.
Like most cold European countries, scuba diving has been for a long time something you would do in a club, training in a pool or in local sites to pass your open water and then be ready to dive warmer exotic locations. It is only very recently that tourism related to cold water diving really took off. Scuba divers from all over the World are attracted by the adventure of diving on historical wrecks, with extraordinary animals or just the pleasure of the technical level required for cold water diving.
With only 4 PADI dive centres, none from SSI or other equivalent private agency, BSAC and SSAC clubs are still the majority of organisations who get to dive in Scotland, booking usually up to 1 year in advance their spot on the different available boats around Scotland. Last summer, I could never manage to dive the Sound of Mull in West Scotland as everything was fully booked. I was hoping for a last-minute cancellation. It never happened. My luck came from 2 of the PADI scuba diving centres who kindly took me on board.
Many people told me “why don’t you join a club then?” I don’t want to sound too much demanding but the idea of diving only for training in a pool or a random lake was not very exciting. My ideal scuba diving trip is still independently run, without having to subscribe to the National Federation and the club fees for only 2 potential interesting trips in Scotland per year. I decided there should be some other solutions to make it happen.
It is finally by networking, mainly online, on scuba diving forum and through the event section of Facebook I could spot people organising trips independently. Bingo! And this is how I met ACE divers who organises scuba diving tours in Scotland and adventurous expeditions in places like Norway or even Sri Lanka.
Where to go diving in Scotland and what to see?
My 2 first experiences of scuba diving in Oban and in the Firth of Forth confirmed it, scuba diving in Scotland is definitely worth the trip. Deep walls and rocky reefs covered with Yellow antlers sponge, Devonshire cup coral, Plumose anemone and dead man’s fingers. Regarding the animal encounters, it’s been so far quite small but including velvet swimming and long-legged spider crabs, squat lobsters, rock pool shrimps, urchins, sea stars, sun star and many feather stars. During the surface interval in the Firth of Lorne, I was lucky to see my first porpoise (a type of small dolphin) swimming around the boat.
Actually, there is much more to see. I just need to go diving more often and to get a bit lucky. Seals, dolphins, whales and the famous basking shark are within the fauna highlights of scuba diving in Scotland. Besides, Scotland is internationally recognised as one of the best places in the World for wreck diving. Cold water has the benefit of conserving quite well the historical wrecks of UK’s history. Scuba divers from all over the World head to the Orkney Islands to get the chance to dive on genuine WWI wrecks in a site known as Scapa Flow.
Here is my top 5 selection of scuba diving sites in Scotland:
1 – Scapaflow, Orkney Islands: At the very north tip of Scotland, wreck diving enthusiasts come to get the opportunity to dive the famous SMS Cöln, SMS Kronprinz Wilhem, SMS Markgraf and the SMS Köning. (Update: read about my road trip to Scapa Flow)
2 – Sound of Mull, Lochaline: In summertime, from end of July to the beginning of September, divers can meet the basking shark (largest 2nd fish after the whale shark) and dive on 1950’s shipwrecks such as the Hispania, an intact 72m commercial steamer with a long history during WWII. (Update: read about my encounter with basking sharks)
3 – Firth of Lorne, Oban: Beautiful wall diving and the opportunity to meet whales, dolphins and porpoises.
4 – St Abbs: A protected marine in the South East of Scotland. (Update: read about my last minute dive in St Abbs) If you go more south, just across the Scottish border you can also dive with the seals of the Farne Islands.
5 – Firth of Forth, near Edinburgh: The closest dive site from my home. I discovered it quite recently, and took the opportunity to test there my first own dry suit. I need to go back as it was quite promising and the opportunity to meet Atlantic grey seals close to the Isle of May reserve sounds exciting. Watch here my video of scuba diving in the Firth of Forth.
Other sites to be considered:
- Island of Skye: Clears waters and potential encounters with whales, dolphins and basking sharks. If Skye is as beautiful underwater as it is on land, then it should be amazing. Scuba diving in Skye offers Kelp forests, wrecks and cavern diving.
- St Kilda: far way in the Outer Hebrides Islands, it is a true adventure to be taken with a chartered boat from Oban. It is famous for its Sgarbhstas submarine arch.
- Shetland Islands: More wreck diving in far Northern Scotland
- Small Isles: More scenic diving in West Scotland.
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