Hannah Lawson reflects on the majestic beauty of diving off the coast of Scotland.
The shock and awe of Scotland’s frigid, fertile oceans have given me some of the most incredible underwater experiences of my life. The drives to get to them always interminable and awe-inspiring in turn through the forever drizzle; saturated landscapes framed by the windscreen and accompanied by the metronomic croak of wipers.
Spectacular shipwrecks, from a Cromwellian galleon with its concretion-encrusted carronades, to a cargo carrier casualty of World War II and its murky hold, stripped over the years by souvenir hunters. The wreck on which I first learned the ropes of archaeological recording, struggling with slates and frames and tape-measures, was the Welsh slate schooner John Preston, who would never return home.
Wooden carved cherub in situ at the wreck off Duart Point
© RCAHMS / Archaeological Diving Unit (ADU)
From multicoloured reefs crawling with crawfish, anemones, topshells and coral, to elegant pipefish who wind themselves affectionately round your camera strap as you’re trying to take their photo.
And the dolphins – the small pod first appeared playfully chasing our companion boat in a secluded cove, and we hastily grabbed snorkels and jumped in, eager to tick off that box on so many bucket lists. Once in the water we saw the visibility was not great that day, and the cloudy water hid them until they were only a few metres from us, the fast, vast, white shapes speeding out of the green gloom to investigate us. It was then that we saw their scars: on one sharp, regular, diagonal lines, the unmistakeable marks of a propeller engine much like the one on our own boat. We started to worry that they might hold a grudge against our kind, especially as another appeared with a calf, warily shielding it from us and she cocked her head and surveyed us with her intense eye. It occurred to me right then that they were about the length of a car, built of solid muscle, and perfectly at home in their environment. If they did take a dislike to us we really wouldn’t stand a chance. Just out of our reach they re-appeared, clicking faster at us, again cocking their curious heads as they checked us out, their constant smiles curved into their beaks, almost sinister. Later my buddy would tell me of how one of them blew a bubble ring and then darted through the middle of it, a little show just for him. Gutted, I joked with him that it was his karmic reward for not eating meat or fish. Back and forth they shot, sometimes alongside, sometimes beneath, as we drifted for minutes and minutes with our hearts racing.
Shipwreck Scapa Flow
© Visit Scotland
I don’t know if you’ve ever laughed underwater, but when your cheeks crinkle up they break the rubber seal pressed against your facemask, and little rivulets of water squirt up inside it onto your skin. If you’re crying at the same time it’s difficult to tell if there’s more saltwater coming out of your eyes or going into them.