Exercise Triton Triangle TIDSAC July 1995
Balmacara House sits in what is now the Localsh Estate, built in 1801 by Sir Hugh Innes and situated on the shores of Loch Alsh, Balmacara was purchased by Sir Alexander Matheson in the mid-19th century, while Duncraig Castle was built near Plockton to serve as his main residence
In 1918 Balmacara was bought by Sir Daniel and Lady Margaret Hamilton. The house has been enlarged over the years, and the 8,770 acre Lochalsh Estate was eventually bequeathed to the National Trust for Scotland, in 1947. Balmacara House has since been leased to the Ministry of Defence for use by Navy divers during training exercises. In 2011 it was refurbished and apparently continues, to this day, to be used by the Navy as a training base
Norman & Joy Morley knew of Balmacara house, and knew TIDSAC would find it reasonably easy to use as a base for a decent expedition for the Tidworth club. Norman would plan the main of the expedition and Major Mike Eagle would sign it off, and submit to the relevant military authority for approval, it was to be an adventurous expedition increasing the experience of garrison divers, targeting deeper dives, drift dives and wreck diving in the Lochalsh area around the Isle of Skye
Now this one was going to be a hard sell for me as it was a week I would normally have spent on leave, not usually an issue, however, I had recently been thrown out of the monastery by the abbot following an incident on Christmas leave involving a very beautiful young woman, Two young kids and a Goat…… (The Goat was at a local petting Farm…. honestly!). The rest, however, is true to the letter! I had met Ellie, the girl who would break my vows of chastity and seclusion following my now somewhat distant divorce, and after an inordinately long time, agree to become my wife (initially having said “no” when I asked, but that is another story, and only marginally diving related!) and Lee and Lewis, who would eventually agree I could pay their pocket money from then on! I had no idea what I would say to excuse a week’s absence, swanning off to Scotland for a diving expedition…..but I had a month or so to think of something!
I didn’t have a problem getting permission in either direction as it happened, my CO, Maj Andrews, couldn’t think of a good enough reason to stop me taking leave, (there were clearly no remaining shit-holes, in a state of melt-down, to send me to at that point) and I had suggested Ellie might love to bring the kids up to Scotland for a week, as a sort of holiday…..she could even bring a mate up if she’d like and we’d all do some sightseeing, after I had done a little military related exercise I couldn’t get out of…. This, Ellie said, was going to be difficult, how was she going to get to Scotland with Two very young kids and Denise, her mate, without a car….and where would we all stay? I had that covered, “you can tow your granddad’s trailer tent up in my RS Turbo if you like……..” sorted!
The trip up from Tidworth on Sunday the 02nd July 1995 was long and slow, towing the TIDSAC club RIB meant everything was in slow motion. I had agreed to meet up with Ellie and the crew at Stafford service station on the M6, and it all went swimmingly, we had a little dive-club convoy for about 10 hours or so, through the counties to the lake district and on up the Western coast of Scotland, an epic journey for Ellie, who had never driven further than Derby in a car before! When we pulled up Loch-side and took a look at the Commando memorial the kid’s eyes were wide with excitement! Ellie and Denise planned to take the car across to Skye and do the tourist bit whilst we dived….Two Birds!
I will quote the overview from the “Exercise Triton Triangle” expedition report as a lead in….. “The exceptionally good weather allowed unrestricted diving throughout the expedition, although the geography of the region also allows diving in most wind directions. The boat was launched from Kyle of Lochalsh small Boat Slip and moored off Balmacara House most of the time. This involved the coxswain of the day having to swim out to the boat in the morning and back in the evening. The boat was only withdrawn from the water on one occasion, in order to dive Loch Carron, when it was launched from Strome Ferry.”
Our fist dive was at Aird-a-Mhill, a shake-out dive on Loch Alsh and, at 17m, it was just a straight out fun orientation dive, my log book records nothing dramatic “Small Boat – Aird-A-Mhill – Lochalsh Shakeout Dive – First in Scotland Huge Starfish – Huge Jellyfish Plenty of Scallops & Squat Lobsters. Viz 3m W/Temp 11’ Air in 180 Out 70 Buddy Mark” a nice introduction to diving in Scottish Sea Lochs, just what the doctor ordered after the drab views recently under Swanage Pier! I remember being fascinated watching Scallops swim off when we approached, if you’ve never seen it, you’d never believe it…..they scatter in front of you, their shells clacking open and closed in quick time, as they siphon sea water in and blow it out through jets in their bodies, swimming backwards in a bizarre trajectory, up then down as they flee …….the image is one of comic incredulity which made me laugh into my regulator, and will never be forgotten
The next day we headed out to the most famous dive locally, just 10 minutes across from Balmacara House to the Navy Mine Layer Port Napier. You know this blog well enough by now, I think, to know that dive will be covered in another section? Suffice to say, this was the best wreck I had ever dived to that point, and when that has included the Zenobia in Larnaca Harbour, Cyprus, it may come as a shock to those who know the Two wrecks, but I’ll let you read the piece yourself and work out why in your own time……..Our second dive on the 08th July 1995 was to the little Island of Eileanan Dubha, which is in Kyleakin strait and slap in front of the Sky Ferry crossing route. When we were there the Caledonian Ferry was still the only means of crossing to Skye, the new Skye bridge would not open until October of 1995, in one day sealing the fate of the local Ferry, and in the same heartbeat euthanise the romance of the Skye crossing, dooming it to mundane pedestrianism and summer gridlock…..I know what you’re thinking…..and yes, I’m a Luddite at heart!
The Eileanan Dubha dive was a lovely end to the day, my dive log sums it up briefly and concisely: “Club RIB – Eil Dubha – Loch Alsh Just a bimble to finish the day – round the Isle hunting the nooks – tame Air in 200 out 100 Viz 3m W/Temp 11’ Buddies Mark & Richard” Hunting in and out of the islet’s gullies was great fun, but I’d just come from the Port Napier, you’ll understand the difference once you have read the piece on the Napier, it was clear I loved diving, but it was becoming far clearer that wrecks were where I came alive……….
The next day’s morning dive 09/07/1995 was spent on the Port Napier, seriously, by now I could’ve just spent the entire time on her, she was an amazing wreck, but there were others to consider, and a spread of diving to undertake to justify the mission statement for the expedition, so we headed out for a drift dive on our second dive of the day. Now I had done some mild drifts under Ferry-Bridge at Portland, I knew the drill, don’t get tangled up in your SMB, keep the line tight and watch your front! The currents around Loch Alsh are known to be fierce at times and Norman knew where to find them, this wasn’t his first trip up here! So we found ourselves at Kyle Rea, my dive log records: “RIB Dive- Kyle Rea – Balmacara A 3Kt Drift Dive – Dropped in by the Skye Ferry & drifted way past the Light, fields of Anemones, lovely – Air in 220 Out 100 Viz 4m W/Temp 12’ Buddy Mark” 3 Knots was a good crack for a drift, way more than I had under Ferry-Bridge, we drifted well too, somewhere around ½ mile we estimated later, a very enjoyable dive and everyone enjoyed the experience, the day had been great!
Monday 10th July 1995 and the day started out perfectly for me with another dive on the Port Napier, things couldn’t get much better to be honest! However the afternoon dive was scheduled as a wall dive over on the Balmacara House side of the loch, so we were heading South in the RIB, the dive log says: “RIB Dive – Kyle of Lochalsh – The Wall A really pleasant drop to “climb” back up the wall – Largest Crab I’ve seen to date & Velvet Swimmer Crabs, loads of beautiful funnels & fans Viz 4m W/Temp 12’ Buddy Mark Air in 220 Out 80” This was a nice dive, I remember being quite astonished to see Fan coral in a sea loch in Scotland, and tube fans too (Funnels). The dive was gloomy but clear and the deeper nature of it changed the noise of our exhaled air, I enjoyed the swim up this wall more than I thought I would at the time
This was a contrast to our next dive a day after (11th July) where we dived Loch Reraig, opposite Plockton, a beautiful tourist trap, for this dive we had to trailer the RIB across the hills to launch out of Strome Ferry Slip, the wall here was barren and a disappointment after the previous day’s wall, the log records: “RIB Dive – Loch Reraig – Deep Dive down to 30m then back slowly up a barren slope but not much life – W/Temp 12’ Viz 4m Buddy Ken Air in 220 Out 100” We quickly followed this with a drift dive in the same area which went far better, plenty to see (and more…) as the log says “Rib Dive – Stromeferry – Drift Down to 19m & drift over a sea bed full of Scallops & Starfish – Good Fun – W/Temp 12’ Viz 4m Buddy Ken Air in 100 Out 51” Now, no one was counting the Scallops when we went in….good news really as there were a good deal fewer when we came out….and an impromptu Barbie took care of the hunger we’d built up on the dives…….hand dived Scallops…nommy!
The expedition was drawing to a close, we had a day and a half of diving left and a decision to make, wreck or wall, on this one I was out voted, we ended up going back to the Loch Alsh wall for a deeper dive to 35m, one of the objectives of the expedition, so I wasn’t arguing the choice. The log book says enough: “Rib Dive – The Wall – Kyle of Lochalsh Down to 35m & 4m Viz – But well dark – back up through all the local sea life & a Lump Sucker as well – W/Temp 12’ Buddy Ken Air in 160 Out 70” That was the lowest fill I’d had to date at 160 Bar, and maybe pushing what I would do now, beyond comfort levels, we had planned the dive as a simple bounce though, with no real bottom time, just a “touch and go” affair which worked out ok at the time. Our next dive that day was another drift, they were popular with everyone as you just got in, let the current do the work, and enjoyed the sensation of “flying” over the sea scape, this one was special too…. “Drift Dive – Kyle of Lochalsh – Channel Marker Buoy – Down to 11m & over a field of Brittle-stars that was staggering – literally a carpet! – A large amount of Sun-Starfish & Huge (18” – 24” ) starfish – with the odd Urchin & Crab thrown in for luck – good dive 3 ½ to 4k Buddy Ken W/Temp 12’ Air In 215 Out 90” This would be one of the most defining memories of the Kyle of Lochalsh and I can still see in my mind the carpet of what would now be called “Bio-Mass” that we drifted across that afternoon, both Ken and I couldn’t believe the scale of what we saw, anywhere you looked….Brittle-stars….an amazing sight!
The next day we managed a farewell dive on the Port Napier and I had to say goodbye to what was the best wreck I had dived in all my 100 plus dives at that point, even now the dives on the Port Napier have taken some beating and she is one of my fondest wreck memories…..