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Article by Steve Dickison (1998)

Coll-A Sub-Aqua Perspective
 
Coll - A Sub-Aqua Perspective

I put one hand over my face mask, take a breath from my regulator and lean backwards, allowing the 14 kilo's of lead on my belt and the heavy steel cylinder on my back to pull me over the gunwale and into the blue sea.

It is always a relief to be floating after the discomforts of kitting up in the hot sun. The usual ritual of checking the equipment, struggling with straps and hoses, buckles and belts and lastly the 'buddy check'. No matter how many times I've dived, I still experience the delicious buzz of feeling slightly nervous mixed with anticipation and excitement.

Now that Rupert and I have left the boat, Lauchie, Helen, Karlijn and Scott can enjoy a bit of space to relax in the September sunshine and wait for our return. I fin to the anchor rope at the bow to meet Rupert. We exchange 'OK' signals with each other and the boat party and then reach for the dump valves on our buoyancy compensator jackets (bcs). By releasing the air from our bcs, we become negatively buoyant and start to descend. We leave the surface and enter another world.

As we descend the light starts to fade, our only reference is the anchorline disappearing into a green gloom. Neither the surface nor the seabed is visible. Soon shapes start to appear below us and suddenly wreckage is everywhere. Like a parachutist reaching for a ripcord, I press the inflation button on my drysuit and inject some air slowing my descent and relieving the squeezing effect of increasing water pressure. I gently come to rest on a flat bit of steel. Seconds later Rupert arrives, a look of wonder and excitement in his eyes confirming his 'OK' signal.

The scene before us is a far cry from the photograph of the stricken vessel, hanging in the Coll Hotel bar. Salvage teams, time and the unforgiving sea have taken their toll on motor vessel Tapti, but with a gross tonnage of 6600, she is still an impressive sight.

On the 17th January 1951, during a strong south-westerly gale with bad visibility, the six year old ship hit the rocks at the south end of Eilean Iomollach, off Soa. She lay listing to starboard for four days, then on the Saturday night, during a very high tide, she was released from the rocks and sank in about 24 metres of water. No attempt had been made to salvage her. Islanders who witnessed her sinking thought the circumstances were suspicious.

Rupert injects some air into his 'bcs' to achieve `neutral buoyancy', that wonderful feeling of weightlessness shared only by astronauts. I notice the anchor from our boat has fallen down into a tangle of steel. To ensure we can pull it back up I must move it to a patch of sand beside the wreck - not easy in zero gravity. I settle my breathing after the effort and with a quick instrument check, we are ready to explore. We fin along the collapsed centre section on the starboard side, heading for the bow. During her 47 years on the seabed the Tapti has acquired a rich carpet of marine life: soft corals and orange and white plumrose anenomes decorate the twisted remains. Deadmens fingers and numerous types of hydroids cling to vertical sections. Like many wrecks, the Tapti has become an artificial reef, supporting life and providing a refuge for many species of fish. Large pollack patrol at a discrete distance. Ballan wrasse follow us closely, feeding from whatever our fins kick up, their red backs and white spots darting around us. In the distance, shoals of saithe move as one.

Long abandoned empty creels hang from masts and girders as we approach the remains of the bow section. It used to point vertically up to the surface but is now leaning to starboard. The forecastle deck has rotted away in many places, allowing us to peer in. The massive spare anchor is still secured to the deck. We move round the rail. The bow now towers over us reducing the already dim light. We check our instruments - depth 22.8 metres, 12 minutes gone, air OK. This is the deepest part of the wreck. I look at Rupert for some eye contact but he seems cool about it and signals `OK'. I move further under the starboard side of the bow, the anchor chain hangs from the hawsepipe and disappears into the sand. I see some movement at the back and reach for my divelight. We are rewarded with a blaze of colour. A Cuckoo Wrasse, resplendent in fluorescent orange and purple. Like many species of wrasse, this remarkable fish changes sex, starting life as a female, then becoming male.

We are very aware of the tons of rusting steel above our heads and we withdraw to the safety of the open seabed. There are scallops here. The commercial scallop dredgers cannot come this close to the wreck so we are spared the usual wasteland of death and destruction. Finning under the keel and looking up there is a dramatic view of the port anchor, still secured in its hawsepipe.

We proceed aft over collapsed structure and hull plates, moving faster to see as much as possible in the short time available. We cross over to the starboard area mid-ships, there is an intact section of superstructure with doorways and a deckrail on top. Last time I was here. two dolphins - a mother and a calf - glided majestically past. It was the first time I had seen dolphins underwater, a rare privilege.

We continue aft, passing the after mast which lies pointing east. Finning along it we come to the cross tree gantry. There is now a noticeable current running and we pause, holding on to the gantry rail. A quick instrument check indicates enough air remaining for a trip to the stem section.

Back on the wreck we cross over to the port side, the current is now quite strong and we pull ourselves along using any convenient handholds to conserve air. The stem section is largely intact and lying on its starboard side. At fifteen metres it is the shallowest part of the wreck. Moving along the keel we can see where the massive once turned and what now remains of the rudder.

Squeezing between the stern and the steep rocky slope of the reef we move round to the deck. I find a doorway and look inside to see if there is another exit. Entering enclosed structures can be extremely hazardous. The slightest movement can create clouds of silt, reducing the visibility to zero in seconds. The forward end of the cabin is completely open, so we enter to seek shelter from the tiring current. We sit and rest watching our exhaust bubbles travelling up the slanting ceiling like bubbles of mercury.

Time to check instruments. The current was not without cost. There is enough air for our return but we must not hang about if we are to retain our 50 bar reserve, kept for emergencies. Moving with the current we travel forward. Looking up at the reef I see a large seal hiding in the kelp, eyeing us with deep suspicion, intruders in his playground.

Here the wreck looks like a giant scrap yard. It is hard to imagine that this was once a ship. A testament to the power of the sea and the efficiency of the salvers. All too soon we are back at the anchorline of our boat. I give the anchor a last check for obstructions, check our instruments, then start the ascent.

I keep a close eye on my depth computer to ensure ascent at the correct rate, so that the bubbles of nitrogen in our blood do not expand too quickly - no point in finishing our day in a decompression chamber - and we have more than enough air. As we release the expanding air in our `bcs' and my dry suit, clouds of bubbles rise above us, illuminated by the sunlight filtering down. It is nice to have a rope to hold onto, allowing us to control our ascent and preventing the current from sweeping us away from the boat. Looking up I can see its shape above us, like a kite on a string. The light and water temperature increases. We are almost at the surface.

Finally, after three minutes, we are beside the boat. Faces peer down at us, hands reach to take our heavy gear. Lots of questions about our dive, but we are too tired to say much until we are aboard. After forty-nine minutes underwater, it is good to feel the sun on our faces, 'decompress' with a glass of wine and enjoy the stunning beauty of this place.

Another perfect day living on Coll.

SPD
Images associated with this article:-

The Tapti wreck

Through the mask
Coll Magazine - Article by Steve Dickison

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