Tales from a life in the isles

Robin Turner is MD of Seawork Scotland Ltd. Between 1968 and 1980 he worked on fishing boats, coastal vessels, been a professional diver – he has logged some 12,000 dives – and a scallop diver, around the west coast of Scotland and the Isle of Mull. His many experiences form the basis of this blog. Enjoy.

Close Encounter of the Conger Kind
One day in October, after returning from a day’s Clam Diving, a Clam Dredger’s Skipper was waiting for me at the Old Pier, in Tobermory. I had barely secured the Ros Ban’s ropes, before he asked me to carry out ‘a wee dip’ to locate one of his ‘sides’ of dredges, which had come fast on the Crab Patch, some two nautical miles North West of Ardmore Point.
‘All ye need tae do, is shackle a wire to the bar, an’ I can haul her off the way she cam in! It’ll no take mair than a couple o’ minutes; an’ forbye its worth twenty pounds! Easy money, an ye’ll be back within the hour.’
I was well acquainted with a fisherman’s pecuniary optimism, regarding the simplicity of any underwater task, and also with their usual lack of accurate knowledge concerning the depth and exact location of any gear which had ‘come fast’.
I cautiously asked the skipper if he knew at what depth the dredge had come fast, because the dredges were usually some 1200’ behind the boat, on towing wires of 200 fathoms.
That is, the depth showing on the Boat’s echo sounder, would probably bear no relation to the depth of the dredges.
I had to know, or estimate the exact depth of the dredges, and the maximum depth to which my search would take me, to determine whether locating the dredges would be practical, and more importantly, within safe Decompression limits.i
I had already carried out four dives that day, and I would still be carrying a significant amount of dissolved nitrogen within my tissues.
The skipper said the dredges had come fast on the ‘Fishing Bank’, some 2.2 nautical miles West by North of Ardmore Point, and he reckoned the depth would be no more than 15 metres, or 50 feet.
I took a quick look at the chart, and pointed out that the charted depth only showed a minimum of 17.9 metres, and that this ‘peak’ was surrounded by depths of around 40 metres.
With the present adjustment for tidal level being about three metres,ii the dredges could only be in at the very least, 21 metres.
But the odds of the dredges being on the exact top of the peak were miniscule, and unless the dredges could be quickly located the search would be unsuccessful.iii And I was fed up with soup and beans on toast.
My best hope of a quick contact would depend on a quick swim around the edge of the peak, hoping to catch sight of the dredge wire, which might be followed to the lost side of dredges.
And, if the wire was ‘over the edge’ in deeper water, the prospect of a successful recovery and prompt payment would diminish drastically.
The Fishing Bank was about seven nautical miles from Tobermory, and it would take at least 45 minutes to steam out there, and presuming a quickly successful search, rigging and retrieval, this jaunt was unlikely to take less than two-and-a-half hours, at best, and by our return to Tobermory, darkness would have closed in.
Also, it was late October, with poor visibility underwater, with a lot of plankton and gloomy, with the remaining sun low in the sky.
A search could take a long time, and the dredges were more likely to be in 30 or 40 metres, rather than the optimistic 15 claimed by the skipper.
The traditional salvage contract of ‘No Cure, No Pay’ was completely unacceptable, but the coffers were not only empty, but stuffed with IOUs and unpaid bills, and my ‘Tabs’ at the Mishnish, the MacDonald Arms and the Co-op felt like the National Debt of a broke Banana Republic.
Thirty quid in hard cash would go a long way to restoring my fiscal credibility, if not restoring my ‘Triple A-Credit Status’ with my bank.
I first suggested that the search was deferred until 0600 hours the following dayt, when daylight, and no decompression debt, would offer a much better prospect of success.
But the skipper was adamant; he needed to retrieve the dredges tonight, if he wasn’t to lose half a day’s fishing, tomorrow.
Despite the encroaching darkness, the prospect of some hard cash overcame common sense, and as I was still in my dry suit, all I had to do was transfer my diving gear to the dredger for the trip out to the site.
My diving gear, with a couple of full dive tanks, was quickly stowed aboard the dredger, and the cook gave me a plate of hot stew as we headed out for the Fishing Bank.
In the wheelhouse, I pored over the Decca printout, and got the skipper to mark the boat’s location at the moment she came fast.
Plotting the length of the towing wires back along the track suggested that the gear was some twenty fathoms WNW of the top of the bank, just where it dropped off into deeper water.
After the skipper located the top of the bank we steamed WNW, and dropped a marker buoy at the edge of the drop off, which the echo sounder showed fell instantly away to some 40 metres.
The plan was that if I located a dredge wire, I should follow it to the dredges, and attach a stout rope to the bridle on the beam of the stuck dredges.
The dredger could then haul the dredges back along their entry path after which, theoretically, both sides of dredges could be lifted with the buoyed off wires.
The crew flaked out a full coil of new rope on the deck, with a spliced eye and shackle at the bitter end. As the Skipper dodged ahead with the marker buoy on the bow, I dropped into the water, clutching the hard eye and a torch, and swam over to the buoy.
I dumped the air out of my suit, and flipped over to swim fast into the darkness below, down the buoy rope, to the seabed. Hastily clearing my ears to allow for the increasing pressure, I saw a lightening of the gloom, from the light reflected off the patches of sand among the reef top rocks.
As the seabed appeared through the gloom, I scanned around the visible area for any signs of a dredge wire, before I hit bottom at twenty-two metres, or seventy-two feet.
With no sign of dredges or wires, I took the only option, to swim a compass course in the direction of the incoming dredges, to see if I might cross a wire, or catch site of the dredges in the gloom.
Making sure the retrieval rope was not twisted round the marker buoy line, I swam fast in a West Nor’ West direction, down a gentle slope, until after about eighty metres I came to the black edge of a steep drop off, a cliff running down into deep water.
Taking a quick look at my contents gauge, I swam head first over the edge and with my torch beam giving flickering glimpses of the steep rock face, I sank rapidly down, with increasing negative buoyancy, as the pressure ‘squeezed’ my suit.
As it became much darker, I estimated that I was now at about one hundred and twenty feet, with no sign of the usual loom of reflected light from the bottom.
With my hands full with the rope and my torch, I could not easily access my suit inflation valve to restore neutral buoyancy, and spotting a small ledge below, I flipped over, to arrest my descent with a seat on the ledge. As I transferred rope and torch to one hand, I fumbled for my suit inlet valve, and started to inject some air.
I perched on the edge of the ledge, making mental calculations of my decompression status, and realised that I had no more than another five minutes before I would have to ascend.
Deciding on a quick bounce to the bottom of the cliff, provided it was no deeper than one hundred and fifty feet, I took a firm grip on the rope and prepared to leave the security of my ledge.
All of a sudden, I experienced terrifying shock as a monstrous shape slid across the lenses of my face mask, and I came eyeball to eyeball with a huge gaping mouth full of needle-like teeth and a single green eye, staring unblinking into my paralysed soul.
It seemed to materialise from nowhere, but as I instinctively pulled back from the malevolent monster, some still functioning lobe of my brain identified my chimera as a huge conger eel, with a body as thick as my waist, and a length clearly in excess of twelve feet.
My adrenalin-enhanced observation had drawn a clear picture of my situation, and I could see that it had emerged from a deep crack in my resting ledge, and that the muscular trunk of its body was mostly hidden in the black recess.
While it was not the largest conger I had seen, it was certainly the closest, and I was well aware that congers are fiercely territorial, and the larger the conger, the larger the territory it felt impelled to defend from all intruders.
But I had no inclination to continue our mutual face off, or verify the beast’s taxonomy and anatomical dimensions, and instinctively pushed myself off the ledge, and finned frantically down, into the darkness below.
In a few heart-pumping seconds, I ploughed into the seabed, at the foot of the cliff, and tried to slow my breathing, and take stock of depth, bottom time and decompression status.
Fortunately, I had managed to retain my grip on the retrieval rope, and the torch was secured around my wrist with a lanyard.
It was now so dark that I had to peer at my depth gauge with the torch, to discover that I was now at 138 feet, or 42 metres in today’s money. I would have to ascend in the next 2 minutes, and carry out stops at 20 feet and 10 feet, before surfacing.

conger eel pic

As my heart rate slowed and my eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom, I realised I was kneeling on a floor of deeply rippled sand, stretching out into the darkness.
A slight current was carrying off the sediment kicked up by my uncoordinated impact with the sea bed, and my clam diver’s eye automatically noted a languid puff of sediment, expelled by a scallop embedded in the trough of a nearby ripple.
And then I saw another, and another – the place was hoaching with prime scallops, and even if the dredge recovery proved financially fruitless, perhaps I could recoup my fortunes with a couple of good landings.
I kicked off the bottom, and made a brief excursion to assess the potential scallop bonanza, before ascending to the boat waiting above.
I stopped and adjusted my buoyancy, floating two fathoms above the seabed, and paddled round through 360 degrees, to assure myself that there was no sign of the damned dredges.
Scanning the outer limits of my visual perimeter, I thought I detected a faint discontinuity, some 20 metres away. I finned fast to the object, and as I drew near, I saw the side of dredges, stuck fast in a ruckle of boulders, with the towing wire running away into the darkness. Hallelujah, Hosanna and Hoch ma Gandy!
It was a matter of seconds to attach the shackle of the retrieval rope to the dredges beam, and kick hard for the surface.
As I approached a depth of 15 metres, the light steadily increased, and my focus switched to another world, of boats, houses and people: for ascent to the surface has some strange parallels with the birth experience.
With the last 50 bar in my dive tank, I carried out stops at 20 feet and 10 feet, before surfacing beside the boat.
In another 15 minutes, the dredges were all aboard, and the skipper cheerfully pressed a wad of six white fivers into my left hand, and a large dram into my right.
Steaming back to Tobermory, I thawed out with another plate of the cook’s supreme stew, and reflected on the rapid change in my fortunes.
If I hadn’t had a close encounter with ugly conger,iv I might well have turned back before diving to forty-two metres; and never found either the dredges, or the most promising bed of scallops I had seen for a long time.


i Diving ‘outside’ the decompression tables causes decompression sickness, which is due to bubbles of absorbed nitrogen emerging in the diver’s cardiovascular system as pressure reduces on ascent. This can cause painful, damaging, and possibly fatal ‘bends’, or even potential paralysis and disablement, which are averted by adhering to tables of decompression stops, or necessary timed stops, during the ascent.
ii Charted depth (LAT) varies from the Actual depth, by as much as 12 feet difference, depending on the tide level at the time. This makes a significant change to one’s Decompression requirements, and miscalculation when diving to the maximum limits of the Decompression Tables, can cause the Bends.
iii There are various types of ‘slow but sure’ search patterns, which can be run by laying anchored jackstays across the seabed, or by searching around a chosen centre ‘peg in an expanding circular locus. Nowadays, GPS, Track Plotters and ‘coupled’ sonar make re-tracing ones previous course, simple and accurate. But at this time Fishermen were reliant on the Decca Navigator, and primitive plotters which produced an ink scrawl on a blank sheet of paper, scrolling through the plotter.
iv A diver has restricted vision, due to the frame of his half mask, or helmet, and the further limitation of head movement due to his breathing apparatus. Topsides, we are accustomed to the ability to rapidly perceive an all round panoramic view of our surroundings, but below the diver’s movements are more ponderous, even though he is weightless. And sometimes, just a slight movement of the head will reveal some strange creature, just inches away from one’s face. It is always these totally unexpected encounters that generate the most violent shocks, and flood the body with adrenalin in the ‘fight or flight’ reflex. And I guess the terrifying ‘close-up’ of the Conger’s eye and gaping, tooth filled maw, will remain in my memory for ever!