Open Story

Scallop Diving with Peter Ardhasaig

By David Prentice - Added 06/05/2014

It is early in the morning on a calm day in spring when I arrive outside Peter’s house in Ardhasaig and already he’s loading the back of the van with the nets, rope and the cylinders of oxygen we’ll need for the dive. His wetsuit is slouched in a chair drying in the sun and he throws that in the van last and then it’s time for a quick coffee before we drive down to the pier.  We load all the gear onto the boat and head out past the small isle of Isay towards Taransay. Once we’re into clear water Peter gives me the wheel while he changes into his wetsuit on the deck behind me.

He points out the bays where he’s found good diving in the past, and the (echo sounder/ scanner) in the wheelhouse displays the reefs beneath us, all of them marked with dozens of crosses to indicate previous dives and the places he plans to return to. Today we’re diving for scallops, which Peter sells to tourists, locals and many of the cafes and restaurants throughout Harris during the busy summer season.  He has been diving and fishing these waters for most of his life, and on a good day he can bring in as many as 2-300 scallops unaided, and though he never lets show during the day, I have the feeling that I’m holding him back.

When we’re about four miles out to sea Peter tells me to cut the engines and drop the anchor. As soon as the outboard engine is out of the water there is no sound except the waves rocking gently against the side of the boat and the gulls riding the breeze overhead. He shows me how to secure and then open the air tank, so that I’ll be able to do it again when it comes to my turn, and then I help him load the pockets of the suit with the lead weights he’ll need to gain depth once he’s submerged.

There is a valve on the suit connected to his oxygen supply and by pressing on it he can control the supply of air in and out of the suit, and his buoyancy in the water.  The computer attached to his wrist looks like a bulky space-age Rolex, and in addition to providing a count in minutes until his air supply runs out, it also tells him the minimum amount of hours he has to wait before he can board a passenger plane. The next lesson is the importance of the knife strapped to his right ankle. Never dive without a knife, he tells me, and he goes on to recount stories of becoming entangled in sea weed, netting and floating rope that I wish he had kept to himself.

 Besides the ‘domestic dives’ he does as a self-employed businessman, Peter has the experience and the skills that make him an indispensable asset to fish-farming companies all over Scotland, and part of the ‘knife lesson’ includes an account of trying to find and repair a tear in a salmon net 38 metres beneath the surface, at a depth beyond the access of any natural light.  Operating by the beam of a hand-held torch and alone in the blackness, he was able to locate the tear left in the netting by a rogue seal.

(it might interest some readers to know that farmed salmon, after their introduction at adulthood to the cylindrical cages in which they spend the rest of their lives, are so accustomed to swimming in concentric circles that they will continue to do so even upon release, and so Peter found himself orbited on this occasion by a school/shoal of onlookers that flinched and swarmed to and away from his lonely torch-beam)

Peter sits on a small plastic chair that reminds me of chairs I sat on in school while I help him hoist the heavy cylinder onto his back and clip the straps at his waist and shoulders.  The net he uses to store the scallops is short and wide, and attached to it is a plastic buoy into which he has cut a hole. By releasing bubbles of air from his mask into the hole in the buoy he is able to offset the weight of the catch and swim freely, towing the net behind him. 

He kicks his feet into the flippers and adjust the straps at the ankles before putting the mask over his face. It is the last opportunity for me to hear his voice before he goes under. After that the only communication we’ll have is the occasional burst of bubbles breaking between the waves as he makes his circuit of the reef, twenty seven metres beneath my feet and beyond any help I can offer should things go wrong. I’m tense, watching his upraised thumbs-up sink out of sight, and for the next 45 minutes I scrub the deck and keep a watchful eye on our coordinates, paranoid that the ship will drift without me noticing.  We are the only vessel within eyesight, and gradually the landscape and the quiet lull me into confidence. I cast off a few times with the rod that Peter keeps on deck, using bait from the bucket near the engine, but I feel nothing through the line and store the rod back in its place.

Eventually my wait is rewarded by the appearance of two seals on the starboard side. They bob close together by the side of the boat, and there’s nothing in their calm, grey faces to suggest anything but a mild curiosity at my being there.  I call out to them and they blink, and after a while they turn away and sink out of sight.

During this time I’ve been so distracted I fail to realise that Peter’s back on the surface again, waving at me with his free hand and dragging the net behind him. I remember to start the engine as he taught me and I bring up the anchor and circle the boat so to bring the port-hand side alongside him, slow and gentle, cutting the engines before there’s any chance of him being caught in the propeller.

When I help pull him up he’s slippery and heavy and once he’s aboard it takes both of us to haul the net over the side. The scallops open and close like the mouths of birds and let out a spitting, snapping sound as they hit the deck. I help Peter unload the cylinder, the backpack and the weights and then undo the wide zip across his shoulders at the back. While he changes out of the suit I unload the catch. There must be at least a hundred and fifty scallops in total, and I’m careful not to crack or break the shells as I push them to the back of the boat. We use the oxygen tanks for balance against the additional weight of the haul, and my first task once Peter is out of the suit is to roll him a cigarette as mine are the only dry hands on board. 

Peter smokes and he’s wild-haired and happy. ‘At least two dives on that reef alone,’ he tells me. ‘Place was hoaching, Dave.’  We sit a while and the clams puff and snap at the back of the boat while we smoke.  The sky is darkening a little and the next wave sends over a small spray that sets the clams snapping again.

When he’s ready Peter gets me to haul the anchor in by its heavy chain and we turn back slowly to shore. Peter’s at the wheel, and as the wind picks up he drifts us into a sheltered bay across from Meavaig to shallower water. It’s a charmed day; the sea and nature seem to be with us. As we drop anchor for the second time we see two young stags outlined against the hills less than fifty metres away. They’ve been brought down from the high slopes of the Clisham by a late spring snowfall. I curse the fact that I haven’t brought my camera with me and Peter nods and says that he wished he’d brought his rifle. ‘We could both get a good couple of shots,’ he jokes.

We watch the stags and the stags watch us as if they had understood our conversation, and when they decide that we aren’t a threat they resume their grazing.  Peter helps me into the suit, telling me to ease it on as gently as I can so that the material won’t tear.  It’s heavier than it looks and tight around the wrists and the neckline.

This is my second dive with Peter and so I have some idea of what to expect. The first time Peter said he’d give me a shot and chuck me off the pier, which turned out to be exactly what he went on to do, although he did tie a rope around my waist and I was only swimming at a depth of one or two metres, so perhaps it was more of a splash than a dive, but we treated it as seriously as we could, even though when I climbed back onto the pier Peter over-inflated my suit to such a point that I looked like a heavily pregnant penguin stumbling about on dry land.  This time around it’s a serious dive and I’ll be going down to 9 metres, so there’s no room for fooling around. Peter’s confident in me, and I have complete trust in him as he runs me through the equipment again; the air gauge, the valve on my chest. He shows me again how to cross my arms to gain depth and demonstrates how I should equalise my ears to the water pressure. 

‘Remember never to come up any faster than your bubbles, Dave, else you can get the bends. And try not to panic,’ he grins, ‘You’ve got an hour’s worth of air in there so take your time and get used to your breathing. ‘

He checks everything again and then helps me adjust the mask over my face, tightening it at the back until I give him the thumbs up that it’s comfortable and that I’m getting air.

‘You’re good to go then Dave,’ he says, and his voice already sounds as though it’s travelling through water to reach me. I feel a tap on my shoulder and sit down on the edge of the boat with my legs in the water, then I turn my body sideways to protect the oxygen cylinder and lower myself in.

I’m instantly shocked by cold the water is, even through the protective layer of the suit, and the shock makes me take in a sharp breath of air that feels far too small. I try to gulp another and again too little comes through and then I remember that it was the same as when I first dived, and that Peter had warned me it would happen.  I try to relax and concentrate on slowing down my heart and my breathing.  I clench my arms over my chest and press air out of the suit. The water is perfectly clear and lit by multiple spotlights that move across the sea bed as the sun shines through the waves. A gentle ringing starts in my ears and moves into my teeth before fading into the background, and each breath I take reaches my ears before I feel it in my lungs. For a second I think I can hear someone shouting on the surface but I put it out of my mind and try to take in everything around me. 

After the panic there’s an overwhelming sense of peace; every movement of life under the surface is reduced to a gentle rhythm that looks like it’s been choreographed to slow music. Sea weed billows out and sways in an invisible breeze. Small crabs disperse small clouds of sand as they scuttle slowly out of sight.  Strange, tube-like plants retracts their fans as I swim over them, scanning the sand for the shapes of clams and looking in the shadows under large rocks as Peter had told me to, searching for a lobster’s feelers poking out.  I make what I think is a full circuit of the boat, though in fact I have no idea where I am in relation to the boat. My vision is limited so that I can only see in the direction that my head is turned and I can’t look upwards at the surface without making an awkward roll that takes me some time and much fiddling with the valve until I’m the right way down again. I’m determined to come back to the boat with something to show for the dive, but all the shells I turn over are empty.  I can feel a small amount of water getting in through the seals at my wrists and slowly soaking the inside of my gloves, and as I make a slow turn to the right my heart leaps with excitement. There in a patch of light are dozens of white shells clustered together. I swim towards them, kicking up sand behind me in my rush to investigate, but when I get there I’m met with disappointment.  The shells are all oyster shells, and all of them are long dead. For a moment I forget where I am and swear loudly, which comes out as something like ‘bbbbuaaagh!’ through the mask.

I turn back towards what I think is the direction of the boat and realise that if I’m going to find out where I am I’ll have to come up to the surface, but  I don’t want to alarm Peter or cut the dive short, so I keep on going. I’m amazed at how comfortable it feels to be completely out of my element like this; the buoyancy of the water is reassuring and I’ve forgotten the weight and clumsiness of the suit on board. In fact, I’ve been so absorbed in the experience of swimming around that I’ve forgotten to take a note of how long I’ve been under, and though the dial on my wrist says I have another twenty minutes left, and with no sign of a scallop in sight, I decide to call it a day.

Just as I’m about to inflate the suit I spy a chubby looking shell half hidden in sand. I pick it up and there’s a definite, living weight to it and I let out a yell of triumph which sounds something like ‘yhorbf!’, and rise slowly to the surface, making sure not to overtake my bubbles on the way, and break through the waves with my one scallop held aloft like a trophy, only to be faced with empty, open water all around me.  Obviously, I panic.  I’m shouting in my head and through the mask in total panic at the thought of being stranded in the middle of the sea, cursing Peter for leaving me out here and cursing myself for being stupid enough to think that diving could ever, ever be a good idea when I feel something tap me on the back of the head. I flail my limbs to turn around as quickly as I can and when I do I’m greeted by the sight of a hysterical Peter, tears on his face, reaching into the bait box for another old fish head to throw at me.

I’ll spare the reader the details of my two metre swim back to the boat, or my climb back into it, except to say that it took a very long time and a great deal more laughter from Peter before I was finally free of the suit and the mask and sat down safely on the chair again. When he’s recovered enough Peter stuffs a cigarette into my mouth and lights it for me, and slaps me on the back, holding my trophy up to the light as if to check whether it’s genuine before putting it in pride of place on top of the pile.  

Of course Peter knew about the oyster field. He thinks that it was the result of chemicals leaching through the soil from a nearby fank into the water. Sheep dye, possibly. He lets me sit and rest in the chair while he starts the engines up and takes us a gentle route back to the pier, though he’s still chuckling to himself all the way. When we get back and tie up the boat he loads a shopping bag full of at least twenty scallops and hands them to me.

‘Be a good scoff for you Dave,’ he grins, and adds with a wink, ‘You can tell Caitlin you caught them if you like, I’ll back you up on that.’

As for the rest, Peter will keep a few for himself and friends and sell the remaining hundred or so to the various restaurants on Harris and the mainland that boast fresh, locally caught sea food. It’s a full-time job for him, in addition to the dives and fishing he does for companies, and he’s on or under the sea six days a week, every week of the year. As he drives me home he promises another dive sometime soon, and I believe him, but I know too that today’s dive was more of a favour, or a gift to me, and maybe too an experiment for him that failed to prove lucrative.

So, the next time that you order scallops from a restaurant, it might be worth keeping in mind how far and how deep some men go to catch them, and the hours, the skill and the risk involved in the passage from sea bed to plate.