The Corryvreckan Whirlpool
A report in the Scotsman newspaper described the Corryvreckan whirlpool as ‘one of Scotland’s most dangerous tourist attractions’. Third largest whirlpool in the world, it is alternately known as Strait or Gulf of Corryvreckan located in the area of the Southern Hebrides, a.k.a. Scotland’s Sea Kingdom. Strong currents from the Atlantic flow into the Strait of Corryvreckan, a narrow channel separating the islands of Jura and Scarba. This sudden narrowing of the ocean’s path makes the water pick up speed and the current to strengthen. Beneath this relatively narrow passage lies spectacular topography. A 500ft deep chasm in the sea bed creates uncontrolled upheaval as the rushing water, having squeezed into the smaller are, then drops into the cauldron. Conditions are made more treacherous by a 200 metre pinnacle of volcanic basalt rock rising from the sea bed off Jura. At flood tide when water is in-feeding from the Firth of Lorne, the current reaches a speed of 8.5 knots (10 mph, 16km/h). All this creates massive disturbance in the water. Whirlpools, standing waves and all manner of strange and dangerous conditions are created in the fast moving water.
The chasm forms a cauldron above which the sea whirls, writhes and churns like a boiling pot being vigourously stirred. Wind, the moon and the seasons affect things also, sometimes causing even more extremely violent disturbance. When the whirlpool is at it’s wildest, standing waves, like the small one pictured opposite, can reach a height of 30 feet (9 metres) and the roar of the whirlpool can be heard 20 miles (16 km) away. The author, H.G. Wells, lived in a remote cottage on the Isle of Jura close to the Corryvreckan where he wrote ‘War Of The Worlds’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’, among other things. It is little wonder that his mind was filled with dark forebodings. Imagine a wild winter night with the roar of the maelstrom and the howl of the wind as his only company. The cottage is now available as a holiday rental.
The edge of the Corryvreckan Whirlpool by the Isle of Jura.
Two stags can be seen on the shore. Jura is home to 200 people and more than 5,000 deer. Much of the island is blanket bog, suitable only for wildlife.
During an ebb tide, with the right weather conditions, scuba divers can explore the unusual topography of the sea bed under the whirlpool, but only highly experienced individuals should attempt this. Even for the most seasoned, the Corryvreckan is considered one of the most dangerous dives in Britain.
In September I visited the Corryvreckan, sailing through it in a boat designed specially for that task, the Dolphin II, owned and operated by Sealife Adventures’s David Ainsley, marine biologist, deep sea diver, underwater photographer and skipper. It was a thrilling experience. Once into the maelstrom, it is impossible to take still photos. The two small ones above, I captured from the videos I took. Unable to stand or sit steadily due to the pitching and rolling of the boat, I sat with my right arm around a metal post and left arm aloft, hand tightly holding camera. There was no way to check the viewfinder so the whole thing was random. The resulting video is, I think, spectacular and really gives viewers the sensation of being there. Often the surface of the ocean does not look like water and it certainly behaves in ways I would not have thought possible. Below is a short movie I made from various clips of video and the odd still picture. This is definitely worth viewing.
Leaving the whirlpool, we passed the Fadda Light, a lighthouse near the edge of the Corryvreckan, there to warn sailors of the potential death trap ahead. Many have drowned trying to navigate the whirlpool that has been deemed ‘unnavigable’ by the Royal Navy.
Sealife Adventures offers a wonderful package of wildlife spotting as well as visiting the whirlpool. Sailing through the Corryvreckan is a not-to-be-missed experience. However, there are times when an ebb tide and other conditions render the surface surprisingly calm, disappointing some tourists. Conversely, the whirlpool can be so active as to make it impossible to do anything but sit and marvel from a safe distance.
There is much legend and lore surrounding The Caillioch’s Cauldron, aka Corryvreckan Whirlpool. Depending on who you ask, ‘Caillioch’ translates from Gaelic as ‘witch’, ‘hag’ or ‘old woman’.
As well as all the above treats, Sealife Adventure offers, tea and biscuits, served en route while skipper/owner of the Dolphin II, David Ainsley, recounts some of the ancient local legends of Vikings and maidens and the good witch of the cauldron. I’ll let him tell the stories
Clachan Seil, where the home pontoon of Dolphin II and the headquarters of Sealife Adventures is located can be reached from Oban. It is a short drive, or for those using public transport, a bus leaves from the Ferry Terminal. I would advise calling Sealife Adventures beforehand as booking is required The boat only holds twelve passengers, so turning up without a reservation may result in disappointment. A computer search for ‘Sealife Adventures, Clachan Seil’ will give you the home page jam packed with information, video, photos and all you need to know about the company, including contact details.
There are a variety of places to stay in Oban, from fine hotels to the excellent S.Y.H.A. Oban Youth Hostel.
Note: Below is a link to a source with more detailed information about the causes and effects of the phenomenon know as the Corryvreckan Whirlpool. Wikipedia is also useful