A Lochaber business, visited by the Earl of Wessex this week, is behind plans for an ambitious community project to create the first artificial diving reef of its kind in Scotland in the Sound of Mull.
Owners Mark and Annabel Lawrence hosted the Royal visit to the Lochaline Dive Centre, where Prince Edward unveiled a plaque to commemorate the occasion.
There was a huge turn out from the local community, and the reception at the pier included Gaelic singing from Lochaline Primary schoolchildren.
In what is thought to be the first official royal visit to the Morvern peninsula in 900 years, the Prince spent five hours touring Ardnamurchan, Lochaline and Drimnin.
Annabel said their Royal visitor was very interested in the unique conditions which make the west coast of Scotland a top destination for divers. She also outlined proposals to create Scotland's first artificial reef from a decommissioned naval vessel in the Sound of Mull.
She commented: "HRH immediately recognised the potential economic and environmental benefits this could bring to the area. There are 22 artificial reef projects of this kind across the world, but this would be the first in Scotland and only the second in the UK. The other British site is at Plymouth, and in under 10 years there have been 42,000 dives to HMS Scylla. This has brought £25 million into the local economy and the reef has already cultivated over 260 marine species."
Annabel established The Sound of Mull Artificial Reef Trust or 'SMART' last year, to develop the idea as a community tourism project that could benefit the West Coast areas of Oban, Lochaber and Mull. With the help of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and LEADER funding, the group has had a feasibility study carried out.
Annabel said: "The research shows that creating an artificial reef in the Sound of Mull will deliver benefits on many levels. By being able to control its position we can create exceptional conditions for divers, and particularly for novice divers. Local businesses already cater for the thousands of divers who come to the Sound of Mull each year, the reef has the potential to grow those numbers."
"We are also really excited about the potential of the reef project. We appreciate there is a long way to go, but with all the proper consultation, funding and planning in place, it is possible we could sink a ship in the Spring of 2014."
The group has applied to the Coastal Communities Fund, administered for the Exchequer through the Big Lottery, and has requested permission from the Ministry of Defence to bid for a ship. All reefing projects of this kind have used a former naval ship because of their stringent environmental controls.
Elaine Jones of HIE, works with both the Dive Centre to support its growth plans and with the SMART project. She commented: "HIE is always keen to look at how the region creates growth opportunities from our natural assets. We are delighted to have helped this ambitious group draw in expert advice from all over the world as they look to build upon the ever growing international reputation of the West Coast of Scotland for marine activity."