Bishop Rock, off the Scilly Isles, is Britain's most south-westerly Atlantic outpost, with a long history of wrecked shipping and ravaged lighthouses. When conditions are good, the rocks below the current lighthouse (opposite) make one of the best pinnacle dives in the country, says Clem Maginnis.
IN the 13th Century, people convicted of a serious crime were taken out to Bishop Rock and left there with bread and water to be ravaged by the sea. Or so history suggests. Today the rock is better known as the point where record-breaking attempts to cross the Atlantic are started and finished. Bishop Rock lies at the most south-westerly part of the United Kingdom, at position 490 52.33N 060 26.68W. One story suggests that it was named after its shape, similar to a bishop's mitre. The Bishop has to be one of the best pinnacle dives in the United Kingdom. If conditions are right, it is an absolutely stunning experience, with viz sometimes in excess of 30m - this is not a dive you will ever forget. In its exposed location, Bishop Rock is open to Atlantic swells. Anything more than a Force 3 south-westerly will put you off, and even with this light wind you may decide that the famous 'Atlantic hump' precludes diving. The best winds are from the north-east, and a gentle Force 2-3 will help to calm the large swell that comes in from the south-west. Because of its position, the tides are always on the run, and slack water is rare on hard springs. The best time to dive is three hours before High Water St Mary's on neaps. Below 20m there is rarely much movement, but you need to be careful on your ascent because there can be downfalls over the ledges. The depth down to 48m, combined with the location and tide, make this a challenging and exciting dive - not one for the inexperienced or fainthearted! Marker buoys are essential. Some divers use SMBs, but these run the risk of getting caught in the kelp, being snagged on a rock, or snatching one of the many pieces of wreckage, so delayed SMBs are preferable. This is a superb site for photography, regardless of the conditions. If the viz is poor, you can opt for a macro lens to do some close-up work, and there is plenty to see.Before you descend, you need to position yourself close into the rock face to avoid being swept off by the tide and losing your reference point. Beware, for if there is any slop, you could get pushed into the rocks. So what is there for divers to see around the Bishop? Provided the tidal stream permits, it is possible to swim around the rock in one dive, but if you want to avoid mandatory decompression stops, you will need to complete your trip in an ascending spiral. This is a great shame because, with good visibility - 10m is usually the minimum - the bottom of the Bishop is quite a dive. The scenery around the base is mightily impressive. The bottom consists of rock and fine white sand, and the colour contrast can be very dramatic. Some rocks are as big as houses, standing over 10m proud in places, while other pinnacles rise 30m from the sea floor. Nearly all the walls are covered with life. For those who love colour there is everything you could want on this site, but to appreciate the full splendour you need a powerful lamp. An interesting occupant of the rock's ledges is the crawfish ( Palinurus elephas). You can recognise it by its long antennae, which make a squeaking noise when rubbed - hence the local name 'creaker'. As you come up to around 10m, the kelp starts to thicken, and you may see the friendly ballan wrasse that frequent the site. At this depth you will start to feel the tide picking up, and this should remind you to stay close into the rock face. There is every possibility that you will see a shoal of mackerel. If the sun is shining, you will have a terrific experience as they dart to and fro with perfect synchronicity. If you dive with a computer, it is worth waiting here a while, but as you reach 3-4m you must swim away from the face, regardless of the tide, to ensure that you and the boat do not get washed into the rocks. At 45m there is what looks like the remains of a bell, with the top part broken away. On 30 January, 1860, a huge storm swept the fog bell from the lighthouse tower and it fell into the sea. Could this be it? As you ascend, there is a nice sloping ledge at about 27m, and lying on it is part of an iron pillar that was used to support the central column of the original lighthouse. You can find other wreckage that seems to be from the same period, so diving this site is like stepping back in time. Other bits and pieces lying all over the rock at various depths include copper tubing, brass work, plastic-coated wiring and galvanised plates. As you survey the scattered pieces, you might well be looking at wreckage from long-forgotten ships, but such is the plethora of iron around the rocks that you will not know for sure. Ships were wrecked off Bishop Rock until 1847, when Trinity House decided to erect a lighthouse. It consisted of a large central iron column topped by a light platform and the keeper's quarters, approximately 37m above mean sea level. The column itself was not expected to survive the fury of winter Atlantic gales, so lattice-work was built around it to support the underside of the platform, leaving the base open to allow the sea to pass through. Unfortunately, the poor tensile strength of the materials did not prove equal to the job, and the structure was swept away in a storm on the night of 5 February, 1850. Luckily, the lighthouse had not been completed and there were no fatalities, but the pillars and central column had been lost, leaving only about 1-2m of iron projecting from the rock. A new plan was devised, and this involved building a granite tower. By 1851, the construction of a foundation was underway, and it took a whole year to complete. Huge iron pegs were driven into the rock before the base blocks were put in place, and the first 14m of the tower was solid. By early 1852, the main part of the lighthouse was up, but due to the difficulty in executing a major engineering project in such a remote and challenging location, the work took six years to finish. The light, some 44m above mean sea level, was operational on 1 September, 1858. The construction of the Bishop Rock Lighthouse must rate among the greatest of Victorian civil-engineering achievements. In 1860, the lighthouse suffered considerable storm damage, which included flooding of the tower and the loss of the fog bell. A storm in 1874, even more violent, caused a considerable amount of exterior damage. In 1882, work began to strengthen the structure, involving placing stone cladding around the original tower. A storm in 1925 damaged the outer glass and extinguished the light - proof that the sea can reach right to the top of the tower - an awesome spectacle! Incredibly, although a carbon arc lamp had been demonstrated to the Brethren of Trinity House by Frederick Holmes in 1857, and one had been installed in the South Foreland Lighthouse in December 1858, the light in the Bishop was oil until 1973! It was 1976 before the next addition was made - the helicopter pad. Until then, the keepers were transferred to and from the lighthouse by boat and line, which was at best uncomfortable, but on some days difficult or impossible.
The most recent modification was automation in 1992 - Bishop Rock was the last of the West Country lighthouses to remain manned. Today, the light is fitted with an operational helicopter platform, the top of which is nearly 58m high. The light is white, has a nominal range of 24 nautical miles, and flashes every 15 seconds. In fog, a horn issues the morse signal for N every 90 seconds. The racon on the Bishop Rock Lighthouse is referenced as No 1 in the United Kingdom, works on the 3cm (X-band) and 10cm (S-band) wavelengths, has a range of around 18 nautical miles and the morse coding of T. The lighthouse has not been enough to prevent countless wrecks over the years, but its keepers have kept accurate records. In September, 1839, for instance, the 140-tonne Theodorick, on passage from Mogodore in Western Morocco to London, struck the Bishop; the crew were rescued. In the early hours of 12 October, 1842, the Brigand, a 600-tonne packet paddle on passage to St Petersburg via London from Liverpool, struck the rock with such force that it stove in two large bow plates. The rocks then acted as a pivot, and she swung round and heeled into the rock portside, crushing the paddle-wheel and box to such an extent that it penetrated the engine room. She drifted for two hours, covering seven miles before sinking in 90m. Again, all the crew were saved. On 26 June, 1854, the Belinda, sailing from Cardiff to Cork with limestone, hit the Bishop in thick fog. Again the crew were rescued. The Swedish barque Sultana was abandoned near the Bishop on 17 February, 1895, after leaks became uncontrollable. More dramatically, on 22 June, 1901, the Falkland, a four-masted barque, struck the lighthouse. She was 135 days out from Tacoma on the west coast of the United States, loaded with grain bound for Falmouth when, in a south-westerly gale, she hit the rock broadside on, her mainyard smashing into the tower. After drifting about half a mile to the north of the Bishop, she fell onto her beam ends and sank. Twenty-five of the crew, plus the captain's wife and child, escaped in the port boat before she went down. Captain Gracie and the remaining five crew-members were lost attempting to launch the starboard boat. In the early hours of 11 March, 1945, a German submarine, the U-681, struck either the Bishop or the Crebinicks, while running submerged. Where she sank is not known, but the crew report indicates a position three nautical miles west of the Bishop. Others say she went down four nautical miles north of Mincarlo. There were 40 survivors and eight of the crew were reported to have been killed. The depth of the wreck, at 80m, precludes a visit by sports divers, but it must be an interesting time capsule.
Jim Heslin (01720 422595) runs the Underwater Centre on St Mary's, and Tim AlIsop (01720 422848) operates the BSAC School on St Martin's.