Waiting for cod
I’M CROUCHED BELOW DECKS, my eyes fixed on the echo-sounder, waiting for an icon of a smirking fish to flash up on the screen. It’s a strange way to choose a dive-site, but this quest has already taken me beyond my comfort zone of regular diving.
We’ve skidded through blizzards up to the north coast of Iceland in early spring just to see a fish that cannot claim to be one of the ocean’s glamour species: the humble cod.
Cod may sound a little humdrum, but the more you learn about them, the more you become hooked.
Mark Kurlansky’s excellent book Cod is undoubtedly the definitive (and required) read to understand how fish can have such a wide-reaching cultural significance.
Most people could recognise cod as fillets, but few divers could actually describe what this fish looks like. They certainly don’t have fingers!
Far more people have dived with schooling hammerheads or seen great white sharks than have swum under water with cod.
We do get cod on dives in the UK, particularly on deeper sites in the North Sea, but these are typically puny individuals. I’ve come to the edge of the Arctic in the hope of seeing the real deal.
Cod are apex predators and can grow to man-sized proportions, when free from overfishing. On both sides of the North Atlantic they have been fished intensively, commonly to the point of population collapse, and what remains is a pale imitation of the past.
Positioned in the middle, Iceland has fought hard to protect its fish stocks, and it is the destination I’ve chosen in the hope of finding full-sized cod.
I’ve also timed my trip for their breeding season, which I hope will give me the chance to see more than one.
The echo-sounder bleats, and grinning cartoon fish jiggle across the screen. It’s a very strong signal, and we guess that it means a school of tens or perhaps hundreds of large fish. We throw a shotline overboard to mark the position, and it’s dive time.
Well, kitting-up time. Getting in is not the work of an instant up here. The water is very cold and requires a lot of layers. One local diver warns me that when he tried to film the cod he couldn’t work out why his video camera wouldn’t focus. Then he realised that the water was filled with ice crystals, drawing an opaque veil between him and the fish.
I am wearing both a full set of Fourth Element Arctics and its much thicker Sub-X undersuit beneath my super-stretchy White’s Fusion drysuit.
The Fusion was designed to offer the ultimate flexibility for tech divers, who need to shut down and open cylinders etc, but the manoeuvrability is also a godsend for underwater photographers wanting to contort into the perfect angle for a champion shot.
The combination keeps me warm enough to stick with wet gloves, which I prefer for operating my housing. I use 5mm gloves by Waterproof and its excellent 10mm hood.
Getting into this lot means that it probably takes 30 minutes before I’m bobbing in the water alongside the shotline, waiting to descend with my Icelandic buddy Nína. And this delay ultimately proves crucial.
We drop down to a flat but attractive seabed at about 14m. It consists of smooth boulders, covered with colourful encrusting life. Tall kelp grows upwards from the tops, creating a canopy a couple of metres shallower.
There are lots of starfish, and soon I see a grizzly-looking wolf-fish with a large clam in its powerful jaws. I can’t stop myself imagining it growling playfully like a dog reluctant to give up its favourite chew toy.
I look more closely at the kelp and see in places that it’s covered with hundreds of writhing skeleton shrimps. Most are a dull grey-brown, though a few are an eye-catching purple. But no cod; I need to focus.
I signal to Nína that we should search. We’re the only two in the water, and none of the group has dived this spot before. It’s hard to signal “let’s try this way, not that I know” under water, but I think she catches my drift.
We spend the rest of the dive swimming and looking for cod, ignoring subjects I’d usually love to photograph, though the exercise does at least allow us to last 50 minutes comfortably in the 1°C water. The seabed has many flatfish, and Nína points out a bright red male lumpsucker guarding his eggs. But we don’t see a single cod.
I ENJOY THE DIVE, but immediately feel worse when we surface to expectant faces. “When you stayed down so long, we were sure you found them,” shouts Gisli, from Dive The North, who is running the diving.
“We’ve just spoken to a fisherman on the radio and he says there are lots of cod about in the bay. I think we’ll get them at the next spot.”
This is the penalty of diving with a specific goal. Normally I would have been thrilled to dive with several wolf-fish, a big lumpsucker and some rare nudibranchs, but missing the cod is all the more frustrating, now that the fisherman has confirmed that I’ve actually made it to the right location at the right time, and the weather has granted us a window.
Being back on board soon raises my spirits. There are no dedicated dive-boats in this part of Iceland, so you could charter a small fishing-boat as a taxi to and from the dive-site. But we’re travelling in rather more style, able to call the beautiful wooden schooner Hildur home.
The boat is usually part of North Sailing’s whale-watching fleet, operating out of Husavik, the cetacean capital on Iceland’s north coast. In mid-summer Hildur also offers trips to Greenland. But now, out of season, she is available for dive charters like ours.
We head across the bay, tracking co-ordinates passed on by the fisherman, but again draw a blank with the cod under water.
The cold bites harder on the second dive, and I signal to Nína that I’m ready to quit after just 37 minutes. The other divers have searched two other sites but also found nothing. Perhaps our luck will change when we try further out in the bay in the morning
It is sunny again the following day – well, weak Icelandic wintry sun, diluted with flurries of snow brought in by a strengthening wind. Our new spot is giving big returns on the echo-sounder, however, and this time I’m already kitted up in all my layers, ready to go.
The penalty for all the insulation is a ton of lead, and I’m glad it’s just a few short steps before I leap and slam into the water. The rest of my dive kit is pretty standard: my Apex regs perform impeccably, and my misnamed Scubapro Equator BC also copes easily.
The weak link will soon be revealed as the idiot wearing it all.
Descending, I see first the kelp and then, weaving through it, cod: 40, 50, 60 fish. Yes, we’ve found them.
They are beautiful fish with large eyes and mouths, a goatee barbel beneath their chin and beige leopard-like spots across their flanks, sliced through with a white, arching lateral line.
And they are big. Most of the cod are about a metre in length, but there are a few monsters in the school, almost twice that size.
Then I feel the cold water on my chest that signals, unequivocally in these temperatures, that I didn’t check my neck-seal in my haste.
I am now frantically weighing up my options. Stay down and get 10 guaranteed minutes with the cod, but probably end up too cold and wet to be able to dive again that day. Or abort the dive, dry out and try later. I signal to Nína that I want out.
Back on board, I recite my full repertoire of swear words as Gisli, with typical Icelandic pragmatism, rings sea water out my undersuit tops. I want to get back in as soon as possible, and his solution is to stuff a couple of thick woollen Icelandic socks down my front to keep the damp layers away from the skin of my chest.
It works. Still panting and swearing, I kit back up and am soon submerged. The cod are no longer under the boat, but within five minutes we find them.
At first I spy a furtive few, and then slowly more and more, until the massed ranks of the main school are around us.
Despite 10mm of neoprene over my ears, I can clearly hear Nína squeal with delight. They don’t form a particularly organised school, just hundreds and hundreds of big, wild cod, squashed together, milling above and among the kelp. Fabulous.
It’s not the longest dive, as I blew a portion of my air on the false start, but I surface beaming. Then lunch and we’re in for a second dive. I get the impression that the biggest fish are females, as they always seem to be the centre of attention, but little is known about wild cod courtship behaviour.
AN ICY NORTH-EAST WIND is picking up the sea, so that evening we decide to head for home, our weather-window closing. Unlike those of many tropical liveaboards, Hildur’s sails are not just for show. For the journey back to Husavik they will be our only source of propulsion, after much elbow grease in setting them.
It’s an exhilarating experience, slicing through the waves on the edge of the Arctic free of any engine noise.
I completely understand when people say that these large wooden sailing ships feel organic, almost alive with the creaks and groans from the timbers.
With almost no proper darkness we sail through the night, arriving outside Husavik in time for breakfast.
Fishermen have been catching lots of cod in this area too, so we try a final dive, more in hope than expectation.
This time I dive with Gisli, and we don’t see schools of cod. Instead we encounter scores of individuals racing up to us to check us out.
It’s a comical experience as fish after fish charges out of the murk, gives us a sniff and races off. I’ve never seen anything like it, and the only explanation I can offer is that these were males hoping we were coddesses!
If you read Kurlansky’s book, you’ll find that he regards cod as the catalyst for much human history: “Wars have been fought over this fish, revolutions have been spurred by it, national diets have been based on it, economies have depended on it, and the settlement of North America was driven by it”.
You’ll also find that both Vikings and Basque fishermen were fishing for cod off North America long before the New World was officially “discovered” by Columbus. Although fishermen like to keep their best spots a secret.
Cod is probably the most important fish in the sea. As a diver I’m pleased to have taken the time to swim with it.
Alex Mustard dived with Dive The North, run by Gisli Gudmundsson. It specialises in bespoke adventures for small groups of experienced divers and photographers on Iceland’s little-explored north coast (www.divethenorth.is). North Sailing is a family-run whale-watching company operating out of Husavik, an area rich in humpback, minke and blue whales and more (www.northsailing.is). Airline Iceland Express has a diver-friendly baggage policy by which you can simply pay for extra bags for dive gear (www.icelandexpress.com).