Divernet

Porthkerris, Cornwall,  

FOR A SHORE DIVE IN CORNWALL, the reef at Porthkerris is usually a pretty safe bet. With the beach facing east, it is sheltered from the worst of the westerly storms. Yet it doesnt always work out.
A good strong easterly soon makes Porthkerris unmanageable. Never mind, Mullion on the west side of the Lizard provides an ideal alternative when shelter from the east is required.
A northerly storm will also wipe out Porthkerris, but then the south of Pendennis Point in Falmouth is well sheltered, and the submarine wrecks provide a shore dive to be going on with.
Yet when a big wind cant make up its mind whether to be south-east or south-west, it wipes out both Porthkerris and Mullion from the side, and smashes straight over the Falmouth submarines. With a boat and favourable tides, the north coast has some cosy dives, such as the headland off St Ives. But for a big group, there are no easy and convenient shore dives.
All this goes through my mind on a horrible Friday night as I drive to Cornwall for a regular club weekend, affectionately known as the PK Piss-Up.
Its a shore dive or two followed by a good pub session, a night in a caravan at Kennack and a lazy Sunday morning before driving home. Its as much a social event as a diving event, but nevertheless a shore dive or two round the reef at Porthkerris is all part of the pre-alcohol festivities.
Louise sums up the weekend weather on Divernet with the simple phrase: What have we done to deserve this The forecast on Friday is rain and force 7, gusting 8 from the south.
On the A30 passing Indian Queens at 12:50 in the morning, I get the latest from Radio 4; force 8 gusting 9, and still from the south.
The caravan rocks all night in the gale. Is it securely attached to the ground or am I off to see the Wizard of Oz Pouring with rain, its a wonder we find the motivation to go to the beach in the morning. Our diving officer is full of organisational efficiency and enthusiasm. She got up early for the shipping forecast and it was still southerly force 8 to 9.
All things considered, the reef at Porthkerris doesnt look too bad. It is by no means diveable, but it isnt really thundering in. There is some shelter from the southerly storm, but not quite enough. We speculate on waiting for the tide to go out, exposing the north beach under the shutters from the old range station. A few calculations indicate that the tide wont be low enough until dark.
Then I remember that, when confronted by a similar problem in the past, we had scrambled down the rocks further round the corner. We set off along the track for a reconnaissance, round behind the old range station to the wide, flat expanse that many visitors dont even know exists.
Looking in towards Porthallow and the Five Pilchards, the sea below us looks calm enough. But for the life of me I cant work out where, with the aid of a rope tied to the back of my car, we had scrambled down some years before.
The whole area has been levelled and 10m up from the sea the shape of the shoreline has changed.
We eventually decide to try a new entry point, down a slope cleared for disabled anglers, then along a slippery slimy gully to the water. A boulder at the top of the gully makes a convenient belay for the safety rope.
I step cautiously down the gully, with regulator in mouth and all kit on save fins. Entry is a simple matter of sloshing into a conveniently timed wave. I put my fins on and descend. A pebble slope leads to larger, less rounded rocks, anchor points for kelp and home to snakelock anemones, the occasional dead mens finger and tiny scorpion spider crabs.
Reaching 10m, I turn right, searching for a small cave I remember finding in the past. Unsure of the start point, I have no clear idea of where to find it, just a general direction and vague memory.
The seabed continues with small rocks and occasional pebble patches. In the storm-stirred visibility, ballan wrasse make the occasional inquisitive pass and dogfish are surprisingly active.
Having failed to relocate the cave, I turn shallower to just 5m or so, and reverse course. The rocks get bigger and develop into solid reef. Things begin to look promising when I find a vaguely horizontal crack in the face where a softer seam has been eroded.
I follow the seam along, sometimes a split, sometimes just a smudge on the rock, with the odd shrimp or small fish sheltering inside where its big enough.
I skirt round a buttress of rock and the crack finally descends to the pebbled seabed, opening to an arched entrance. The depth is 4m. It must only just be covered at low tide.
Its more of a cavelet than a cave, only 4 or 5m deep, a couple of metres wide and 1.5m high. The roof gets higher towards the back, where I look up to see a twinkle of light through a small hole above. Compared to the rocks outside it is richer in life, with a smear of baby jewel anemones across the roof. Cavelet or not, 5m in is more than enough with the surge and visibility today.
Back outside, I surface to fix the location. Across a tiny bay to the east of the entry point, the inside edge of a flat face of rock forms the next small headland to the east.
A barely submerged rock peaks just to the right of the entrance to the cave.
Back under water and heading for home, I pass another pair of divers and signal where they should look. Exit is easier than expected, hanging onto the safety rope while removing fins, then using it to haul myself clear of the water.
An enthusiastic diver is on hand to provide assistance. The rain lets up long enough for me to get changed. Falmouth Coastguard report southerly force 9 gusting 10 on the local radio. Finding the cave becomes the focus for the dive as others take their turn. The general seabed isnt in the same league as Porthkerris reef, but today Porthkerris reef isnt even possible.
Overall, a successful option for when the weather turns really nasty.

  • Porthkerris Dive Centre, 01326 280620.

  • Peterhead, Aberdeenshire  
    FOR THE PAST FEW DAYS I had been thinking about the wreck of the Muriel, a 1831 ton steamship thought to have struck a mine off Peterhead in September 1918.
    The Muriel wasnt an easy choice. Dave at Aberdeen Watersports had been regaling me with descriptions of the many intact wrecks off Scotlands east coast that are just to the technical side of sport diving. If I was a dog, I would have been leaving dribble on the carpet.
    In the end, we had settled on planning for the Muriel in 50m, mainly because, while we were planning to dive trimix, it is still possible for those who prefer to dive it on air. Besides, the dive centre was full of all sorts of technical odds and ends that had fallen off the back of an oil rig, and we wanted to play with some of it.
    Any charterboat skipper will remind you of how bad last August was for getting blown out. Which brings us to the Skerries off Peterhead: standard inshore fallback, training, early-season warm-up and second dive site.
    Leaving the harbour at Peterhead, I cast an eye over various oil-industry support vessels. I cant help considering their potential as wrecks, but then realise that they are equipped for diving, so my desire shifts to thinking of one as the ultimate liveaboard. Just think of the offshore wrecks I could dive from a ship like one of these.
    Out at the Skerries, there are two main rocks. A big one 60 or 70m long rises several metres out of the sea, while a smaller ridge to the Peterhead side just breaks the surface, separated from the main rock by a 20m-wide channel.
    Two Skerries, four sides and a channel in the middle gives at least five potential dive sites, though tide and waves restrict which are accessible at any one time.
    Dave and Jim describe the possibilities and, looking at the conditions, the impossibilities, ranging from shallow shelves with seals through rocky slopes, walls, ridges and some very well-broken wreckage spread through the channel.
    From the RIB I can see that the water is green and silty. I cant make up my mind which possibility holds the best prospect, so I go for the complicated plan - a drift through the shallow channel past the seals and the wreckage, bear right and down the wall. Then, if all goes well, ascend to the shallow plateau at the end. If I dont make it to the wall, I will abort on a delayed SMB.
    The seals are already checking us out as we get ready, then its in and down to 5m and whoosh! There goes the wreckage. A seal swims effortlessly past as I work cross-current, trying not to lose too much ground while aiming for the second part of the plan.
    The flexible stalks that hold my camera strobes are flapping like the antennae of a lobster on an Olympic cocktail of amphetamines and steroids. As anticipated, visibility is yuk. The storms and spring tides have stirred up the shallow inshore water.
    On the positive side, there are plenty of fish, either hiding or making a point of not hiding from the current. I can see why the seals like it here.
    The rocks begin with tight patches of anemones, at least on the vertical and overhanging surfaces. Then, as I work round the corner and out of the main current, the sessile life changes to clumps of dead mens fingers and hydroids.
    Below about 10m, the visibility comes in patches. One minute its silt soup, then the water swirls and I can see at least as far as the other side of a bubble of clear water. By 15m its the other way round - clearer water with swirling bubbles of silty water spawned by the current above. Its all evidence that further offshore the visibility is much better than close in to the coast.
    Even with careful checking of my compass, I have no clue where I am. I havent drifted far with the current, but how far have I travelled I am on the right sort of terrain to be close to the side of the bigger rock, but having never dived here before, I cant be sure.
    I find a crack in the wall and follow it in and shallower, over a couple of shelves and back into the silty water, spotting a few crabs and a lobster on the way. Unless there is another rock that comes up this shallow, I am now back somewhere on the planned route, but how far along remains guesswork.
    I have been down for 30 minutes. Could I have gone too far I surface on my delayed SMB, about two thirds of the way along the larger of the Skerries.
    Back at the beach, I admire Jims shot weight. Its a good metre of stainless-steel tube, filled with lead and with a sharp point and three hinged spines at one end. Does it hook onto a wreck or impale it like a harpoon
    The conditions were not good, but I quite enjoyed my dive on the Skerries. Even so, I cant help speculating about putting that shot into real action.
  • Aberdeen Watersports, 01224 581313
    www. aberdeenwatersports.com
  • Getting
    Getting to know a dogfish at Porthkerris
    Seals
    Seals at Peterhead are curious but maintain their distance from the boat