Divernet

May 1943, and the 400-tonne Oost Vlaanderen was ferrying its cargo of supplies and guns to occupied Guernsey. With St Peter Port - and safety - only a mile away, the German gun batteries were in sight. But the ship never reached its destination - the bombs of a daring Allied fighter pilot saw to that. And several decades later, this wreck is one of the islands most popular dive sites.
As I descend on to the Oost Vlaanderen, I wonder how fate could have created such a perfect dive site. The ship sank in one piece and lies upright on a shale seabed at 30m. A healthy current has ensured that the past 55 years havent been wasted - the hull is now covered in a scattering of invertebrate life. Nature has even designed a new figurehead in the form of a lone orange sea fan standing proud at the tip of the bow. Its from here that we drop down and follow the ships hull to the stern.
Unlike the more northerly wrecks of the British Isles, the Oost Vlaanderen isnt covered in dead mans fingers or plumose anemones. The water here is warmer, attracting marine life not widely found along British coasts. What we do see on the hull and on the rudder at the stern are jewel anemones in purple, green and pink. The patient eye is rewarded with several varieties of nudibranch, small invertebrates and fish such as the well-camouflaged scorpionfish.
Pleasant invertebrate life is all well and good, but when I dive a wreck I want really memorable sights. The Oost Vlaanderen didnt disappoint. Looking into a hole by the rudder, I see the eyes and claws of a mega-sized lobster. Im told later by my buddy - local diver Mark Dowinton - that its almost a permanent fixture.
But this wasnt to be the highlight of the dive. Mark had promised me something far more interesting, although he wouldnt reveal anything in advance. As we pass the bridge to the hold area, he shows me one of the mounted guns now pointing to the surface. Because of marine growth, its only just recognisable as a gun - its very interesting, but Im sure this cant be the surprise.


Boom time
We then come to the masts boom that has broken into two pieces over the ships hull. Mark invites me to shine my torch into the broken end where a pair of yellow and black eyes seem to fill the hole. They belong to one of those rare leviathan conger eels. We stare each other out for a few seconds before he retreats into the darkness of his home.
Below us is the rest of the boom, sitting against one of the bulkheads. As we follow it along the deck area, my attention is drawn to a hole in its side. I shine my torch into the gap and see movement. A pair of icy yellow eyes pass by, followed by the grey body of another smaller conger eel. I cant resist the rare chance to touch its silky skin as it glides past.
Following the boom to its end where its jammed against a bulkhead, I can just make out the congers open mouth. The wrecks resident shrimps know this place and are excitedly bouncing around, vying for the opportunity to pick at its teeth.
After five minutes spent watching this smaller specimen and wondering how at that angle I can photograph it, I realise its time to ascend. As we leave the wreck, we fin through a shoal of whiting using the ship as a refuge from fishermen.
Guernsey has hundreds of wrecks littered around the many reefs and submerged pinnacles that were their downfall. Many date back to the 13th century, and in 1985 a Roman trading vessel was found off St Peter Port.


Back to the wall
Wrecks arent Guernseys only attraction - just a few hundred metres from the St Peter Port shoreline is a steep wall that in places reaches a depth of 50m. I couldnt wait to take a look.
Only a couple of minutes out of St Peter Port, we reach a pinnacle called Anfre. As we descend, we pass kelp-covered rocks. I could write how this site is home to vast amounts of marine life, but in reality it appears to be no different to any other British dive site - plenty of kelp, and plenty of the marine life normally associated with a kelp forest. Im not particularly in awe of this site until we hit the wall at 23m.
All around me is the inky blackness that is the trademark of the UKs more adventurous diving. A current pushes us along the vertical drop, past jewel anemones, bright yellow sponges and orange sea fans. The vastness of the experience provides me with a dose of that first dive ever feeling.
After 10 minutes of gliding along at 35m, we come across a sand chute that is our exit from the wall. We ascend past rocks either side of us that are covered with similar life to that on the wall. Its only as we hit the kelp line that the dive returns to mediocrity.
Over the next couple of days we return to this wall at various points along the coastline. For those who arent ready for the deeper, steeper, current-swept vertical drops of sites such as Longue Pierre and Gabrielle Rock, there are the gentler meanderings of the sites nearer to St Peter Port, such as White Patch and Moulinet.


Other isles
There are many interesting dive sites on nearby islands too. Only an hour or so away is Sark, which offers outstanding diving opportunities. When we take a trip out there, we head for the jagged rocks known as Les Dents, to the south of Brecqhou island and west of Sark. As we kit up, we admire Brecqhous Disney-style castle, the private estate of one of Britains richest families.
The island seems foreboding - its remote-control cameras and helipad lend it a James Bond bad-guy image. No matter how unwelcome you are on this island, the diving is always available to those who can work out the localised currents and slack water.
As we descend, we find that the jagged rocks continue under water to 32m where there is a shale seabed. The visibility is 10m. Looking up from this depth, we can just see the sunlight streaming through the water past kelp beds and small shoals of fish.
While exploring the gullies and rocky outcrops, we come across a gorge cut out of the rocks. Passing through it, we take a close look at the growth on the rocks and have a rest from the current that we know will soon turn this small channel into a maelstrom of undiveable water.
A cuttlefish stares curiously at us before speeding off faster than the eye can follow. We regularly check on whats happening above us - when we see the current starting to bend the kelp fronds over, its our cue to surface. The currents in this area are to be avoided at all costs.
Throughout our time on Guernsey, we visit several other locations. Theres Noire Pute, a rocky outcrop in open water with overhangs and gullies. Its another of those fast and adventurous dives with a window of only 20 minutes of slack water.
There are more wrecks, such as the Valentine, a Dutch East Indiaman sunk in 1779 off La Neste, Brecqhou island, where its cargo of semi-precious stones can still be found by observant divers.
On returning from an afternoons diving, I met Richard Keen, one of the islands explorer types that we all sometimes aspire to be. He told me how he had just discovered a new wreck site with 12 cannon lying in the base of a gully.
He believes that Guernsey has yet to give up all its underwater secrets. The local divers spend much of their time exploring new sites - now we have an opportunity to share in that adventure.




Divernet

Divernet

Divernet

Divernet

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: By car from Poole on the Condor Express high-speed ferry to St Peter Port. Numerous airlines fly to Guernsey daily from around the UK. British Airways will carry a dive bag in the main hold for a flat rate of£5.
DIVING DETAILS: Sarnia Skin Divers 01481 722884; Dive Guernsey 01481 714525. Guernsey has a recompression chamber and a sea ambulance.
ACCOMMODATION: The Mallard Hotel (01481 64164) offers a diving package through Sarnia Skin Divers.
FOR NON-DIVERS: Beaches, tax-free shopping, boat trips.
HAZARDS: Take advice from dive operators on currents.
BEST TIME TO GO: Summer offers the best and most reliable diving conditions.
WATER TEMPERATURE: A couple of degrees warmer than mainland.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: All abilities. Ideal for beginners, but also great for experienced divers.
COST: An eight-day diving package at the Mallard, including ferry, accommodation and diving, based on four persons in two rooms, costs from£199 per person.
PROS: Within easy reach of mainland Britain, but the diving is very different. Tax-free shopping. A fascinating mix of French and English culture - and excellent cuisine.
CONS: With weather similar to mainland Britains, there are no guarantees, especially in winter. Its mainly shallow-water diving, which is interesting but not really spectacular