WALES IS THE BUTT OF MANY JOKES, OFTEN INVOLVING SHEEP AND RAIN. And as I like nothing better than flipping a myth on its back and tickling its tummy, I decided that a sojourn to the pregnant belly of the UK was in order.
Of course, me being the unluckiest diver alive, the trip wasnt going to be as simple as arranging stuff and going. Four days earlier I had caught a cold - bloody typical.
With three daily doses of Echinacea and huge quantities of kiwi fruit (a better source of vitamin C than oranges), by the Monday I was almost set. I could breathe now, and just as I reached Bristol found that I could even clear my ears. What a relief!

Am I really welcome
Wales has never fully integrated into the United Kingdom, as the Severn Bridge proves. I believe that payment to cross a private bridge should be in line with the view you get. A quid for crossing the Thames in Essex on the M25s QEII is borderline, as the view of old industrial sites and shopping centres is awful. Sixty pence to traverse the Erskine Bridge to reach the Scottish Highlands is great value, as the view is lovely.
The Severn provides a vista of sorts, a bunch of mudflats, but is it worth£4.40 from a car or a massive£8.80 in a van Install a waterfall and a mountain range in the distance, and perhaps.
And while Im in whinging mood. I drive an Escort van, which is the same size as a car, yet was hit for the higher toll. So unfair.
However, I dont think the price is related to the view, the vehicle or even the upkeep of the bridge. Its designed to keep the English out of Wales. Theres no charge to get out, so the Welsh could stream over the border and conquer some of the UKs prettiest towns for next to nothing. Think what it would cost England to send an army over the Severn Bridge!
Strange how your mind wanders when youre travelling alone.

Craig Doyle is here
The weather in Wales took a while to get going this year. Most thought summer had forgotten to visit, and autumn had snuck in without telling anyone. So I was pleasantly surprised, on waking, to see sunlight and still leaves on the tree outside my window.
I was staying at St Davids Dive Centre on the south Pembrokeshire coast. Its accommodation overlooks Ramsey Sound, and I could see that the water was flat calm. We would, therefore, be visiting a remote group of islands called the Smalls. It was the centres first trip there this year.
The launch site is on the other side of St Davids town, down a lonely country lane that ends at the sea. Its not the sort of place where you expect to see a familiar face, but while unloading the kit I saw TVs Craig Doyle, the Irish fella from the Holiday programme. Hes shorter than you think.
He was off for a spin round Ramsey Island, a good place to see seabirds and seals. Pembrokeshires offshore islands are packed with nesting birds and the seals are also a big draw for tourists and TV crews, but the Smalls is the place for divers.
The 20 mile journey west passes near Grasholm, home to a large colony of gannets. To the south we could see Skomer, famous for puffins and shearwaters, and these and others were on the water hunting. At one point the helmsman had to steer around a sleeping gannet which, like Monty Pythons Mr Creosote, looked to have eaten everything on the menu twice, plus the wafer-thin mints. Living up to its name, I suppose.
The air and sea were alive with graceful gannets, bumble-bee-like puffins and delicate shearwaters.

Woo hoo!
As we neared the small outcrops of rocks there were seals everywhere. In the words of Homer Simpson: Woo hoo! However, I noticed a slight problem - the depth sounder registered 5m but I couldnt see the bottom. Doh!
I kitted up, still apprehensive about my nasal passages - the things we divers worry about! A product containing pseudoeffadrine had cleared me up but there was still a lot a green stuff rumbling around in various airspaces as I hit the cool Irish Sea.
As I figured, the water was only just clearer than weak broth, and also green. The viz was around 4m and full of suspended matter. But the Smalls are a magnificent dive whatever the viz.
The rocky reef is covered in an encyclopaedia of benthic organisms, including anemones, sponges and algae, crammed in as if on a north London housing estate, only without the fast-food wrappers and drug-dealers.
On and around this was a collection of crustaceans including velvet-swimming, edible and spider-crabs, crawfish (not that many now) and lobsters. The area is so little visited that edible marine life has time to breed. Unfortunately it stands little chance against the fishermen who have already reduced the crawfish population. The boats working the area had to move to Scotland, no doubt to cause more damage.
At the top of the food chain come the seals. They zoomed past every so often, and even followed us for some way, but always at the edge of the visibility, never near enough for a decent photograph. If I may flirt with understatement, this was slightly annoying, like booking Naomi Campbell to find that she only waves at you from the street.
Still, they are fun to watch and the other marine life was good. The excursion also proved that I could equalise going up and down, and produce a horrendous amount of snot. Please skip the next few lines if youre squeamish. I could feel it building up and over-flowing into the nose pocket in my mask. When it started to go cold I decided that perhaps I should clear my mask. It wasnt pretty and it certainly didnt help the visibility.

Second time around
Having come this far, it seemed a shame to head back after one dive, so we sat on the boat for one of my most relaxing surface intervals, bobbing in the warm sun surrounded by Manx shearwaters. Skomer has the largest population in the world and they were partying at the Smalls that day. Dive two was conducted in the lee of the island, owing to something as trivial as the moon pulling a vast quantity of the Atlantic Ocean through the narrow gap that separates Wales from Ireland.
The resulting current could have ferried me past Aberystwyth and Anglesey and even to the Isle of Man, but that would have made walking back to my car rather tiresome.
The Smalls provide shelter from this raging liquid wind, and the sea life is force-fed by the rich planktonic soup and thrives. The area we dived was a mass of gullies, each stuffed with static organisms that dressed the rocks in whites, oranges, browns and greens.
A dogfish slithered shark-like across the seascape, seemingly unbothered by us - strange considering that its worst nightmare was bobbing on the surface a short distance away. Or perhaps seals dont eat dogfish, as they dont naturally prey on cod or salmon (contrary to what fishermen tell you).
My nose generated plenty of purest green but gave few problems. I enjoyed the dip, even if it was in a cold bath that looked as if a football team had enjoyed a soak before me.
And the journey back to shore was blissful. Seabirds criss-crossed the sky, common dolphins danced in the swells and, as we entered Ramsey Sound, two harbour porpoises were spotted close to the boat.
These cetaceans, no bigger than Labradors, are under threat from the nearby crawfish fishery. As I watched them effortlessly cruising in the swirling current, it was sad to think that they teetered on the brink of extinction in this area.

Am I dreaming
St Davids Dive Centre is one of those places about which divers fantasise. Not only is it a good base, not only can you camp or stay in the guesthouse, but it has a bar. Theres no long walk to a pub and an even longer stagger home afterwards.
Those who read my last article (Midweek On The Motorway, August) already know that Im a two-pot screamer, so I didnt drink much (I cant without making a complete tit of myself). I was also fairly knackered, so I retired early and prayed to the god of weather for another fine day.
Like all gods he teased me as huge globules of water crashed against my window through the night. I lay in my bed in that pit of an hour between 4 and 5am in a glum mood.
However, I awoke at 7 to the sound of birds calling and bright sunlight splashing across the ground. A butcher somewhere had sacrificed a large pig, over which we held ritual prayers for calm seas. Most people just call it a full English breakfast, but I have an overactive imagination.
The ritual seemed to work, anyway, because there was no more than a slight swell. The viz was another matter. I could have seen slightly more had I dived into a bowl of oxtail soup, but youd be hard pushed to get a wreck in aunties best china. Especially this WWI-era vessel, which Clive, who owns St Davids Dive Centre, has worked for years. He owns the salvage rights so is allowed to pick up the brass and steel - unlike you and me.
The Colonian was huge and carried steel shells destined for the Somme battlefield in northern France, as well as copper ingots, brass fuses, ball-bearings and steel billets (massive hunks of metal).
On her way from Boston to London, she is believed to have attracted a U-boat and entered the treacherous waters off St Davids Head to lose it. She might have shaken off the U-boat, but in heavy fog she hit the north Bishop Reef and was badly holed.
The ship sat firmly on top of the reef and the crew made their way ashore. The alarm raised, the captain thought his ship and its macabre cargo would be saved. However, in a twist of fate that would make a pacifist smile, the tugs operating out of nearby Milford Haven were so busy that it took two weeks for them to arrive. By then the ship had vanished, taking with it 700 tonnes of shell-cases, 140 tons of fuses, 43 tons of copper, 4 tons of ball-bearings and 720 tons of billets.
Found in the 60s in 14m of water, the Colonian has been extensively worked for many years and is pretty broken, but hundreds of massive shells and fuses still litter the seabed. Copper and steel ingots can be found, though no longer in any quantity. The steel is pre-nuclear, quite a commodity on the medical instrument market.
But if you think, as several others have, that you could help yourself, be warned. You would probably find yourself staring down the barrel of the Ministry of Defence, the Colonians owners.
North Bishop, just outside Ramsey Sound, is washed by strong currents, and although we were on slack, the swell kept the water alive. My camera made swimming against it hard. The first time I failed and had to scramble back aboard, doing a good impression of a fish out of water, for a second go.
When I finally reached the buoy line, I was done in. Yet I grabbed the rope, deflated my BC and turtle-dived to get off the surface. My breathing was well up and my heart threatened at times to burst, Alien-style, out of my chest.
I consciously slowed my breathing to allow my reg to function better, but it wasnt easy holding onto the line, equalising and gripping a camera at the same time! There was a point, somewhere around 9m, certainly before I could see the bottom, when I figured that my friends were right after all - I was insane.
But, as it always does, the water below darkened and the bottom appeared. The current vanished as I sank below the shelter of the reef and I could kneel, sort myself out and get my breath back. Phew, who needs a gym!
The shallow wreck would have been superb in clearer water, but we circled it, found the bow and the stern and I gasped at the concentration of shells. There were hundreds of the things, waiting patiently for their never-to-come moment in a war that is starting to be forgotten.

Duck, its another low front!
The weather looked ominous as yet another low front rolled across the Atlantic, lifting great plumes of clouds on the horizon. We opted to stay inshore for the second dive, and visited a rocky outcrop near the southern end of Ramsey Sound, which was out of the current and held, so I was told, plenty of life.
The water was calm and the rock no bigger than a small house. It looked a perfect place to dive. The sun was out, the viz appeared better and I couldnt wait to get back in the water. This is what I love - coldwater reef diving. You can keep your dark, dingy wrecks - I want kelp, rocks and a wall that reaches the surface.
The reef petered out at 12m and we started slowly along the wall. Pollack came in for a look, as did a few wrasse, but the spider crabs were a little unfriendly and the edibles shy.
As the reef started to give way to sand and boulders, we rose slightly and moved down the back. Something bright caught my attention - a headless dogfish. It was sad to see such a beautiful fish desecrated. I can only assume that it had been found stuck in a lobster pot or something, but why behead it It would have put a dampener on the dive had I not been enjoying myself so much.
We turned around and headed back along the sunny side of the reef at a much shallower depth. Just below the kelp line it was like a supermarket on a Friday night, with fish and crustaceans everywhere. Then, as if to further enhance my reputation as a jellyfish-handler (see August), I found a huge barrel jelly stuck in the kelp, waving its flange in a pathetic bid to free itself. It was like watching your grandad play a car-race video game, convinced that the only way out of a collision with a wall was to keep his finger on the accelerate button.
Out of kindness for the terminally dim, I pulled the jellyfish out and watched it bumble off into the distance.
I love a relaxed dive with no hassles about tides, currents and bottom time. Its why I started and continue to dive.

A little excursion
Diving, however, is not, as many readers believe, the be-all and end-all of a dive trip, especially to Wales. Remember the puffins I went to see where they live.
Skomer is one of the countrys most important coastal islands. It houses Manx shearwaters, herring and black-backed gulls, razorbills, stormy petrels and guillemots besides puffins. Its not far from St Davids and there is some lovely diving around the island, but I went over on a small ferry packed to the gunwhales with old folk and schoolchildren. It was like some parallel universe where everyone my age has been obliterated.
The ferry travels as fast as a geriatric ant and you are plonked into a puffin colony as soon as you arrive. They are everywhere, and they are the funniest and most endearing birds youll ever see. They dont land on the water like other aquatic birds, they simply stop flying when they near the surface and crash!
The best place to see them up close is at the Wick, on the far side of the island. The path runs past their burrows and the puffins land on the cliff and walk across in front of you.
Their mouths are full of sand-eels ready to feed the one chick each pair brings up every year. The breeding window is so short that, to ensure the chicks survival, the adults have almost constantly to bring it more food.
The trip is a must for anyone looking to dive the St Davids area. The puffins appear at the end of March and return to the open ocean at the end of July.

  • St Davids Dive Centre can be contacted on 01437 721788

  • An
    An unmanned lighthouse marks the Smalls islands
    deadmens fingers on the reef
    puffin with sand-eels on Skomer
    Atlantic lobster on the reef
    WW1 shell-casing on the wreck of the Colonian
    jewel anemones on a ledge
    Kelp fronds on the Smalls
    grey seals relax on the rocks but were not co-operative under water
    an edible crab