The way it should be

Riding the gentle swell off St Abbs Head, the evening sun is still strong but heading for the horizon. The sandstone cliffs are aflame as the sun ignites the tall red walls. Fulmars can be seen gliding down from the cliff-tops to skim the calm sea with a wing-tip, masters of the air, while squadrons of gannets dive through the surface layer in a plume of spray to gorge on the rich pickings below.

I sit in a little dive boat and at that moment there is nowhere that I would rather be. St Abbs is a peaceful haven between two great cities: Edinburgh to the north, Newcastle to the south.

I have been diving in the area for 17 years, but last year I was to experience three new dive sites and realise that even after all that time I had barely scratched the surface.

Those tall red cliffs are hammered in the winter months by prevailing north-easterly winds that generate heavy seas. These carve out tunnels and gullies for us divers to explore in more clement weather.

It was April before I braved the cool sea, which measured around the 6?C mark at the time. Diving at Great Green Carr just outside the harbour (the big rock to the left as you look out to sea), fish life was not so profuse as it would be in the summer months, but this is where the benefits of diving in a marine reserve come into play.

A resident wolf-fish of around a metre in length inhabits a small cave here. Sometimes he will come out and play, sometimes he stays hidden, but on this occasion he seemed glad of the company after a long, dark winter and was soon swimming through my legs and even accepting a tickle under the chin.

This fish is fairly tame and will interact with divers, though I must admit that tickling his chin is not a particularly good idea, as those big yellow fangs can crush timber!

Anglers are not permitted to fish in the area, so this wolf-fish will, I hope, provide a fantastic experience for divers for many years to come. Lobsters also abound in the reserve, as there is a no-take policy for divers.

St Abbs, therefore, gives us a glimpse of what all our coastline could look like if sustainable fishing methods were implemented elsewhere. And after 43 minutes of play, enjoying the early-season 4m viz, it was time to warm up in the local pub.

As the summer developed, the water temperature slowly climbed to a maximum of around 14?C. The viz also improved and I regularly experienced 15m at Cathedral Rock while swimming through the anemone-encrusted arches, and enjoying close encounters with the resident ballan wrasse resplendent in their mating colours.

I also had a chance encounter with a lesser-spotted dogfish, so common on the West Coast but fairly rare here. But the most impressive feature of the dives here were the big ling hunting in the tide.

Late in the season, as I descended from the boat, I experienced 20m viz, the best so far. Skipper Peter Gibson had described the dive site as a gully full of tidal life; a cave, where I had a very close encounter with a grey seal; and a fang-like pinnacle.

Later I would have to confirm with Peter that he had never dived before. He had used his local knowledge and the excited descriptions of surfacing divers to describe what I would see on the dive in uncanny detail. He had even pointed the bow of the boat in the right direction for the cave.

The fang was my favourite area, however. Carving up from the sea floor, rising around 8m off the bottom and festooned with soft corals, it made a fantastic sight. At its base an inquisitive octopus was spied, along with wreckage. This was thought to be that of an old schooner, the Phoenix, with a big cod underneath and a lobster finding a home for itself on top.

After such a fantastic dive there was no way I was going home just yet. I couldn't stay on for another day to do the wreck of the Glanmire, unfortunately, but I teamed up with a club from East Lothian to do the Wuddy Rocks and Black Carr Rock from Peter's boat.

It was worth the time, as we explored stupendous narrow gullies and, guarding the mouth of one, found an anglerfish lying in wait. Octopus were also active but then the big walls of the Black Carr attracted my attention. Their vertical faces were covered in vibrant orange and white dead men's fingers.

As divers you may have heard or even experienced the delights of diving at St Abbs but, as I found out last year, it always has something else to offer the more you learn where to look. 2002 certainly gave me my best experiences in the area so far.

With more marine reserves to be set up around the country, perhaps the fantastic life experienced in the St Abbs Reserve will be experienced elsewhere soon. For me, in the meantime, nowhere else can match the scenic beauty of the St Abbs and Eyemouth voluntary marine reserve.


Ballan wrasse against a scenic marine-reserve background

ballan in close-up

diver in the top arch of Cathedral Rock


GETTING THERE: St Abbs is about 50 miles south of Edinburgh and 50 miles north of Newcastle. Drive there on the A1 and take the turn-off for Coldingham.
DIVING: Mainly scenic boat and shore-diving, although there are some broken wrecks, notably the Glanmire. There are local hardboats for hire such as those of Peter Gibson (01890 771681) or Alistair Crowe (01890 771412). Air is available from Scoutscroft Dive Centre in Coldingham (01890 771669, or Eyemouth Diving Centre (01890 751202,
ACCOMMODATION: Small B&Bs in St Abbs, and B&Bs, caravan/campsites and hotels in Coldingham and Eyemouth. The latter town, four miles south and the largest in the area, also has some larger hotels. Eyemouth Tourist Information Centre has details (01890 750678).
BEST TIME TO VISIT: Late summer, with settled conditions, better visibility and warmer water.
WATER TEMPERATURE:A nippy 4°C in April rising to 15°C in August/ September.
FOR NON DIVERS: Sandy beach, scenic cliff walks, nature reserve, castles. In August you can combine a trip with the Edinburgh Festival, only an hour's drive away.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Scottish Borders Tourist Board 01835 863688,, Marine Reserve Warden 018907 71273, Harbourmaster 018907 71708.