|There arent many dive sites more remote than Tearaght Island, a jagged rock sticking 200m out of the Atlantic off the west coast of Ireland. Its the most westerly of the Blasket Islands, lying beyond the tip of the Dingle peninsula.
From the chart, the east end of Tearaght Island appears to have a plateau at a depth of 15-20m, but as we descend the wall to 30m we find its still going down. It fizzles out into a boulder slope at 35m.
Visibility is excellent, though as its late in the afternoon the east-facing wall is in the shade and under water its getting a bit dark. Or maybe I should say atmospheric.
We loop out across the slope in a south-westerly direction, poke around under a few boulders then zigzag our way back up the wall, making full use of our dive computers. So far it has been a dive typical of the area, with crawfish, lobsters, clumps of white and yellow dead mans fingers, sea urchins grazing paths across the rocks, and small jewel anemones on any spaces left.
Back at the wall, we start to ascend. Our air is getting low and our dive computers are getting full, but it soon becomes clear that something is wrong - nothing serious, but wrong all the same. The wall were ascending ends 10m short of the surface!
Thats the trouble with charts. In places as remote as this you have to look carefully at the survey dates - in this case 1857. Some guy had probably come out in a rowing boat and dropped a lead line a few times on top of pinnacles like the one we had ascended, and marked the area as being flat. Maybe he had been sampling the Guinness. Never mind, time to deploy the delayed SMB and make a safety stop.
Although its the first time weve come across an uncharted pinnacle in the area, this sort of topography is fairly common around the Blasket Islands. You only have to look at the islands and rocks above the water to get an idea of how interesting the scenery can get below. There are vertical walls with jagged buttresses, sweeping canyons, arches, narrow gullies and fissures in the rock that develop into caves at the waterline.
A classic example is the north end of Inishnabro. Only diveable at slack water on a calm day, the incredibly spiky slope and buttresses continue under water into an area normally covered by a heavy tidal race.
This inspiring scenery is complemented by names that beg to be dived - you just have to score places like Great Foze Rock, Inishtooskert and Wild Bank in your logbook.
Wild Bank is charted as ascending to 5m, but the shallowest point we could find with an echo sounder and GPS search was 18m. It easily lives up to its name. In open sea three miles south of Great Blasket Island and ascending from a seabed at 45-50m, even a gentle Atlantic ground swell picks up into sizeable waves. Weve chosen a bright day with a moderate northerly wind, but still have a very wet boat ride. Its a relief to get under water.
Visibility is good, even for the west coast of Ireland. The rock were diving on is about the same size as a house - an old Victorian semi-detached house, three or four storeys high and with big rooms and high ceilings. Well, I assume its a rock, because to tell you the truth I cant see any rock for the jewel anemones that cover every inch of it.
I later quiz Mike Shanahan, who runs the Dingle Marina Dive Centre, about Wild Bank. He hasnt found the 5m pinnacle yet either, but he knows of three pinnacles on Wild Bank similar to the one we had dived.
Its a long boat ride from Dingle to the Blaskets, even in a fast RIB. Not the sort of distance you want to travel out and back twice a day, so two bottles each in the boat and a picnic lunch is the solution. If youre near the east end of Great Blasket Island at lunchtime, you can go ashore and get a snack at the island cafe - it has a great selection of home-made cakes.
The west coast of Ireland isnt famous for shipwrecks, but on the south side of Great Blasket, a few hundred metres back from the headland, lies the steel-hulled trawler Three Brothers. As with most wrecks round Ireland, the rumours about its sinking are varied and scurrilous.
With rocks sticking up all over the place, the Three Brothers isnt an easy wreck to locate. Our first attempt ends up with the shot on a rock covered in colourful anemones.
From this point we swim southwards down the reef to 30m where there is a sand and gravel seabed, then search along this line. It isnt long before we find the bows of the trawler looming above us with a slight list to starboard.
Although wrecked only in 1990, the Three Brothers is already plastered with marine life, from the railings above the covered bow to the A-frame at the stern. Its not the sort of wreck that brass-souvenir hunters would appreciate. But if youre into poking around in holes or admiring an almost intact ship with colourful life and shoals of fish in clear water, the Three Brothers is well worth a visit. It goes almost without saying that its a great site for wreck photography.
Chasms and caves
At the north end of Inishtooskert, we again descend a steep slope to a boulder-strewn seabed at 35m. Rounding a corner, a small gully leading back into the rock catches my eye. I venture inside and in no time at all it develops into a 30m-deep chasm with a real whoosh of a surge from the waves above.
Venturing even deeper into the cliff face, sides covered in jewel anemones give way to densely packed strawberry tunicates and sponges. My ears are bombarded by ba-boom compressions as the surges hit the back of the gully and compress an air space at the end. Above we can see frothing white water. Diving inside a natural pneumatic drill its easy to appreciate how such a slot has been cut.
Just outside Dingle Harbour, Crowe Rock marks a small reef that just breaks the surface and slopes down to 25m. Close in under the cliffs there are caves and gullies to explore. These are great for any diver, but must be mind blowing for trainees from the dive centre who make their first open-water dives on these easy-to-reach sites.
The caves are sirens luring the unwary diver in to explore. Venturing inside without redundant air supplies or a line is unwise - theyre the sort of caves that lure you to go that little bit further, then a bit further again, and a bit further again, until you suddenly realise that perhaps you should have come better prepared and laid a line after all. We took care to lay a line from the edge of the light zone.
The Dingle dolphin
Coming back into Dingle Harbour, Fungi the dolphin just loves to ride the wake of dive boats. Theres a whole industry built around Fungi-watching - half a dozen boats run hourly trips promising youll see the dolphin or get your money back.
But Fungi isnt interested in the tripper boats - its dive boats he loves to chase, and the tripper boat captains know it. They all converge on returning RIBs to give their punters a glimpse of the dolphin.
A week of heavy diving was barely enough to scratch the surface of this spectacular area. Even if there had been time, north-westerly winds made many promising sites undiveable, including the wreck of the 4,500-ton collier Quebra. And a week of evenings made even less of a dent on the pub circuit.
GETTING THERE: By ferry from Swansea to Cork; Pembroke or Fishguard to Rosslare. From Cork its a three-hour drive to Dingle. Swansea Cork Ferries 01792 456116; Irish Ferries 0990 329543; Stena Line 01348 404481. .
DIVING DETAILS: The Dingle Marina Dive Centre (00 353 66 52422) has a new compressor and fully equipped 8m RIB. Instruction is available. There are slips at Dingle Marina, Ventry Harbour and Smerwick Harbour. There are no launch fees, but you may have to pay for parking.
ACCOMMODATION: Dingle is an important tourist destination, with bed and breakfast widely available and many cottages for rent. The dive centre or Dingle Tourist Information (00 353 66 51188) can provide details.
FOR NON-DIVERS: Sandy beaches and coastal walks, Brandon Mountain, horse-riding, cycling, Stone Age dwellings, dolphin-watching, or a day trip to Great Blasket Island by ferry. Dont forget to sample the traditional Irish pubs.
With the many walls, caves and good visibility, inexperienced divers must be careful not to venture beyond their capabilities.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: All abilities.
Dingle Marina Dive Centre runs daily dive trips to the Blasket Islands, including two dives, for£30 per person (45 including kit). Local B&Bs cost around£18 per person.
Spectacular scenery above and below the water. Good visibility and profuse marine life, Fungi the dolphin, seals, Irish pubs, sheltered launch sites whatever the weather.
Rain and strong winds are fairly common, although the weather has to be pretty bad before you cant find somewhere to dive. Theres only very limited shore diving.
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