|A full Irish breakfast still warm inside us, we flipped backwards and descended through the blue Atlantic. Sunbeams streamed into the clear water, illuminating an almost sheer wall ahead.
Colours, textures and shap leapt out at us: dead mens fingers, strange pink and orange anemones, multi-coloured dahlias, giant plumoses and hundreds of gorgeous jewel anemones. The wall was a massive garden in full bloom.
It was not only the plant-like animals that caught our attention. Squat lobsters scurried for cover, inquisitive ballan and cuckoo wrasse swam around us and tompot blennies played hide-and-seek, poking their cheeky faces in and out of their holes. And we had only just begun our dive.
We were diving under the cliffs of Inishbofin, one of several islands that lie off Irelands Connemara coast. The islands are remote, but they offer some of the most spectacular diving in Ireland.
Nearest dive centre is Scubadive West on the mainland, near the village of Renvyle. The centre, seemingly one of the busiest and most friendly in Ireland, is run by Shane Gray and his family. They have been expanding year by year, and now make daily trips to Inishbofin and its two main neighbours, Inishturk and Clare, using the super-fast RIB they call the Dive Taxi.
They say you have to book months ahead to secure a place on this taxi. But we managed to squeeze on to one of the special dive safaris run by the centre, normally over a long weekend.
Our trip had been planned at short notice to accommodate a bunch of divers who had pleaded with Shane to run an extra safari during the week. Having driven clear across Ireland, we had transferred our bags on to the centres Offshore Diver hardboat and enjoyed an evening meal and a few pints in Inishbofins local pub before turning in.
Now, we were finning down this brilliant wall, at a site called Dun Na Hininne. As we reached the bottom, the sunbeams suddenly disappeared.
Looking up, I saw why. An enormous shoal of mackerel were swimming overhead. Their mouths wide open, they were gulping in vast quantities of seawater, vacuuming up tiny zoo plankton and anything else in their path. Now I understand how easy it is to catch dozens of these silvery beauties at once with a few colourful feathers!
The mackerel didnt hang around for long, and we turned our attention back to the wall. I spotted something small and white with yellow spots - a tiny nudibranch called Cadlina laevis, which I used to find occasionally when turning over stones on the low-tide mark as a youngster. They are reasonably common both in shallow and deeper water, but being so small they tend to be hard to find.
Continuing round a corner up and over a small ridge, we found a gully just wide enough to swim up. It was dark, but a shaft of sunlight on one of the walls highlighted a few plumose anemones and showed us the way.
Half a dozen fin beats on, the gully becoming even narrower. A dead end seemed likely, but we decided to continue anyway. This turned out to be a good decision, because we found a chimney, hidden from the open sea.
There looked to be a way out through a small gap 3 or 4m from the surface, but before making our escape something caught our attention - a pair of rich orange tentacles waving slowly from under a ledge. Being quite big, they could mean only one thing - crawfish.
It was a beauty, one any fisherman would fancy in his pot, but it was safe enough in its well-protected den. Crawfish are becoming increasingly rare, and we left it and our secret spot reluctantly to ascend the chimney.
That afternoon we tried the next site up, and this time found ourselves dodging dogfish in and out of a kelp forest, and photographing plaice in a gully. No crawfish, but we found several tompot blennies, butterfish and squat lobsters hiding in the crevices along the gully walls. Another cracking little dive.
From Inishbofin we headed to the pretty little island of Inishturk. Our base was the cosy Harbour Lodge B&B, about the only place large enough to accommodate our group.
That evening after dinner we sat by the peat fire in the small stone-walled living room, sipping wine and talking diving. Next morning we were up early to explore. Some 80 people live on Inishturk and most of them live on fishing. From the top of the island we could look south to Inishbofin and north towards our next stop, Clare Island.
The harbour was a picture-postcard scene awash with colour, from the fishermens yellow waterproofs to the reds, blues and greens of their boats.
And after a hearty breakfast we found ourselves amid an equally colourful underwater scene. Cruising over a kelp forest we found a series of interconnecting gullies with walls of brightly coloured jewel anemones. One of the gullies led back into a deep cave, but because of the swell we thought it safer not to venture inside.
Between dives we returned to Inishturk for lunch and a stretch in the sun. Then we moved on to our final destination.
The cliffs on Clare Islands western side are dramatic in silhouette.
The island, dominated by the 450m Craghore Hill, guards the entrance to Clew Bay (which leads to Scubadive West) like a sleeping whale. The island is an archaeologists dream, with its 5000-year-old cairn, Iron Age huts, promontory forts and 45 fuachta fiadh - burnt mounds to you and me!
Before the Famine some 1700 people eked out a living here; today fishing supports only 200.
Rounding the headland we could see Grace OMalleys Castle high on a grassy bank. Opposite, on the sandy beach, was Granuaile House, the B&B where we were staying. Pirate queen Grace OMalley was known as Granuaile by the locals, and widely feared by all, but she was received with full honours at the court of Elizabeth I.
Next morning our goal lay 14km north-west - the famous Bills Rocks, which project up to 40m from the water. Dropping to some 50m in places, they are supposed to be covered in anemones and other lifeforms.
Sadly, a strong south-west wind was blowing, so we had to stick to a sheltered site close to the island.
It was no hardship as it turned out. We descended to a bottom teeming with fish: groups of wrasse, ling, dogfish, a huge shoal of pollack and, as we made our way up a gradually sloping reef, we found a mini-wall full of crevices and cracks.
This hid an abundance of little crustaceans, blennies, gobies and wrasse. One particular cuckoo wrasse found my camera lens port irresistible. We also found a nice-sized lobster out in the open and a pretty little flatworm, Prostheceraeus vittatus.
The dive was surprisingly good, considering that it was one of Scubadive Wests back-up sites, and didnt even have a name. We enjoyed it so much, we did it again in the afternoon!
In late afternoon we hurried back to Scubadive West. One of our group had told his boss he was working from home during the past three days. He had been busy between dives using his mobile phone and personal computer; now he had to make Dublin by 8.30 for a business dinner.
Some people will go to any lengths for a three-night, three-island dive safari off the Connemara coast!
Dive safaris run once a month in summer, normally from Thursdays to Sundays. Flights from Stansted, Manchester or Birmingham to Knock take about an hour and cost from 70 return. Special ferry rates can also be arranged if you are driving. Dublin to Renvyle takes 3-4 hours. The price of 159 covers everything but lunch and alcoholic beverages: Gavin Anderson reckons breakfast, evening meals and accommodation are worth this in themselves! Call Scubadive West on 00 353 954 3922, fax: 954 3923, e-mail: Scuba@anu.ie
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