|The first thing that the local Gibraltarian divers will tell you is that most of the diving in Gibraltar is not in the Mediterranean, it is in the Atlantic. Once that minor detail is out of the way, there is some good wreck diving here.|
Wreck diving is centred on the three breakwaters to Gibraltar harbour, or moles as they are colloquially called. Over the years a number of ships anchored out in the bay have come adrift in heavy seas and been dashed sideways against these stone walls before cracking open and falling to the seabed.
Along the middle or detached mole the seabed outside the wall is at about 30m. The north and south moles connect to the shore and the seabed ascends from 30m to nothing along the length of them.
The classic wreck on the detached mole is the ss Excellent, and it certainly lives up to its name. The Excellent was a 1600-ton steel-hulled schooner with additional propulsion from a steam engine and a huge scimitar-bladed propeller. She sank against the wall after a series of collisions in 1888.
Although it is possible to drop straight on top of the wreck, we choose to swim out from the mole. Dropping in close to the wall, we descend to a slope of stone blocks at 10m. This continues at a 45-degree angle to the sand and silt seabed at 30m. From here I follow a compass bearing to swim out perpendicular to the wall past a forest of sea pens.
Twenty metres later, the hull of the Excellent looms above me. We have hit the wreck dead centre where it is broken open at the engine room. A jungle of mechanical debris bridges the gap between the cavernous fore and aft holds.
Turning right into the arch formed by the upturned hull, I enter the aft hold. Theres good visibility and I can just make out a dim glow ahead of me marking the exit at the stern.
Girders bridge the cavern at regular intervals as I make my way aft through the darkness. At the stern the way out is either through a gap between the starboard (seaward) side of the hull and the seabed or some broken hull plates almost at the stern.
I wriggle out of the wreck and follow a trail of debris to the huge rudder lying propped above the sand. A few years ago the rudder and iron propeller were still attached to the stern and made an impressive sight, but were unfortunately broken loose by an anchor.
We make our way forward along the port side of the wreck. The steep plates are arrayed with bright red and yellow gorgonias, spread out perpendicular to the gentle current.
The way inside the forward hold is less obvious. The broken remains of the engine room form a short but convoluted route past twisted girders and scattered machinery.
At the bows I quietly admire hanging soft corals and tease inquisitive blennies with my fingers before we head back towards the breakwater.
Yet more blennies, carpets of anemones, assorted wrasse and the unusual flying gurnard have made their home on the slope and the wall. As I stop to photograph some attractive snakelock anemones, I notice a well camouflaged scorpionfish is snoozing among them. Now mentally switched on to spot them, I see scorpionfish are everywhere.
In shallower water by the vertical harbour wall I begin searching cracks between the stone blocks which gobies, blennies and shrimps have made their homes. Examining the small life, I pick out nudibranchs of all shapes and colours. And all this on just one wreck dive!
Further south, about half-way along the southern mole, lies the wreck of the ss Roslyn, a 3500-ton steamship that sank in 1916, broken against the wall in a storm. The Roslyn is a more modern ship than the Excellent, following a classic cargo ship design with holds forward and aft of the remains of a central superstructure and engine room.
The Roslyn lies upright in 18-24m of water. Dropping from the boat directly over the wreck, I land almost on top of the bows. Whilst most of the wreck has collapsed inwards to be just a few metres thick, the bows are reasonably intact, jutting upwards to form a hollow oblique pyramid of plates and girders.
The wreck is covered in an impressive array of red and yellow gorgonias. Soft corals dangle from overhangs and shaded corners. Inside the bows, shafts of sunlight twinkle through the water.
Small rainbow wrasse are pecking away everywhere, even at my fingers if I hold them still for too long. Finning gently towards the stern, I dip in and out of holes in the wreckage searching for conger eels and other hole-dwelling creatures. A curious cuckoo wrasse follows, meandering in and out of my path.
Like the bows, the stern is also reasonably intact, rising several metres above the rest of the wreck. As I rise into a gentle current, the intact railings provide a skeleton for a dense forest of marine life.
Following the established pattern, I leave the wreck and swim up the slope to the mole, finishing the dive in the shallows beneath the wall. A tight shoal of bream loiters in the shade.
The 428 was a cable barge used in the naval dockyard. Reaching the end of its working life in 1990, it was scuttled in 17m of water in Camp Bay. Although cleaned up, this wreck was by no means sanitised for divers. When I first dived it in 1990 there was toilet paper hanging from the holder in the head and an octopus had set up home in the bowl!
Several years on, the 428 looks more like a wreck than a ship that just happens to be under water. Muscles and tunicates grow on exposed surfaces of the hull. Below decks, fine silt makes wreck penetration a more serious issue.
The 428 is a small wreck at shallow depth. A gentle current swings round Camp Bay and a loose shoal of bream and rainbow wrasse have gathered above the bow where the current is strongest.
Lying next to the 428 is another barge. Nothing special, but host to a further selection of marine life and a few more octopuses.
At a depth of 35m and about 100m out from the north entrance to the harbour, lies the wreck of a small patrol boat. With such a tiny target I am amazed that Chris, our boatman, manages to drop a shot right at the bows.
This small wreck is home to a swirling mass of anthias and glass fish much bigger than the actual wreckage itself. To one side I encounter an enormous anglerfish. Funny thing was I must have swum past it two or three times before noticing it just lying there on the gravel seabed. But that is what anglerfish do, blend into their surroundings and trap any unwary passing prey.
>From the patrol boat, the end of the detached mole lies in a south-west direction. It is a much longer swim to the wall than from the other wrecks. On the way to the shallows lie the two halves of a small ship conveniently referred to as the inner and the outer.
A short distance out from the southern harbour entrance, in just 20m of water, lies the wreck of the wooden trawler Helen. Although much of the decking is rotten, the structural timbers are intact giving some parts of the wreck a skeleton appearance. The Helen is an excellent location for looking for small things like nudibranchs. Photographers should come armed with a macro lens.
One wreck site that at first sounds interesting, but is probably best avoided, is a pair of Sherman tanks. These were scrapped by pushing them off the cliff top at Europa Point, the south end of Gibraltar. With a host of other junk such as old cars, this could be an interesting dive site. However, Gibraltars sewage system also comes out here, directly into the strait where it is apparently washed away by the strong tides. I cant speak from personal experience of this site - one whiff from the cliff top put me right off diving it.
If you want a break from the wrecks and fancy a marine-life dive, there is always the harbour wall. Or at the shore end of the south mole are a group of rocks called the Seven Sisters.
Off shore in the straits of Gibraltar lies Europa reef, a series of flat ledges with a selection of gorgonias, soft corals and fish. More exposed is the reef at Los Pecos, a ridge of rock that rises from 60m to less than 20m. But it is rare that currents and wind are favourable enough to dive at this site.
Theres always the further option of a day trip to the north shore of Morocco. But be warned, the constantly changing bureaucratic procedures can make this one a little unpredictable.
GETTING THERE: Direct flight to Gibraltar, or fly to Malaga and rent a car.
DIVING :There is something here for everyone from wreck enthusiasts to macro photographers. I dived with Rock Marine (tel 00 350 73147; fax 00 350 74754; e-mail email@example.com). In the UK, contact Home & Continental Travel (0161 445 2200). Diving is 25 per day for two boat dives. Also try Dive Charters Gibraltar (tel 00 350 45649; fax 00 350 73283; website www. divegib.gi).
ACCOMMODATION : Rock Marine can help arrange cheap local accommodation. Alternatively book a package holiday to Gibraltar or the Costa del Sol and arrange the diving as you go.
OTHER ACTIVITIES : Climb the rock and be entertained by the apes. Lie on the beach. Tax free shopping includes Marks & Spencer. Cross the border into Spain. Play at the water parks. Bars and restaurants are plentiful and cheap.
FURTHER INFORMATION : Admiralty Chart 1448, Gibraltar Bay. Gibraltar Tourist Board (tel 0171 836 0777; website www. gibraltar.gi/).