Treasures of the West
Divernet
Its getting late in the year, but as a trip to the Scilly Isles takes some planning, why not work it out over the winter months To tickle your palate, Mark Webster offers a guide to what he reckons is some of the best wreck and reef diving in the British Isles

THERE IS LIFE BEYOND LANDS END, despite what some might think. While divers do venture to offshore reefs beyond the furthermost point of Cornwall, they sometimes forget that there is more of the British Isles to come, some 28 miles further south-west.

The islands of the Scilly archipelago are steeped in both maritime and diving history. Here on one of the most remote corners of the country, the scattered rocks and islands are exposed to the full force of the Atlantic. In winter the area can be swept by some of Britains fiercest storms, yet it also has one of the countrys balmiest climates, thanks to the Gulf Stream.

The isthmus of Lands End was supposedly once connected to the Scilly Isles. According to legend, the land of Lyonesse was drowned in the 6th century, leaving only the Seven Stones reef as a reminder. Fishermen apparently still claim to trawl up parts of buildings and the more imaginative even hear church bells tolling in stormy seas.
Whether you believe this or not, there are in fact more than 300 islands and rocks in the Scilly archipelago, of which only six are inhabited: St Marys, Tresco, St Martins, St Agnes, Bryher and Gugh. As you step ashore, you are struck by the tranquillity which results from the slow pace of island life and the small number of cars on the narrow winding lanes.

A small resident population survives on a mixed economy which includes the cultivation of early spring flowers and a healthy tourist industry which promotes the mild oceanic climate and exotic flora and fauna which grow so readily here.

All very nice, but for the visiting diver the major attraction will be the spectacular underwater topography, marine life and all the ships which have foundered on these rocky outcrops. The South-western Approaches are the gateway to merchant shipping entering the Channel or continuing up the west coast to Bristol, Cardiff or Liverpool. This area has been one of the worlds busiest shipping lanes for centuries and the Scilly Isles have been the first There is life beyond Lands End, despite what some might think. While divers do venture to offshore reefs beyond the furthermost point of Cornwall, they sometimes forget that there is more of the British Isles to come, some 28 miles further south-west.
The islands of the Scilly archipelago are steeped in both maritime and diving history. Here on one of the most remote corners of the country, the scattered rocks and islands are exposed to the full force of the Atlantic. In winter the area can be swept by some of Britains fiercest storms, yet it also has one of the countrys balmiest climates, thanks to the Gulf Stream.

The isthmus of Lands End was supposedly once connected to the Scilly Isles. According to legend, the land of Lyonesse was drowned in the 6th century, leaving only the Seven Stones reef as a reminder. Fishermen apparently still claim to trawl up parts of buildings and the more imaginative even hear church bells tolling in stormy seas.
Whether you believe this or not, there are in fact more than 300 islands and rocks in the Scilly archipelago, of which only six are inhabited: St Marys, Tresco, St Martins, St Agnes, Bryher and Gugh. As you step ashore, you are struck by the tranquillity which results from the slow pace of island life and the small number of cars on the narrow winding lanes.

A small resident population survives on a mixed economy which includes the cultivation of early spring flowers and a healthy tourist industry which promotes the mild oceanic climate and exotic flora and fauna which grow so readily here.

hazardous gateway
All very nice, but for the visiting diver the major attraction will be the spectacular underwater topography, marine life and all the ships which have foundered on these rocky outcrops. The South-western Approaches are the gateway to merchant shipping entering the Channel or continuing up the west coast to Bristol, Cardiff or Liverpool. This area has been one of the worlds busiest shipping lanes for centuries and the Scilly Isles have been the first landfall and the site of tragedy for many mariners.

The islands are very low-lying (the highest point is only 57m above sea level) and scattered and all too ready to waylay shipping.

There are many historic and more recent wrecks here and, despite modern navigational aids, the islands still present a significant shipping hazard, the most recent example being the container ship Cita. Many of the shipwrecks have been accidental, caused by bad weather, poor navigation or inept seamanship, but some have been more suspicious.

lured by the lights
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the islands were feared as the haunt of pirates and buccaneers from Cornwall, France and Spain, who would lie in wait for poorly defended ships.

If a captain avoided this threat, he could still fall victim to the islands wreckers displaying false lights on the shore to lure his ship onto lethal rocks and, if the crew survived this, they then risked attack for anything of value as they came ashore.

These activities were largely stamped out by the 1800s but smuggling persisted. To this day, the islanders still regard cargo from a wreck as a gift from the sea.

Diving here came to prominence during the 1960s with the discovery and salvage of treasure and artefacts from the wrecks of the Association, Hollandia, Colossus and many others since.

These recoveries established now famous salvors such as Roland Morris, Jim Heslin and Rex Cowan, who went on to research and discover many other famous wrecks.

However, there is more to these islands than wreck-diving, because the subsurface topography creates some of the most spectacular reefs and walls that the UK has to offer. The variety of temperate and sometimes sub-tropical species encountered here is simply stunning and is alone worth the effort of travelling here.

Planning a trip to the Scilly Isles is similar to making an excursion to the Continent. Transport is by sea or air but you cant take a car and boat on the ferry, which narrows your diving options.

The choices are to dive with one of the three established centres, take a liveaboard trip from the mainland or, for the adventurous, cross from Penzance in your own boat or RIB.

This last option is not for the faint-hearted, as the sea conditions can be challenging between the Longships lighthouse and St Marys. Consider this only if your boat is fully equipped with all the necessary navigation aids and safety equipment. RIBs obviously need engine redundancy too.

Even if you think your seamanship and boat-handling skills are up to the challenge, it is probably best to minimise weight by sending most of your group on the Scillonian ferry with the diving equipment. The biggest problem with this choice is that unfavourable weather can delay your departure or return, which can ruin your plans.

send your boat by boat
If you are determined to be independent, another option is to have your RIB shipped over on the island supply vessel (mv Gry Maritha). This needs booking well in advance and the total cost might prove unattractive.

Once across, you will also face harbour dues at St Marys, the higher cost of fuel and the nuances of the tidal system around the islands, although you will find local advice freely available. You could choose to base yourself at St Martins, where the dive centre has moorings for visiting RIBs and will provide air fills. Despite all these pitfalls, a number of well-equipped and trained clubs do make this crossing each year and have a very successful time in the islands.

stunning visibility
Basing yourself on a liveaboard solves both your transport and diving requirements. Most boats will pick up clients in Penzance or Plymouth and cross on the first day, perhaps diving on the Seven Stones reef on the way if weather permits. Liveaboard diving allows you to maximise the number of dives available in a week, and you can plan specific objectives with the skipper.

You also have the chance to sample the hospitality of most of the islands, as a different anchorage is chosen most evenings.

If a life all at sea is not for you, then one of the island dive centres is the final option. Two are based on St Marys and one on St Martin, the latter also offering accommodation. They all offer a package with two dives a day, normally returning by early afternoon, which gives you time to explore the islands or perhaps spend time with your family.
If you choose to stay on St Marys, there is a whole range of accommodation from which to choose, including camping, guest houses and both modest and luxurious hotels.

The islands are granitic and grouped in such a way that you can almost guarantee a lee shore, whatever the weather.

Around many of them are dramatic drop-offs, so deep water is often very close to the shore. Coupled with negligible freshwater run-off and clean Atlantic waters, this can produce some stunning visibility, particularly at the beginning and end of the season. Early summer does bring a plankton bloom but this generally dissipates after a week or two.
There are many excellent shallow reef dives in sandy bays around the islands, but the most exciting dives are on the often sheer granite walls and pinnacles found all around the archipelago. Most are exposed to the strong tides and the influence of the Gulf Stream, which sustains an amazing array of invertebrate life.
Reef fish and pelagics are seen in great abundance and the offshore rocks also promise encounters with playful and inquisitive seals.

trainers to Action Men
The wrecks range from well-known names close to the islands to a number offshore for the more experienced diver or technical groups. The most recent, the Cita, has already been absorbed into the folklore of the islands. She met her fate due to a navigational error in March 1997 when she ran hard onto Newfoundland Point, St Marys. She carried a cargo of containers which held everything from clothing, hardwood doors, car tyres and training shoes to Action Men!
All of this was salvaged one way or another, with large amounts washing up on the islands beaches, which provoked an enthusiastic reaction from residents. The wreck lies in two pieces, with the bow at a right angle to the stern in depths ranging from 20m to 35m. It is probably the most intact wreck in the islands, though each winter storm is taking its toll.

One of the best-known sites provides two wreck dives in one, with one ship literally on top of the other. The Plympton was first to sink, in thick fog in August 1909, running aground on Lethegus reef, St Agnes and eventually sinking upside-down.

The Hathor arrived 11 years later while under tow. The tow broke some miles offshore in foul weather and she was driven in to sink upright at exactly the same spot as the Plympton.

Some parts of the wrecks are jumbled together while other features, particularly the sterns and propellers, are easily identified. An added bonus is that there are good reef dives on both sides of the wrecks.

Also off St Agnes is ss Italia on Wingletang Ledges, perhaps the most spectacular inshore wreck. Once again fog was the cause of her demise, in May 1917, and the day also saw the loss of another vessel, the Lady Charlotte, which sank close to Newfoundland Point on St Marys.

Some salvage was carried out on the Italia in the 1960s, but many of the major features of the wreck are intact.
It lies on a steep reef, which quickly drops off to 40-50m, with the bows to shore. It is well covered with marine life and the adjacent reef is equally spectacular.

slave tokens
Fog has caused many losses around the islands as vessels tried to reach a safe anchorage. Another victim was the Douro which, although a very small schooner at 200ft, is still a popular dive, as part of its cargo consisted of a vast number of slave tokens (which resemble copper wrist bangles).

These were used in the slave markets on both sides of the Atlantic when this distasteful trade was legal.
The Douro lies on Crebawethan, one of the Western Rocks, and is well broken up in 10-20m, but a significant number of these tokens are still found, though the diving centres might prefer you to buy them from the souvenir shops on the islands.

The discovery of HMS Association is what made diving in the Scilly Isles famous. She was the flagship of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell and part of a fleet of 21 ships returning home after an arduous but successful campaign in the Mediterranean in October 1707. Foul weather had plagued the voyage home to such an extent that the fleet was hopelessly lost by the time it reached the south-western approaches.

Meeting on the flagship, the captains decided that they were at the mouth of the English Channel with the Scilly Isles well to the west. It was a fatal navigational error. Within days, six of the ships struck the Gilstone Ledges on the Western Rocks in bad weather, resulting in the loss of almost 2000 men.

The Association had been carrying a valuable cargo of coin and booty from several of the battles, as well as cannon and valuable personal effects, so several salvage attempts were made over the next few years. However, the wrecks eventually slipped into relatively deep water and were almost forgotten until 1967, when a team of Royal Navy divers rediscovered them.

iron and silver
The use of scuba marked the beginning of a period of serious salvage from the Association and its sister-ships. One of the salvors, Jim Heslin, stayed on to open the Isles of Scilly Underwater Centre, and now offers divers using his facilities the chance to dive the wreck. The site still boasts a number of iron cannon and lucky divers still find silver coins there.

When it comes to reef-diving, many offshore pinnacles provide the ideal dive profile, allowing a deep plunge for those who want it, followed by a gentle ascent and decompression in the shallows.

Inner Gilstone Rock off St Marys shares the same name as the infamous Gilstone on the Western Rocks, so it was long assumed to be the site of the wreck of the Association. Records of the time merely stated lost on the Gilstone, and further confusion was added by the discovery of Sir Cloudesley Shovells body, which had been washed ashore on the adjacent Porth Hellick beach, and the fact that several cannon were found on the seaward side of the reef.

wedged in the rocks
This is in fact a fantastic reef dive on the seaward side, where it drops to great depths in a series of walls, ledges and deep gullies decorated with an abundance of anemones, soft corals and sea fans. There is a broad ledge at 40m or so, which is deep enough for me, but you can easily exceed this before returning to the shallows to make a safety stop.

Pol Bank, three miles south of Bishop Light, is an offshore dive for the more experienced, as it is well out in the open Atlantic and the reef starts as a plateau in 30m.

The edge of the plateau leads to a sheer drop-off to 90m or so, but the marine life on this exposed site is prolific and the visibility often astounding. As far as I know, this site is visited only by the liveaboard mv Mentor.

Close to the wrecks of the Association and Firebrand, Black Rock on the Western Rocks provides another good reef site. Several cannon are wedged in the rocks in the shallows and local knowledge indicates that three unidentified wrecks have been lost here and several gold coins been discovered.
You never know what you might find!
Seals are normally resting on the rocks when boats arrive and are often encountered during the beginning and end of the dive. The reef drops to 35m in a series of giant boulders and deep gulleys, which are smothered with jewel and plumose anemones and soft corals.

As with all the sites around the Western Rocks, surge can be a problem, so pick a calm day for your visit.

Not far from Black Rock is Trenemene, perhaps my favourite pinnacle dive in the area. The rocks just break the surface and then drop away vertically like a church spire all round to depths of 70m and more.

This is a spectacular and colourful dive, which offers some great photo opportunities and in good visibility has an almost tropical feel.

The final pinnacle is Menawethan Rock, Eastern Isles, which again has a number of iron cannon in the shallows and a resident seal population.

The best dive is on the south side, so choose your dive to coincide with slack water or when the south side offers shelter from the current. There are a number of sheer drops with narrow ledges leading to a series of wider ledges between 36m and 42m, and excellent marine life, particularly when there is a little tide running.

The diving in the Scilly Isles offers something for every taste, together with the opportunity to enjoy a spell of idyllic island existence for a while, without the need to travel halfway round the world! Why not plan a visit for next year

Colourful
Colourful life-forms cover the outermost pinnacles of the Scilly Isles
An
An iron porthole from the Italia, on the seabed at 38m
deck
deck rail on the wreck of the Plympton, at 40m on Lethegus Rocks
jewel
jewel anemones covering the reef walls make a meal for a starfish
sandy
sandy shallow bays and coves are home to flatfish of all sorts
once
once only 7m from the surface, the Citas communication mast now lies in a gulley at 37m. The 10 and 3cm radar scanners are still intact
the
the Cita is slowly but surely becoming a reef
Fields
Fields of plumose anemones carpet the outermost pinnacles
it
it is now possible to enter the engine room of the wreck
shoals
shoals of pouting are found on most of the wrecks
deck
deck winch on the Plympton wreck
A
A spider crab picks its way carefully over a reef covered with sponges and invertebrates

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE Cross with the Scillonian III steamship from Penzance Monday-Saturday from the start of April to October. The service stops during winter, when you can cross with the islands freight vessel the Gry Maritha, which sails three times a week. Otherwise fly by helicopter from Penzance or by fixed-wing Sky Bus from Lands End, Newquay, Plymouth, Exeter or Bristol. This is quicker but baggage weight is restricted, so your gear might need to go on the Scillonian. To book boat crossings or Sky Bus, call 0845 710 5555 or visit www.islesofscillytravel.co.uk. British International Helicopters is on 01736 363871. Liveaboards that take in the Scilly Isles include Katrina Thompson (01548 821537), Maureen (01803 835449), McGregor (01503 263584), Mentor (01872 862080), UK National (01752 863545).

DIVING: The two dive centres on St Marys are Isles of Scilly Underwater Centre (01720 422595) and Island Underwater Safaris (01720 422732). The other centre is St Martins Diving Services (01720 422848).

WHEN TO GO Winter weather can be splendid in the islands but the risk of storms is high and could severely restrict or curtail your diving.

ACCOMMODATION: Accommodation on St Marys ranges from campsites and self-catering cottages to B&B and hotels of various grades. The choice is more limited on the smaller St Martins and on Tresco, Bryher and St Agnes.

GETTING AROUND: A number of boats based on St Marys provide a regular passenger service between the islands, and others are available for hire.

FURTHER INFORMATION Isles of Scilly Tourist Information Centre (01720 422536, www.scillyonline.co.uk), HM Coastguard, St Marys (01720 422651/422129), St Marys Harbour Masters Office (01720 427768).