Skokholm
Skokholm in the distance, looking from Wooltack Point.



I HAVE BEEN DIVING IN SKOMER MARINE NATURE RESERVE for years. With a two-week club training trip every summer and occasional weekends, I feel I know Jack Sound and the north side of Skomer Island inside-out, and have a fair acquaintance with the south side of the island.

The trouble is, with the usual turnover of club members we dont do a vast amount of exploring. We already know where the best sites are, so by the time training is out of the way, the next priority is for everyone to dive sites such as Tusker Rock and the Garland Stone.

The easy way to explore and find the occasional new site is to ask the staff from the Marine Nature Reserve. Their survey work often yields ideas for dives that would appeal to sports divers.

With all of Skomer so convenient, there is little incentive to go further. Yet standing temptingly a few miles to the south is the island of Skokholm, Skomers little sister. Like Skomer, it is

a nature reserve, primarily to protect the massive seabird colonies.

Unlike Skomer, the surrounding waters are not a managed marine nature reserve. And until a few years ago, I had hardly dived there.

In fact I did spend one day diving Skokholm way back in 1981. Our first dive was at the west end of the island, beneath the lighthouse to the south of the Head. We swam up and down shelving ledges of red sandstone, in places polished by exposure to winter storms. It was kelp-bound in the shallows and there was a turf of clinging brown hydroids and bryozoans in deeper water.

Like the western side of Skomer, it was just too exposed. The staff at the Skomer Marine Nature Reserve have regularly recorded winter waves 10m high and one as big as 13m - so big that it broke the recording buoy.

For a second dive 25 years ago we spoke to the island warden, who described the location of a small, well-broken wreck. And that was for a long time my sole experience of Skokholm.

My dallies resumed when I dived this small wreck again. Steve Lewis of Pembrokeshire Dive Charters had suggested the wreck of the Burry as an easy second dive, and at some point

I realised that it looked familiar. With a couple of decades of experience behind me, my approach to wreck diving had developed. I saw a lot more and had a really nice dive.

The 326-ton steamship Burry was stranded on the rocks of Hog Bay in next-to-no wind in May 1889. Knowing the area, I suspect fog was involved. The wreckage now lies with the propeller in about 15m, the shaft stretching shallower along a gully to some scraps of the compound engine and the boiler in 10m, and the bow fizzling out into the shallows under the cliff.

More scraps of the engine lie in the next gully to the south, then, another couple of gullies along, there are remnants of the wooden schooner Alice Williams, so you get two wrecks for the price of one. The Burry is well worth diving, though there isnt enough of it to justify a Wreck Tour.

Not that the Alice Williams amounts to much but scraps. The schooner struck a rock off St Anns Head in February 1928, began sinking and was abandoned before drifting into Hog Bay and stranding on the rocks. Wood and fittings from the wreck were salvaged and used to put a new roof on the farmhouse on the island.

A year later, I was out with Steve Lewis again. The day began with a dive on the iron barque Highland Home, lost while under tow in November 1895, and now lying in just over 30m in Freshwater Bay, the long bay to the east of the Milford Haven inlet.

Then we again came to the question of a second dive, and Steve suggested another Skokholm wreck, the Allendale.

This 857-ton steamship was an earlier casualty of 1895, becoming stranded on the rocks of Mad Bay on the north side of Skokholm in May.

The bulk of the wreck lies along the rocks in 15-18m, stern to the east and bow to the west. It is well broken, with some structure remaining at the stern where the propeller, rudder and steering remain intact and fallen to starboard.

 


THE PROPSHAFT LEADS FORWARD along the centre-line of the wreck, though the remains of the two-cylinder compound engine have been completely dispersed. The general structure then continues as piles of plates to the remains of the bow, which have fallen back onto the wreck.

Searching for the boiler was the highlight of the dive. It lies a few metres deeper and out to sea, down a gully in the rock and standing on end on the gently sloping sand.

The gully spreads to a 2m wall on either side with a colourful coating of jewel anemones. Again, this is a site well worth diving, both for the wreck and for the marine life.

A year later and I returned to what now seemed to be an annual brush with Skokholm. This time we had a few hours before slack water on the Thomas Vaughan (Wreck Tour 74, April 2005), and Steve suggested filling the gap with a quick look at the Angelica, just back from

the Head on the south side of Skokholm.

1895 seems to have been a bad year for West Wales. The 1180-ton steamship struck the rocks in July, just a couple of months after the Allendale.

This wasnt as good a dive.

I soon found signs of the stern and followed the line forward past sections of shaft, but couldnt find much else.

A shame, because the Angelica is listed as having a four-cylinder compound engine, a rare configuration dabbled with only briefly before engineering and rising steam pressure rendered such a design obsolete.

Perhaps I stayed too shallow at 10-15m, because other divers tracked the line between the rocks and the sand between 20 and 25m and saw a fair bit more, though no real main body of wreckage. Or perhaps its that, like the lighthouse reef I dived back in 1981, this site is just so exposed that nothing could really survive.

Skokholm had begun to intrigue me.

I asked Steve Lewis to suggest some more sites round the island and he came up with a list of wrecks that could be as interesting as the Allendale or Burry, or disappointing as the Angelica.

To give a rounded view of the diving around Skokholm, I also needed to investigate some of the scenic sites - divers come to the area for marine life as much as they do for wrecks.

Steve had some good suggestions.

A reef runs west from the lighthouse towards the Wild Goose Race. On the chart it is just north of my first dive on Skokholm so many years ago.

Shallow rocks rising from deep water and ripping currents are always a good prospect for a dive.

Another suggestion with similar conditions, though not as deep, was Hog Reef, peaking to less than 10m half a mile to the east of Skokholm.

Closer in and to the north of the eastern tip of Skokholm is Skokholm Spit. Like the Lighthouse Reef, both Hog Reef and Skokholm Spit have serious currents. There was no way I could dive all three on slack water in a day.

To compromise, Steve suggested that Skokholm Spit could be drifted on the flood tide, which left slack water for either the Lighthouse Reef or Hog Reef.

I had a feeling that Hog Reef would be the better dive. Its in line with Jack Sound to the north, while sheltered from the worst of winter storms. Yet with only one slack, I wouldnt know for sure.

ANYWAY, WE DIVED HOG REEF at low water and descended to gullies etched into the red sandstone. With perfect surface conditions, the plan was to work into the minimal current and pop a delayed SMB only to ascend, or if we started to drift.

The gullies run generally parallel north-south, in line with the current, with occasional cross-connections, typically 2 or 3m deep at a general depth of 18m, and sides sloping with the lay of the rocks. For a dive this shallow, I was surprised by the lack of kelp. The current must really rip through with the tide.

The sides of the gullies were carpeted with the usual brown hydroid and bryozoan turf, with orange and grey sponges holding the more exposed edges and corners.

Every now and then a patch of anemones provided a splash of more lurid colour. It was the time of year for nudibranchs, and they were frantically munching, copulating and laying eggs everywhere. Above the reef, big shoals of pollack pointed into the flow.

While chilling out between dives, Steve checked some marks further east. He had some ideas about the identity of a wreck, but I was sworn to secrecy.

We could have dived it on slack water, but that would have meant breaking my resolution to check out Skokholms scenic diving. Having seen it on the sounder, I made a mental note to have a look next time.

On Skokholm Spit we jumped in close to the rocks into a bubbling northward current. The plan was to either find somewhere to hide and dive the wall at the edge of the reef, or to pop a delayed SMB and drift north towards Jack Sound.

The reef consisted of plucked overhanging ledges running across the current, slowly descending on a grand scale to a final big ledge that formed the wall. I had no trouble ducking into back-eddies and hiding from the flow, though with me leading the dive and hogging the prime spots, my buddy Adam had to work considerably harder.

Like me, big solitary ballan wrasse and small families of cuckoo wrasse sought the shelter of the ledges. Crabs and lobsters hid in the cracks. Ross corals grew as big as footballs. Surprisingly, sea urchins could hang onto outcrops, having munched all the way to the top of the rocks.

MY SAMPLING OF SKOKHOLMS REEFS was almost complete, but not quite. To the west was Wild Goose Race, which I dived a few years ago when testing a RIB. We used the echo-sounder to find a pinnacle rising to 12m and threw the shot about 40 minutes before slack water. It had a buoy as big as a Space Hopper on it, but dragged straight under.

It took a while to rig a second shot, and we were about to throw it when the tide went slack and the first shot surfaced. All six divers kitted up in a rush to get in and release the shot before it got pulled down again.

The seabed was made up of narrow, slanted canyons a bit like Hog Reef, but on a much larger scale. The walls of most were dominated by mussel beds, giving way to hydroids where the canyons narrowed and even closed over to form tunnels and caves, where boulders had collapsed across the top of them.

It was not the sort of site I would dive without a very experienced crew of divers.

To the north of Skokholm is the Knoll. On the chart it looks inviting, so I asked Steve about it. He had drifted across it in 1971 when diving commercially for crawfish, and found nothing but sand.

I found it hard to believe that such a large and steep lump could be a mere sandbank. Perhaps there are some areas of reef holding it all together

The chart was indecisive, with an S marked on the south side of the Knoll, but an R marked just off the north. We drifted it just off slack water, along the north slope with an eastward flowing current.

Yes, I can confirm that it is definitely sand.


Photography
Photography in Wild Goose Race.
Edible
Edible crab hides in a crack at Hog Reef
Steve
Steve Lewis, skipper of Blue Shark.
Inside
Inside the boiler of the Burry.
Sponges
Sponges decorate the exposed corners at Hog Reef.
The
The boiler of the Allendale stands upright on the sand, several metres below the main body of the wreck.
Divernet

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Follow the M4, A40 and A477 to Pembroke Dock, then cross the bridge to Neyland and follow the signs for the marina.
DIVING & AIR: Pembrokeshire Dive Charters, 01437 781569, www.gopdc.co.uk.
ACCOMMODATION: Pembrokeshire Dive Charters can arrange accommodation at the Lawrenny Castle Hotel in Neyland.
LAUNCHING: Slips are available at Neyland and Dale.
QUALIFICATIONS: Most sites are shallow and easy enough for basic open-water qualifications, but there is plenty to keep more experienced divers interested.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2878, Approaches to Milford Haven. Ordnance Survey Map 157, St Davids and Haverfordwest Area. Shipwreck Index of the British Isles Vol 5, West Coast and Wales, by Richard & Bridget Larn. Shipwrecks Around Wales, Volumes 1 & 2, by Tom Bennett.