Divernet

Remember Fred the weatherman
You know, the chap on TV who leapt around a floating UK map in Liverpools Albert Dock complex
Did you ever wonder what lay below him Shopping carts, old bikes or just mud What else would you expect to find
Its summer in the heart of Liverpools docklands. The light is fading, and the distant sounds of the city are carried on a light breeze that creates ripples on the water. As Paul from Aquaventurers dive school and I don our drysuits, were watched closely by the citys party-seekers.
Two police officers also stop to watch. I explain what were planning to do, and they laugh and question our sanity: Youre going to dive in that ****ing hole they ask, with ready wit.
I mutter something about seeking out new experiences, and start wondering if they have a point - what are we trying to do here Its at this point that I wish our audience would go away. Shouldnt they be off exploring Liverpools night life, all the restaurants and wine bars that characterise the docks nowadays

NIGHT-DWELLERS
When were ready, we venture down the slipway and into the darkness. As I place my head under the water, I enter a world that is closed off to our spectators. Its a different kind of night life beneath the surface of Liverpools docks.
Turning my torch on, I guide its beam towards the dock wall. From a distance, this appears to be the mottled brown of old brick, but as I get closer I see that there is a coating of fine brown weed. A closer examination reveals some of the docks secrets, as marine animals shuffle around in the weeds protection.
Nestled in its folds are numerous crabs, and hopping from one piece of weed to another are the luminescent bodies of common prawns. The wall isnt really visible, as most of it is covered in mussels. Their shells form a base for all kinds of sponges and algal growth.

SCORPION EYES
Its now completely dark, and the dock is starting to come alive. We drop a bit further down the wall to its base, where it gives way to easily stirred-up mud. We soon learn that venturing too close to the bottom has the effect of turning the dive into one of zero visibility. There is no current to take away the suspended silt, and it takes several minutes for it to settle.
As the visibility is about 5m at best we dont want to do anything to upset it - especially as were starting to enjoy what this muddy environment has to offer.
A juvenile conger eel slithers from a large boulder over to the wall, and immediately disappears inside a crevice. Finning gently over to the boulder, I find it is decorated by small white and orange plumose anemones. Its also another haven for a colony of prawns that cant keep still for a moment.
We continue our journey along the dock wall, until we come to a series of small ledges near the entrance to another part of the dock system. Some of the wall remains exposed here, as the mussels dont seem too keen on fixing themselves to anything horizontal.
Its at this point that I see one of the ledges move, stop, and move again.
A closer inspection reveals the muted colours of a long-spined sea scorpion. Using its fins to balance, this fish is almost perfectly camouflaged against the background. Its only the bright red and orange of its eyes that give away its location.
After admiring this find for a few minutes, we move on to the far wall. There are more plumose anemones on this side of the dock, and in the mud we find some daisy anemones.
A bit further on, an unexpected splash of colour turns out to be a lone dahlia anemone. Its ideally placed to take advantage of the numerous prawns that leap around the walls marine growth, but it seems so out of place, with its bright gold and brown colour scheme.
We soon find more colour, in the shape of a variety of juvenile fish. We have no idea what species they are, but are amazed to find so much colour in such an unlikely place. On our journey back to the slipway we find more anemones and juvenile conger eels.

MUSSEL POWER
With a maximum depth of no more than 6m, our dive lasts for just over an hour. When we surface from this unexpected world, we once again attract the attention of the citys night-dwellers. Its not what you expect at the end of a dive, and we are not what the party-goers expect to see either.
The Albert Dock complex hasnt always offered this kind of experience. In 1982 the dock system contained nothing more than a pile of polluted mud. The only colour to break up the brown sludge was the black of discarded car tyres being sucked slowly into its depths.
Then the newly formed Merseyside Development Corporation (MDC) started its work. It saw the whole of Liverpools waterfront as an opportunity for regeneration. Its vision was to turn this run-down area into what is now one of Britains leading tourist attractions.
While surveyors examined the structure of the surrounding buildings, some of which dated back
to the 1850s, dredgers removed 3.3 million cubic metres of contaminated sludge from the docks basins. Sewers and drains that previously poured into the docks were redirected and eventually, in May 1987, water from the Mersey estuary was allowed in through the dock gates.
So how did the MDC manage to repopulate the marine life of the docks I asked the Harbourmaster, Bill Broadbent, about the programme. Actually, the marine life is there more through what we havent done than what we have done, he said.
Roger Rumbold, the MDCs Engineering Project Manager, added: After the initial flooding we started working on projects to seed the docks with marine life. But it turned out that we didnt need to, because mussels soon started to grow on the dock walls.
Before long the mussels had colonised all the walls and were busy clarifying the water. This in turn led to other species getting a foothold in the system.

CLEAN FISHTANK
It wasnt long before research students from Liverpool University started to follow the docks regeneration. This also had the effect of publicising the fact that the water in the docks was now so clean that it passed the ECs strict bathing water standards.
On open days at the docks, the public had the opportunity to see what was down there, thanks to submerged cameras positioned by the university.
The last research project was in 1997, when the flora and fauna were monitored for comparison to previous results and as a baseline for the future. The dock eco-system seems to become more diverse as each year goes by. In this latest project, 18 species of fish were found to be thriving in the docks waters - everything from cod to flounder to gurnard.
Wed like to have patted ourselves on the back but couldnt - nature did it all for us, Roger Rumbold says of the docks ecological success story.
As well as providing an excellent night dive, the docks are ideal for training. They are open all year round, there are no currents and the maximum depth is only 7m. I returned on a February morning to see what sort of training was being carried out. Despite the cold weather, three clubs were enjoying the facilities. Some were checking out new equipment and practising drills, others just enjoying a dive.
One diver told me that his last dive had been in a quarry. OK, the quarry might have been deeper, but at least Im going to see some marine life here, he said. I wasnt about to argue.
  • Use of the dock system is regulated by the Harbourmaster, and you need a licence to dive. These are issued only to a club or organisation affiliated to a recognised governing body. The fee per diver per dive is 1.10, though there are plans to raise this to 1.50. Call Bill Broadbent on 0151 709 6558. Aquaventurers can be contacted on 0151 298 2120, or try Neptune Diving & Watersports (0151 356 5550) or Wirral Sports & Leisure (0151 647 5131).