Divernet

The dual wreck of the Plympton and Hathor, or perhaps I should say Hathor and Plympton, as the Hathor is bigger and it is on top, is not how I remember it. Its better. By a long way.
Everyone who comes diving in the Isles of Scilly gets to dive these two wrecks to the south of the island of St Agnes. The 2869 ton Plympton ran on to Lethegus Rocks in fog in 1909, then the 7060 ton Hathor drifted sternfirst into the rocks following an engine failure and a broken tow-line in 1920, sinking across the smaller Plympton.
On previous trips to the Isles of Scilly I hadnt seen the bow of the Hathor or the stern of the Plympton. Perhaps thats because I was a far less experienced diver than I am now. Or because dive computers hadnt been invented and I had stayed too shallow. Or because I was on club trips with club boats, and we didnt really know the area.
Or perhaps its because I wasnt on Jo Alsops boat Moonshadow, enjoying such precise directions. The shot will be in a gully next to the propshaft, Jo predicts with her big smile, and so it was.
Follow the gully down past the engine and boilers, then keep to the left-hand side of the wreck past a winch. The stern of the Plympton sticks out from under the Hathor. Easy enough. Keep going down and you come to the bow of the Hathor and a big anchor.
Its hardly surprising that Jo is such a spot-on skipper. She has been helping out and diving from dad Tims boat Morvoren since she was knee-high to a grasshopper, then driving their RIB for divers and seal snorkelling tours. Last year she skippered Moonshadow for the previous owner, and for this season she has bought the boat and is running her own business.
Arriving on St Martins and unpacking in the cottage above the bay, I had already begun to think that this was a pretty chilled-out place. The sort of place in which to relax, with the bonus of diving. The sort of place to return to again and again.
Hardly anyone, it seems, is a first-time visitor to the Isles of Scilly. On the Scillonian ferry from the mainland I had met a group from Cambridge on their annual trip.
And unloading at St Marys onto the St Martins ferry, I had come across a departing group from Somerset. They remarked that the diving was as good as it had always been.

seventh season
The Cambridge group are on Tim Alsops boat for the week, and on Jos boat I join the remnants of a group from north Wales who are also regulars. They were staying on for an extra week after their club trip of the previous week, and had already booked to come back later in the season and at New Year.
Anna, the seasonal instructor, is working here for her seventh season. She used to have a regular job that moved her about the UK where, before joining the local diving club, she would check whether they did trips to the Isles of Scilly. Then she decided that it was better simply to stay on St Martins and work for the dive centre.
When she isnt busy instructing, she simply joins the boat for a dive.
Even my ex-boss, from before I became a diving journalist, used to come here for two or three weeks every August. I send him a postcard.
A typical days diving is a wreck and a reef, or a reef and a wreck. Some days we do two wrecks, and to make up for it, the next day we do two reefs. This is by no means the standard, its just what the current groups want.
Divers who at a first glance I would have pigeon-holed as hardened heavy-metal wreckies surface from dives raving about spotting seven different kinds of nudibranch on Gugh Reef. This is a name given to a submerged reef to the south of the island of Gugh although, as Marc puts it, perhaps someone saw it and said: G-rrrief!.
At Deep Ledges I set myself a challenge - to see how many kinds of nudibranch I can photograph in one dive. I have to force myself to think small; the big, square granite scenery is just so spectacular with its coating of anemones. If you have dived any of the classic Cornwall reefs, youll know what I mean. The reefs are on a par with the best parts of the Eddystone, Hand Deeps, the Manacles or the Runnel Stone.

munch and slosh
Finding nudibranchs is easy enough. Look closely and they are munching away everywhere. Focusing on them with a macro lens while sloshing back and forth in the deep Atlantic ground swell is altogether a different kind of challenge. I dont think I got to seven, certainly not of publishable quality.
While the diving pattern is wrecks and reefs, the actual distinction at dives sites is blurred. A ship hits a stunning granite reef, sinks and breaks up. Wreckies dive the wreck by following it up and down the reef. Marine-life enthusiasts dive the reef by following bits of wreck.
At the Hard Lewis Rock, I ascend the nice anemone-covered wall above the boilers of the King Cadwallon. Or, on the other hand, below the nice anemone-covered wall are the boilers of the King Cadwallon, from which I follow the engine and propeller-shaft to a very pretty steering quadrant at the stern.I have become a diving Jekyll & Hyde.
Since photography was invented, just about every shipwreck in the Isles of Scilly has been photographed by the Gibson family. Among shipwreck photographs spanning several generations of Gibsons, a 1906 black and white print of the 5032 ton King Cadwallon shows it intact and aground across Hard Lewis, as locals in gigs row across a flat-calm sea to salvage from it.
I can appreciate the flat calm and the sea fog. Thats the pattern for at least half my stay, with the fog burning off in late morning. On other days we get a bit of a sea, but never enough to demonstrate how such a solid-looking ship could be so thoroughly trashed by the sea.
More recently on 26 March, 1996, the 3083 tonne container ship Cita lasted for only 12 days before breaking in two, the stern separated from the bow and most of the hold by a rock poking up through the middle of the wreck.
The Cita is normally considered two separate dives, with buoys attached to the bow and the stern. With a mission in mind, I set out to cover it all in one dive, from the stern to the bow, and with instructions from Jo on how to navigate from one part to the other.
After only eight years, the Cita is already plastered in anemones and hydroids. With regularly shaped rocks and irregularly shaped chunks of wreckage, it can be hard to tell the two apart. Then, as I cross the rock to the bow section, disaster strikes. My pencil breaks and I am not carrying a bail-out.
I immediately regret not having done a more thorough risk analysis before the dive. The managing editor will feed my testicles to the piranhas kept in the office basement for such purposes if I return without a sketch of the Cita.
I continue forward while experimenting with flakes of rust and rock to scratch at my slate, then climb back on board Moonshadow gasping for a pencil. I sit and scribble more notes while the memory is still fresh. Later, in the pub, I get Tim, Jo and the other divers to check the sketch. Tims group dive it the next day and come back with the OK. Although, as Tim says, I had better get it published soon because one good storm and the hold could be demolished. I feel a Wreck Tour coming on.

counting cannon
A combined wreck and reef dive of an altogether different nature takes place on the Eagle, on the Tearing Ledges to the south of Bishop Rock. The Eagle was part of Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovells fleet which, returning to Portsmouth from Gibraltar, blundered into the Western Rocks in 1707.
Other ships in the fleet that met their fate were the Romney, the Firebrand and Shovells flagship, the Association.
As usual the shotting is spot on. Jo describes a site with an anchor in a gully with cannon littered up and down it, and the shot is right next to the anchor.
I soon lose count of the number of cannon I see. Is that one cannon Or, looking more closely, is that a second or even a third small gun hidden below it
A historic wreck site with this many cannon is a new experience for me. While I dont have the patience of the archaeologists who have surveyed this protected site in detail, its a privilege to dive it. Archaeological surveys give 61 cannon in the gully and six in the shallows, of the 71 carried by the Eagle.
For those not into cannon, the walls of the gully are plastered with all the usual marine life. If you dont enjoy counting cannon, try counting the nudibranchs on the cannon.
Another wreck with a difference is the Delaware, a 3243 ton steamship. Its engine failed and it was overwhelmed by the sea among rocks west of the islands of Bryher and Samson in 1871.
The general wreckage is OK, but nothing special by Scilly standards. The real point of interest to me is the massive steam engine that still stands upright at the centre of an otherwise flattened hull. Unlike later standard triple-expansion units, this is a primitive piece of heavy engineering. Two enormous cylinders act upwards to turn a crankshaft located above them. Its pedigree is from a land-based industrial engine design converted for use in a paddle-steamer - except that the Delaware was screw driven.
Between the two cylinders is an enormous gear-wheel coupled to a smaller gear below, which would have stepped up the revolutions to the propeller shaft to perhaps 10 or 12 times the rate at which the crankshaft rotated.
Islanders from Bryher rowed a gig in an epic rescue to save the first and third officers, a feat that does not surprise me, having watched the ladies gig race at Tresco. Jo and Anna both row for the St Martins ladies team then, later in the week, cox one of the mens boats each for a race from St Marys to St Agnes.
For everyone else, gig racing is an excuse for a booze cruise. We all board the St Martins ferry boat with cans and bottles in hand, cheer the boats through the race, then get off at the other end, which is always conveniently close to a pub. An hour or two later, the ferry tows the gigs home. Then we are back at the Seven Stones pub on St Martin for the remainder of the evening.
It would be so easy to get carried away and drink too much to dive the next day. At least I can soothe my conscience with a 25-minute walk back along the island to the cottage.
After a week of walking to the pub and back, Im quite enjoying it. A chance to spot the stars, reflect on the days diving and work off some beer, though I think I would soon change my mind if the weather had been at all foul.
For the last day, we settle for some easy reef dives - a pinnacle of rock at Flat Ledges with vertical sides and gullies across the top, then a flatter gullied reef at Trinity Rock. Spectacular scenery crammed with marine life and no stress on my replacement pencil - its the sort of diving that nicely rounds off a week on St Martins. Chilled out.
PS: Suppliers of wreckproof diving pencils can preserve my gonads from future peril by sending donations care of the Diver office.

the
the mens gig race sets off from St Marys to St Agnes. Jo Alsop is coxing Dolphin in the background
Seal
Seal on the Eastern Rocks
male
male cuckoo wrasse
Beneath
Beneath the propeller of the Akasi
Jo
Jo Alsop at the helm of Moonshadow
Jewel
Jewel anemones at Deep Ledges
Steering
Steering quadrant of the King Cadwallen
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FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: The Scillonian ferry (01736 334220) sails daily from Penzance. Otherwise fly from Lands End with Skybus (08457 105555) or by helicopter from Penzance (01736 363871). For a group with diving kit, a freight container can be booked for the Scillonian.
DIVING, AIR & ACCOMMODATION: St Martins Diving Services, 01720 422848, www.scillydiving.com.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 34, Isles of Scilly, St Marys Road. Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 101, Isles of Scilly. Dive the Isles of Scilly and North Cornwall, by Richard Larn and David McBride. Isles of Scilly tourist information, www.scillyonline.co.uk.




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