Divernet

THE SUN WAS BEATING DOWN, the sea was flat calm and I just knew that it was going to be a special day.
In the distance I could see our destination, the Bass Rock. Three miles away, its basalt cliffs climbed 200m towards the sky. From its summit on the seaward side, wispy smoke appeared to vent from this long-dormant volcanic plug.
Back at the harbour side I spied the Braveheart, our charter boat for the day, skippered by Dougie Ferguson. The visiting club group was so large that an extra boat was required, so alongside Braveheart was the Thistle B, skippered by Cam Small. Both are cracking little dive boats and their skippers really know the area.
As we closed on the Bass Rock the sun blazed down ontoa white crown formed by thousands of gannets. The rock is the worlds second largest gannet colony. The wispy smoke I had noted earlier was in fact flocks of these diving birds coming and going from feeding trips out to sea - an impressive sight, and we werent even under water yet!
As the distance to the rock closed, the scale of the walls became apparent and I had to strain my neck to look up at the summit. The noise level also grew as we neared Gannetland.
I had dived this area before, but never in conditions that looked as promising. And as we approached the big, flat triangle of rock, on the north-east side that marks the big wall, I couldnt wait to get my fins on and go.
The tide had just started to flood, so we entered the water on the east side of the island, where the morning sunlight blazed through the green, clear water, illuminating the walls of orange and white dead mens fingers. The gentle incoming tide now pushed me round to the north side of the island and the wall plummeted away vertically below me to a depth of 46m.
In the 8m viz the sea floor came into view at 38m and I levelled off here. The water was darker, but looking up the vertical face with the green water above was a stunning sight.

driving the herd
Down in the depths I noted some large dahlia anemones in various colours, although the ones at the base of the cliff all appeared to be white. The carpets of dead mens fingers continued uninterrupted and areas of plumose anemones were also to be seen. Nestling in these were butterfish and velvet-backed swimming crabs.
I ascended slightly, and it was almost as if the Bass Rock was showing me the way. The face of the wall is pitted with faults and ledges, providing interesting ascent routes for divers.
I noted a scorpionfish hiding in a bed of mussels and a big old edible crab wedged in a crack. Little squat lobsters were everywhere and flashed into crevices in a bid to attempt to avoid my torchlight.
While balanced on a ledge photographing the edible crab, I noticed three divers approaching around 5m below me. Unknown to them, they were herding a massive school of juvenile fish up the cliff face directly towards me. It was an impressive sight to be temporarily engulfed in the school.

gannet supporters
It was a promising sign as well, as I didnt recall this site being home to that many fish, which is strange as the wall abuts such deep water. The fish had to be there, however, to support such a large colony of gannets - as well as the healthy population of grey seals which breed in a cave on the island.
With my computer showing only a few minutes until deco became an issue, I ascended into the light at around 20m and glided along the wall in the gentle but strengthening tide. The many overhangs and crevices provided cover for a huge variety of marine life.
I soon came to a large horizontal crack from which a pair of big blue and cream claws were just starting to emerge, preceded by a pair of bright red antennae that flitted back and forth, feeling for danger or food.
I had been holding back my film in the hope of spotting an octopus, wolf-fish or anglerfish, all of which frequent this site. As they had avoided detection, I was happy to take the time to get an image of this inquisitive lobster.
I soon began to wonder, as I was buffeted by the ever-increasing tide while trying to hold my position on the wall, why a lobster would live 20m down on a vertical cliff. I always think of them walking across a horizontal, sandy seabed.
But a previous dive here had already provided me with the answer. Like me, the lobsters use the ledges and gullies as trails to explore the cliff-face, and they are not averse to going for a wee swim, either.
Further along, nestling in the dead mens fingers, I noted another butterfish. He didnt look as if he was going to budge so I spent a little more time capturing images of him.
With only a few frames left, I was now having mixed feelings about whether or not one of the more exotic residents of the Bass Rock might put in an appearance. Digital photographers will no doubt be sniggering at my dilemma. I neednt have worried. The only other thing to catch my eye before end was flashing in the viewfinder was a nice nudibranch.
Putting the camera down, I could now turn my attention to the bigger picture of the wall, still falling away below me into the depths. I had ascended to a little over 10m and the walls of soft corals were regularly punctuated with starfish and sea urchins, all fringed by the layer of kelp that smothers the big ledge at around 6m - ideal for a bit of exploration on your deco stops. I could see scorpionfish, nudibranchs, chitons and some fantastically coloured painted top-shells.
Looking up, I could also clearly see the action that was taking place on the surface, where seagulls were bobbing about. But that didnt prepare me for the riot of noise that greeted me as my head broke through the surface.
Braveheart was drifting close by. I caught sight of a grey seal looking at me from 10m away and wondered if he had been following me around on the dive.

excited chatter
Much as I liked Braveheart, I did find her ladder a little short. It wasnt too difficult to get onto the rear platform, but my attempt to get over the stern was less than graceful.
Dekitting, the temperature steadily rising, I turned my attention to the excited chatter on board. As the others slapped on the sunscreen and told of all the octopuses they had seen, I realised that the Bass Rock had gained another bunch of fans.
I was pleased too, confident of having lobster and butterfish shots in the bag, but how I was wishing for a wee digital compact camera, as we steamed around the Bass in clockwise fashion for close-ups of gannets and guillemots on the surface.
We also viewed the big caves on the seaward side of the lighthouse, one of which forms a semi-tidal tunnel right through the rock. There was also the castle to take in. It had later been used as a prison before being abandoned, when the current lighthouse was built on its site.
All this and the calm sea and piercingly blue sky made a fantastic backdrop to the Bass Rock as it receded in our wake.

Braveheart
Braveheart and the Thistle B
diver
diver on the Bass Rock wall
Ballan
Ballan wrasse
plumose
plumose anemone
butterfish
butterfish in dead mens fingers
dahlia
dahlia anemone at depth in a bed of brittlestars
edible
edible crab in the rock
big
big white dahlia anemone
lobster
lobster
Small
Small blue lions mane jellyfish

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: North Berwick is a small harbour village 20 miles east of Edinburgh, off the A1 on the A198 coast road.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Braveheart, call Dougie Ferguson on 01620 89 3333 or 0796 7877383. Thistle B, call Aquatrek Diving & Marine Services, 01620893952 or 07974016781. Cam Small runs a compressor at the harbour with fills to 300 bar, double filtered for nitrox-clean bottles. A range of accommodation is available in North Berwick.
WHEN TO GO: Summer
FURTHER INFORMATION: 0131 332 2433, www.visitscotland.com




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