|We cover plenty of UK wreck dives in Diver, but what about all those non-wreck experiences that leave you wanting more, more, more Scenic doesnt have to mean dull, so treat yourself to something special this summer, under the guidance of six of our contributors |
|WHITE-KNUCKLE RIDE - Falls of Lora, Oban|
by Brendan OBrien
Im often asked if diving is a dangerous sport. As a proponent of safe diving practices, I like to assure people that the pursuit can be exciting but not necessarily dangerous. Puffin Dive Centre (01631 566088)
However, there is one dive that will always stick in my mind as a truly exceptional, exciting and as I did it, potentially dangerous experience - and thats the Falls of Lora at the entrance to Loch Etive near Oban.
Our dive marshal had promised us an interesting dive that would nicely round off a weekends diving out of Oban. He had dived the Falls before and assured us that it would be a simple affair: drop in off the RIB and drift in with the flood tide through the constricted entrance into Loch Etive, where we would surface and be picked up. It all sounded so easy.
As we got ready, the water under the bridge at the neck of the loch was already starting to create eddies and small whirlpools. From the surface it didnt look like a relaxing drift but as we were all experienced divers we decided that a fast drift wouldnt present us with too much difficulty.
We entered the water out of the current and cautiously made our way under water to where it would pick up. I say cautiously, because at that point I think we were all feeling apprehensive, but none of us wanted to throw the towel in just yet.
My buddy and I soon reached a large boulder where, on our side of it at least, the current was negligible. We peered above it onto the other side, where we saw a very different scene. The kelp was bent horizontal and small fish seemed to be doing a strange dance as they battled against the flow of water.
We gave each other a do we or dont we look and, without much thought, decided to go for it.
The current soon picked us up, and within seconds we were racing into the funnel that is the constricted entrance to the loch. Exhilarating wasnt in it, as we flew towards a boulder, powerless to move sideways or stop. Just when I thought I was bound to hit this obstacle, the current spun us around it and back into the drift.
I tried to focus on the marine life and the scenery, but to be honest I was too taken aback by the speed of our progress to concentrate.
A second boulder caused my buddy and I to separate, and that was the last I saw of him until we surfaced. You cant fight this kind of power, and trying to keep together was a pointless exercise, so we just had to go with the flow.
Ive no idea how long this part of the dive lasted. Three minutes Ten minutes The adrenalin was pumping too hard to tell. I knew we had entered the drift too late and just hoped it would soon be over. And then it was, or so I thought. The bottom had disappeared and I readied myself for surfacing.
That was when the downcurrent caught me. I was in open water and going the wrong way. I pumped air into my drysuit until it was pouring out of the neck seal, and all I could see were bubbles. This seemed to have little effect. I guessed from the number of times Id cleared my ears that I had been swept below 20m.
Exhilarating had turned to scared. After what seemed like 10 minutes of being tumbled around, up, down and sideways, I made it to the surface.
I had no idea what my ascent rate had been, as a constant stream of bubbles had obscured my gauge. My buddy surfaced moments later, about 50m away.
As the RIB picked us all up we exchanged nervous stories of abnormal ascent rates and ditched weightbelts. It had been exciting, but had we known about the strong downcurrent we probably wouldnt have done the dive at all. On the way home we monitored each other for adverse signs and kept the oxygen on hand.
We were OK, but it might not have been that way. I have since read various stories about this site without mention of the dangers. One even proposed that it could be done as a shore dive!
So had we been foolhardy I spoke to Mike Morgan from Puffin Divers in Oban to find out. If you havent dived the Falls before you wont be prepared for it, no matter how advanced you are as a diver. You also need to be adept at drift dives, he said.
And he went on to describe how Puffin runs the dive: We do the Falls on a safe three-dive basis. The first dive is on slack, where you can control your own travel, and see the boreholes where small stones have drilled holes into the larger stones and rocks. Its just a 15-minute exploration.
The second dive 25 minutes later is in a gentle but modest drift. It gives people a feel for the location and how they will move along the site. Then, on the third dive where the current has increased, you can dive it with more confidence.
The Falls of Lora is a site where excitement and safety need to go hand in hand. If you want to go thrill-seeking there, my advice is to go with someone who knows the site and what to expect. As Mike Morgan describes the site: A water-ride at Disney it isnt!
|FRUITS OF THE TIDE - Raglans Reef, Manacles, Cornwall |
by Mark Webster
The exhilaration that goes with a drop-off dive is associated with wall dives in warmwater locations, but while the British coastline has no bottomless walls to offer, it does have many pinnacles and drop-offs which can equal their tropical cousins. In good visibility, their colours and marine life are also a match for coral reefs.For dayboats, you could try Cornish Diving (01326 311265), Dive Action (280719), Patrice (313265), Porthkerris Diving Centre (280620) or Seaquest (375544)
One of my favourites is on the outer edge of the infamous Manacles Reef, close to Lizard Point.
The whole Manacles area offers excellent diving, comprising a series of granite peaks and ledges rising sharply from the depths to break the surface or lurk just below it. Many ships have met their fate here, travelling to or from the port of Falmouth or simply hugging the coastline too closely when making for the Lizard peninsula.
One of the best-known is the ss Mohegan, a 7000 ton liner which struck the Outer Voices rock on 14 October 1898 on only her second voyage to New York.
Although these reefs are spectacular, they are also potentially hazardous, and should be dived only when conditions are right. Vicious tides of up to 5 knots are experienced here, with the current often continuing to run during slack periods on a big spring tide, and sadly there have been several diving tragedies in the area.
Much of the reef system is not surface-breaking, so it is important to go with a boatman who knows the area and tides and has the right equipment to identify the sites.
I would head for Raglans Reef, which is on the eastern side of the Manacles and so more exposed to the tide, resulting in a density of marine life that can be staggering.
Use a local skipper or, if you have your own boat, start your search 200-300m seaward of the Voices, the southernmost rocks breaking the surface at most states of the tide.
Line the southern side of the rocks with the two conveyor chutes at the quarry on Dean Point. The second mark is on the north side of the Voices, lined up with the Coastguard hut on Manacle Point.
The third is the headland of Pencra Head, just covering the small MoD building on the north side of Porthkerris cove. Charted position is 50.02.63N, 05.02.45W and slack water is generally one hour before low water and one hour after high water at Falmouth.
The first indication of the topography is the impressive trace on the echo-sounder as the reef rises sheer from a depth of 50-60m, like a church spire, to within 3-4m of the surface. The shallows have a heavy growth of kelp with widely spaced stypes. These are ideal for exploration at the end of your dive, when youre decompressing or making a safety stop.
My preferred route is to follow the series of vertical rock faces on the north-east side of the pinnacle. These are carpeted with sea-fans, soft corals and plumose anemones in a variety of colours. Follow the wall to your target depth, but bear in mind that you can easily find yourself in 45-50m before you see the surrounding seabed.
If you start your dive just before full slack, you can shelter by promontories on the wall and watch schools of bass and pollack holding station and feeding in the current.
At depth you can choose to swim around the pinnacle either west or east, depending which way any current may be flowing. As you make your way around towards the south face, gradually decreasing your depth, the sheer rock faces change to a series of large ledges and boulders with small sandy patches collected in the hollows.
Stop and inspect these, as you will often find large anglerfish, dogfish or tope resting here. The decreasing depth will also reveal more reef fish activity, with ballan, goldsinny and the very bold and inquisitive cuckoo and corkwing wrasse approaching you to investigate.
The rock surfaces just below the kelpline are swathed in iridescent jewel anemones in colours that leap out at you under torchlight. Intermingled are beds of hydroids, masses of brittlestars and, before summer, clouds of juvenile fish shoaling together to avoid hunting scad and pollack.
Finish your dive with a safety stop investigating life in the kelp, and watch out for passing jellyfish and bass as you deploy your SMB. If the tide is running, move quickly away from the reef as you make for the surface, and beware boat traffic as you come up.
If launching in Falmouth Bay, use the slip at Falmouth Watersports Centre or the beach at Maenporth, or from the Lizard you can launch from the beach at Porthkerris or Porthoustock.
Raglans is a brilliant dive, and in ideal conditions it is one that is suited to all levels of experience.
|SEAL SURPRISE - Brisset Rock, Eyemouth|
by Mike Clark
Summer on the south-east coast of Scotland can be such a short affair. Once the winter storms and north-easterly gales are past and the days begin to lengthen, divers hope for periods of calm weather, with some sunshine thrown in as a bonus.
It was on one of these perfect days that I experienced a stunning dive - by accident.
We left the new harbour at Eyemouth in the Aquanaut, Eyemouth Sub-Aqua Clubs diveboat. We turned south and passed some fantastic-looking headlands before diving off a reef at Burnmouth. I was trying to capture an image of a grey seal. The seals were there but were reluctant to pose for the camera.
After the dive, as the Aquanaut chugged past a little group of islands known collectively as the Brisset Rock, I noticed a seal in the water. On closer inspection, I saw a number of them resting on one of the rocks. After a frustrating morning of being followed by a seal but being unable to capture it on film, I was keen to get in and snorkel in the hope of a closer encounter.
This was easier than it appeared, however, as a fairly strong tide was running on the surface. Rather than a snorkel, full dive-kit had to be donned.
Once we arrived, the seals disappeared off the rocks sharpish. But we descended on the seaward side of the northern island and a seal soon appeared to check us out. It didnt stay around and we glimpsed it only occasionally, at the edge of the impressive 15m visibility limit.
I studied the terrain. It was less than impressive. A smooth grey wall fell in a steep slope to the seabed in around 15m.
Then, finning around the northern tip of the island, everything changed. It was as if the lights had been turned on.
The wall rose vertically above us and the sea floor was, of course, clean sand, enhancing the light levels. The wall rose all the way to the surface, completely encrusted in orange and white dead mens fingers. Kelp fronds could be seen high above us, then a larger shape emerged from the kelp as a seal swam on the surface 15m above, oblivious of our presence below.
Large lobsters were noted, and Alex, my buddy, posed with a large edible crab that was nestling away in a crevice. Schools of small pollack darted along the cliff-face. It was just such a colourful scene.
How glad was I that I had been persuaded to put the scuba gear back on Brisset Rock was now firmly burned into my brain as a top dive site. The wall held vertical to a maximum depth of 15m and we followed it along for more than 100m before it started to slope. I looked up again, hoping for another glimpse of those elusive seals, but all I saw this time was a couple of seagulls flying overhead, and a couple more bobbing on the surface.
This was our second dive of the day and our cylinders were only half-full to start with, so we had to ascend now, at the inshore tip of the southernmost and larger island. There, at the surface less than 5m away, all the seals were back lounging on the rocks, oblivious of our quiet presence. Then we were pinged, and it was rush hour at Brisset Rock, as the seals once again splashed back into the water and we had company for a short while.
The tide had turned and we drifted with it back to the Aquanaut. I was looking down at the wall when a shape formed way down below me, growing larger by the second. It materialised into a big grey seal as it sped up towards me.
I was still fumbling with the camera as it came to within a metre directly below me and spun around. I managed to get a snap shot of its backside, my brain working overtime about a documentary on great whites rushing seals on the surface. You could say I got a wee fright.
Brisset Rock is situated about a quarter-mile directly off the village of Partenhall, Lower Burnmouth. The rock shows only from low to half-tide, so its best to dive it on low slack. There is a launch slip at Eyemouth harbour, which is a five-minute RIB ride from the site.
|FUN IN SMALL HOLES - Logan Rock, Cornwall|
by John Liddiard
Anywhere else along the south coast, and Logan Rock would be a dive that everyone raves about, but sheltered behind the southern side of the Lands End peninsula it is somewhat overshadowed by such famous neighbours as Longships, Wolf Rock and the Runnel Stone.For dayboats try skippers Bill Bowen (01736 752135), Gordon Jones (763551) or Ben Slater (787567).
Although the group with which I often dive it calls this site Logan Rock, Logan Rock is actually a huge granite stone perched precariously on the headland above.
The Admiralty chart marks the rock as unnamed, the Ordnance Survey map calls it Gamper, and local skipper Bill Bowen refers to it simply as The Island.
Logan is in fact the old Cornish word used to refer to a rocking stone, and the 60 ton Logan Rock was once the most famous rocking stone in Cornwall. The slightest push would set it wobbling.
This all came to an end in April 1824, when a Lieutenant Goldsmith, in charge of a Royal Navy cutter placing a buoy on the Runnel Stone, ventured ashore and with eight of his men levered Logan Rock off the cliff and into the sea. His punishment for this act of vandalism was to replace the rock at his own expense, a task which was finally completed in November 1824 at a cost of£130, though it could not be balanced so as to rock any more.
Anyway, tucked into the bay behind the headland is a square-sided rock that is almost large enough to be called a small island. As long as the wind isnt coming too far round to the south, there is some shelter from the headland, and whatever the wind there is always some shelter from the rock itself.
Wind and sea permitting, I like to start a dive on the east side of the rock, rolling in about halfway along. The wall drops almost vertically to 10m at the north end and 15m at the south.
For a beginner this wall is probably enough for a dive concentrating on the macro life, with jewel anemones of all colours and the wrasse and pollack that patrol along the wall.
The north end of the rock drops in short shelves to a sandy patch at about 10m, a convenient spot for getting some kneel-on-the-bottom training exercises out of the way.
The wall doesnt end cleanly. Its base is guarded by large tumbled boulders which provide some interesting overhangs and boulder caves. Think of the boulders beneath the cliffs on the shoreline, but on a scale large enough to allow you to swim through the gaps.
South of the rock, the boulder caves continue deeper. All are stable and have obvious exits, so an experienced diver who is into holes can have a great time wriggling along, linking caves and cracks together and staying inside for most of the dive, though you will need a fairly minimal set of equipment to get through the tighter cracks.
Occasionally a flat plateau of granite and sand gives a false impression that the interesting terrain is coming to an end, only to drop away onto another area of boulders and crevasses, with the big boulders eventually running out between 35 and 40m.
Having covered the possibilities for beginners and experienced divers, the terrain between nicely covers in-between levels of diving experience.
As with the wall, every vertical and overhanging surface of the boulders is covered in jewel anemones, with the odd cluster of dead mens fingers as you get deeper.
Shine a light into some of the tighter nooks and crannies and there are plenty of crabs, the occasional lobster and a conger eel or two. Horizontal surfaces are also home to occasional big yellow boring sponges and gorgonian sea fans. Wrasse are everywhere and pollack can be found hovering above some exposed corners. I have even seen the occasional John Dory at the fringe of the kelp line.
The west side of the rock is generally shallower, with a boulder-strewn seabed levelling out at 20m and blending into the general coastline profile. There are one or two exceptions, but the rocks on this side tend to be too small to provide cracks big enough to swim through.
In summer, the hydroids and kelp are host to rampant swarms of nudibranchs, and during the plankton blooms it is not unusual to find basking sharks circling the rock while cormorants worship the sun above.
If you have your own boat, you can use the slip in Penzance harbour, which is wet for most of the tide, or those at Lamorna Cove and Porthleven, wet for a couple of hours either side of high tide.
There is also a slip at Sennen, but the area can be very crowded with surfers and tourists doing Lands End. Harbour fees are payable at all these slips.
|ANCIENT AND MODERN - The Mixon Hole, Sussex |
by Gavin Parsons
There are few places around the UK that evoke fascination and will just as easily scare the pants off you. The Mixon Hole off Selsey Bill will do both quite easily. If you want an experienced skipper, you would do well to dive with Wittering Divers, based in West Wittering (01243 672 031, www.witterdivers.co.uk).
From first appearances, it doesnt look like much at all. On a chart, its nothing more than a hole in a shallow reef. But vicious currents sweep the area during the flood and ebb of the English Channel tide, making the dive a challenge and one that should only be attempted during slack water.
The best time to dive here is on a low slack during the neap tide. The flow doesnt stop on a spring, and you get only a short window even on a neap. The Mixon then is an exciting experience thanks to the prevailing conditions. You need a certain confidence to dive it and, of course, an experienced skipper who knows his way around the shallow shoals that flank this mysterious hole.
Geologists and archaeologists believe that the Mixon was the mouth of a river which flowed into the English Channel during biblical times. The Romans, who invaded the UK in AD43, used it to bring goods and troops into the garrison town of Chichester just up the road. Coastal erosion has since pushed the coast several miles back, flooding this section of England.
Curious stones in the bottom of the hole have given rise to theories of a protective wooden catapult at the river mouth, one able to lob these massive rocks at attacking vessels to protect the towns and villages of this northern outpost of the empire.
Whether this is true or not, the stones are certainly there and definitely look out of place on the shell-covered flat seabed.
In fact, everything about the Mixon appears out of place. All around the hole is a shallow reef bristling with life, from sea-snot upwards. Every patch of rock is covered with seaweed, algae, sponge or anemone. Fish flit around in their never-ending search for food, but all that ends at the lips of the Mixon.
As the walls fall from 8m almost sheer down to 29m (depending on the tide state), the blanket of life doesnt continue. The walls are smooth, clay and soft rock. If you use your imagination, you can make out what appear to be the horizontal lines of stone workings. These, many speculate, are the remains of the Roman fortifications where the catapult stood guard.
If it is, the sea has claimed most of it, and the time you are allowed to spend in the area by the tide is nowhere near enough even to think about starting an archaeological survey to find out.
Halfway down, the wall starts to slope, very much as a river would do. Several broken rock patches here often house large lobsters. Prized by fishermen and sold in restaurants on the south coast, lobsters in this stretch of water are rare other than here, where pots are difficult to place and maintain. Mother Nature has, in effect, protected one of her most tasty and valuable commodities.
At the bottom, the seabed is covered in shells. The biomass to produce such a covering is huge, but it shows how quickly the sea can produce and kill off its inhabitants.
In this section of the hole you will find tope, thornback rays and dogfish at certain times of the year. Tope are said to breed here around April and they can be seen in some number if you get the visibility. This far up the channel, however, the odds are stacked against you that early in the season. June, July, August and September are your best bets for good conditions.
At the end of the dive, its easy to head back up the wall to the safety-stop friendly reef, but the tide will undoubtedly have turned and will pick up fairly rapidly.
This is not really a place for decompression diving, as the current soon becomes too strong to fight.
It is common for boats to lose contact with divers, and during the late afternoon, with the sun setting up the Channel, picking out small heads on a choppy surface is not easy. So the Mixon is definitely a dive that requires a DSMB. If you are swept away from the hole and your boat, simply inflate your BC and wait. An experienced skipper will know where to look for you.
I dont have to mention what could happen if you dont follow this formula - the next person you see may be wearing a string of onions and the aroma of garlic.
If youre lucky you may end up on the Isle of Wight - its a long walk back to your car in any case.
Get the Mixon right, however, and you are treated to an interesting experience that is fuelled by archaeological intrigue and rip-roaring excitement.
|SMILES ALL ROUND - Calve Island, Mull|
by Paul Henson
My dive partner Andrew Seals and I tend to do most of our dives on wrecks and leave the scenic dives for another day Why I dont know, because our scenic dives are always amazing. One in particular sticks in my mind, on a recent trip to Mull in Scotland.
It was supposed to be a drift dive off Calve Island, the small one just out from Tobermory, but no one had told the tide. A slackwater dive, then.
We took the boat to the northern end of the island, entered the water with our cameras and dropped to 18m to find a steep wall just below the kelp line.
The viz was great, at around 8m. Following a buddy check we immediately spotted a curious butterfish posing next to some lightbulb sea-squirts. These are tricky little fish and difficult to handle - hence the name - but this one seemed quite co-operative and allowed both of us a turn at blinding it with our flashes.
Two fin-kicks later, we spied a sea-slug, pearl white with eight bright yellow pointed projections and two head tentacles. It looked like one of those lions with men underneath you see in a Chinese New Year parade. I have yet to identify it, although calling it a slug seems disrespectful to its beauty.
At every turn there was something different to see, and sometimes so many subjects that we had to wait impatiently for the flash to recharge before firing off another shot.
Next we came across a fully open dahlia anemone. These creatures come in almost every colour under the sun, this one being a nice bloodshot red. Anemones can be frustrating to photograph, as the slightest indiscretion with a lens will send its tentacles retreating inwards, and you can have a long wait before they re-emerge.
Next to a small hole, a colony of smaller anemones reached out their tiny hands as if clapping. Well, they had a lot to applaud.
Andy gripped my arm to take me over to a splendid 14-armed sunstar he had seen hanging to the side of the wall. It was creeping along, and looked almost as if someone had taken a sea urchin, opened it out and laid it flat. It was clear how the two species are related.
As we moved along the wall, we felt as if we were being watched. Squat lobsters seemed to peep from every crevice and we must have counted 30 or more, but every time we lined the camera up for a shot they would scurry back out of sight. The trick was to pretend to be a rock and wait. This seemed to do the job.
At the side of one hole was a sea-squirt (open wide and say arrr) with several featherstars jockeying for space on one side, lightbulb squirts on the other, and below them all some cup corals.
Using a camera under water is like being in a time machine. Thirty-five minutes had gone by, but how
It was time to go shallower, and as we approached 10m the wall finished and we were able to swim level across a flat plane covered with kelp, broken only by the odd rocky outcrop.
The viz was down to 4 or 5m and now the drift part of the dive began. Better late than never!
Looking below the kelp, we found a candystripe flatworm, which in turn led us to some cup corals. These are worth taking a close look at and are easy to photograph, because if you dont see one open or have inadvertently made one close, there will almost certainly be an open one next to it.
These seemed to group together by colour, but no two looked the same.
All good things come to an end. We left the bottom and spent the next three minutes hanging onto the deco buoy at 4m, with thoughts of being on a hot-air balloon flight over a forest. A host of small jellyfish passed by, tiny lanterns of bright blue with shimmering frills around the edge, almost seeming to glow, but we had no film left.
When we surfaced our excellent boat crew had followed our SMB and were right on the button picking us up. Then the sun came out.
I think Im still smiling.