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MEANISH PIER, Skye - by John Liddiard
Standing at the end of the pier, waiting for the dive boat to arrive, I am less than optimistic. At the head of Loch Pooltiel there are some serious waves with universal white caps.
The boat comes bouncing round the headland and zooms up the loch to meet us. I am not surprised when skipper Gordon MacKay confirms that our original plan to dive the wreck of the Doris will have to wait for another day.
Funny thing is, if it hadn't been for the boat dive being cancelled, we would never even have considered looking for an alternative.
We are standing on it.
A rocky outcrop runs 100m seawards from the pier, descending to give a submerged wall further out towards the head of the loch, then cutting back behind us across a shingle bay.
With a high tide we have a choice of entries, across the shingle and out through the bay or from the pier and along. The point looks closer to the shingle beach, and divers are mostly lazy animals, so the beach is our choice.
Scrawny sheep amble aside as we pick our way over large, smooth granite stones. In the water we surface-swim to the point over a shallow kelp bed. I had anticipated a scrappy little shore dive; a poor alternative to the originally planned boat dive. Descending the rocks to the wall, I soon change my mind.
Jagged outcrops of rock plucked by an ancient glacier lead down to a silty-sand seabed. Protected from erosion in the lough, the jagged rocks make it almost like diving a quarry rock face.
Initially the wall stretches from 5 to 10m. Further out, the seabed is lower and the wall becomes a respectable 15m high, rising from 25 to 10m.
The most obvious marine life consist of long and delicate plumose anemones. Sheltered from heavy seas, these have not grown the heavy stems I would expect to see if they were living on a more exposed site. Scattered brown sea cucumbers stand on the rocks, waving their arms in the barely noticeable current and licking their fingers to consume the trapped plankton.
The usual dahlia anemones are also spotted about the rock face. I am always amazed by the variety of colours they display, everything from red and orange through to blue and violet - a complete spectrum of base colours with an infinite variety of specks and stripes.
A puff of fine silt draws my attention to a squat lobster darting back into a crack in the rocks. Now switched on to squat lobsters, I sneak up while holding my breath to catch them in the open.
Once used to me, they maintain a wary vigilance, only to be spooked later by a movement of my camera or a puff of exhaust bubbles.
A movement caught from the corner of my eye turns out to be a scallop fluttering away. I had been hovering over its resting place on the silty slope at the base of the wall. It must have closed as I arrived, but later decided it didn't like being in my shadow.
Drawn away from the wall, I settle onto the seabed in front of this particularly fine specimen. After a minute or two it opens, notices that I am still there and snaps shut again. A similar wait and it opens again, this time stretching as wide as possible to display a beautifully striped mantle, before snapping shut and jetting away. The open/shut cycle is repeated a half-dozen times until the scallop comes to rest a couple of metres away.
Also on the slope are some fine burrowing anemones. Sensitive to movement and light, my camera flash startles them into a sudden retraction into their holes. I effectively get one opportunity to photograph each specimen.
Back on the wall, we turn and head for home. Rather than heading into the bay and the shingle beach, we continue towards the pier.
Discarded scraps of fishing line and weights are scattered on the slope - the rocks above are popular with local anglers. Now there is just a short, steep slope of angular rocks. The delicate plumose anemones have been replaced in the shallows by long strands of sugar kelp.
Spotted about the rocks and slope is a fairly full selection of UK starfish - common and spiny, biscuit-coloured seven-armed and brightly coloured sunstars. Nudibranchs graze on isolated clumps of hydroids.
Peering in the cracks between rocks, I find that the squat lobsters are still there. Large speckled ballan wrasse meander through the seascape, pecking away at their breakfast.
Away from the reef, the occasional lion's mane jellyfish pulsates in the blue water. Looking closely, I can see colonies of small fish hiding among the tentacles, always moving to the opposite side to peer out at me. Watching their antics is fascinating, but I am wary of the stinging tentacles and extremely careful about approaching.
I can tell we are getting close to the pier by the trail of junk - old lobster pots, a boot, bits of wood and steel, even the rotting remains of a small fridge. Then we are beneath the pier.
There is excellent visibility, as shafts of sunlight punctuate the scene. Once in the shade of the pier there is not enough light for kelp to survive and deeper-water life is displayed close to the surface.
The thick rotting timbers are host to more anemones and dead men's fingers. It is the overall impression that is so memorable - just incredibly pretty.
To get to Meanish pier, head for Dunvegan and before entering it turn onto an unclassified road passing through Glendale.
Dive-and-See-the-Hebrides at Lochbay near Dunvegan can cater for any diving needs and arrange accommodation and boat diving (01470 592219, www.dive-and-sea-the-hebrides.co.uk).
BABBACOMBE, Devon - by Gavin Parsons
It's often harder to get to and from Babbacombe Bay than it is to dive it. The small cove is at the bottom of a very steep cliff road that is slippery when wet, and a car, heavily laden with dive equipment, can find getting up or down a struggle. Even without any gear on board it can be a first-gear job.
However, don't let that small fact put you off, because Babbacombe Beach in Torquay is an outstanding South Coast shore-dive. Where else can you find anglerfish, dogfish, giant cuttlefish and lumpsuckers? It is sheltered from all but a south-westerly wind, it is shallow, has plenty of marine life, is blessed with generally clear water and there are facilities right on the shoreline.
The beach front opposite the car-park is a favourite entry point, although the water here is only about 4m deep, and recedes quite a distance at low water. To enter the bay for real, it's best to wade in as close to the breakwater as possible.
In summer, take care here because it is a popular fishing platform and landing a 12 stone mammal isn't quite what the anglers have in mind.
You'll also find fishing line, hooks and sinkers on the bottom off the end of the breakwater, so ensure that you have some snips handy.
You can descend at the entry point and head around the breakwater submerged, although it is perhaps easier to surface-swim to the other side and descend, just to ensure that you are oriented correctly.
The shore on this side of the break-water is sheer and tumbles down to a reef of broken rocks and large kelp-wigged boulders. The depth at the bottom is around 8-10m, depending on the tide.
As the boulders thin out, a sandy plateau stretches into the bay. On first look it appears lifeless, but it is worth a swim over for a few minutes. As your eyes adjust, you soon see often-overlooked creatures such as anemone-covered hermit crabs, flounders and plaice.
Back at the wall, the kelp forest is home to the usual suspects of British sealife from pollack, bass and dogfish through the smaller octopus and cuttlefish right down to brightly coloured nudibranchs. Thanks to the shallow water, time is not the enemy and there is an ample area to explore at leisure.
Keep the wall to your right and you won't get lost but, again in the summer, take care in the shallowest parts of the dive and right up against the cliffs, and use an SMB. Local youngsters get their thrills by cliff-diving here, even though some of the boulders lie a metre or so beneath the surface, which makes it something of a roulette game. A teenager landing on your back is not going to do either of you much good.
A couple of hundred metres along the cliff face from the breakwater is a small cavern which, except in winter, is full of prawns. The entrance is easily missed, as it is only a thin crack in the rock that starts in about 4m of water. It's wide enough to swim in comfortably, and then the cavern opens out.
At low water the surface is below the height of the cavern and it is possible to come up. Take a torch with you, because within the crevices you'll find loads of prawns, shrimps and the odd lobster.
In rough weather avoid the cavern, as the movement of water is magnified inside the confines of the rocks, so although you might get in, getting out could be tricky if you don't want to be turned into human patŽ.
Keep the reef wall on your left to get back to the breakwater. It's safer to stay within the top 5m or so on the return journey if you went into the cavern. There is plenty of life in this area, especially during the late summer, when shoals of juvenile fish congregate around the safety of the kelp leaves.
In the spring in the shallow sheltered bay and around the breakwater you can often find lumpsuckers and even breeding cuttlefish. You'll have to be lucky, however, because the cuttlefish are around for only a few days at most.
Babbacombe is signposted as you come into Torquay. It is on top of a hill, and accommodation and food are readily available. There is a small car-park, though you need to get there early, and a handy toilet block for discreet changing.
Divers Down dive centre supplies air, nitrox, equipment, training and can get you hooked up with a local charter boat (01803 327111).
MULLION COVE, Cornwall - by John Liddiard
On the western side of the Lizard, Mullion Cove is exposed to the prevailing south-westerly wind and sea. The shore diving here is very shallow, so flat-calm surface conditions are needed to make it worthwhile.
By a spooky coincidence, just when a heavy sea on the other side of the peninsula begins to make diving unpleasant, sea conditions at Mullion are usually perfect.
Mullion Cove is at the end of a narrow lane, with no parking spaces at the harbour. To dive you need to drive to the harbour, check in with the harbourmaster and pay a fee, unload your kit, then drive back to the car park.
The entrance for the shore dive is down the slipway in the harbour, so you also need to discuss your plans with local fishermen to ensure that there are no problems. Take an SMB. In winter the fishing boats will be hauled out at the top of the slip.
Outside the harbour entrance, follow the wall round to the west and descend straight away. Depending on the state of the tide, it might be only a couple of metres deep, but there are some nice cracks on the outside of the wall and anemones at the base and among the rocks.
Just south of the wall are a few large rocks designed to make life difficult for boats at low tide. Boats leaving the harbour will cut tight in along the channel between the end of the wall and these rocks.
Further out, the join between rocks and sand winds its way westwards, with detached islands of rock on the coarse sand identifiable only by the kelp which covers them. Boring from a distance, there is always the chance of seeing something interesting under the kelp.
In calm surface conditions the heavy sand settles out quickly, so visibility is usually quite good. There is hardly any point swimming for depth. Just potter out and be content with a very shallow dive and lots of sunlight.
If you do need depth for a training exercise, dive as close to high tide as possible and head out south-west across the sand.
Pay attention: there is always the chance of meeting a stray spider crab making its way between islands of rocks and kelp, or something good hiding in the sand, such as a flatfish or a burrowed-in crab.
Last time I found a sea potato here, a kind of hairy sea-urchin that lives on sand; something I would never have seen on the rocks. I was doing some training exercises, so had no camera. My students had to bury their depth gauges to record the required depth - another learning opportunity.
Porthkerris Dive Centre on the other side of the Lizard (01326 280620) and Dive Action at St Keverne (01326 280719) can provide air and advice on accommodation.
LOCH FYNE, Argyll - by Mike Clark
If a good sheltered spot is required for that first dive of the season, Loch Fyne boasts many such sites which hardy divers will have enjoyed through the winter months.
There is one particularly great wee site in this sea loch. It's amazing not because of its underwater scenery which, truth be told, is just a jumble of boulders forming a breakwater for the nearby quarry. The big attraction is the marine life.
Loch Fyne usually throws up surprises, but at this site it is never a surprise to spot lesser spotted dogfish. I have never failed to see at least four of these small sharks.
I can't explain why they are here. Similar environments with identical submarine boulder structures exist less than 200m away, but I have never seen dogfish there. However, you will find other fantastic life-forms, and once the boulder slope is passed the natural cliff falls vertically to 54m. If such a plunge is a bit strenuous for the first dive of the season, stick with the dogfish.
From the convenient car park you can view the eyesore created by the quarry, in stark contrast to the spectacular surrounding landscape. The dive-site looks a tip as well, because blocks of granite of various sizes line the shore, along with flotsam and junk.
Once under water, however, the boulders form a 45? angled slope down to the sea floor at 32m. There is a good covering of marine life, and many rocks are encrusted by a hard pink growth.
The large boulders make good resting places and launch pads for the dogfish, which doze here during the day. Perhaps they behave similarly to those whitetip reef sharks in Cocos featured in Diver in February, hunting out the small fish during the hours of darkness. By day they remain motionless even when divers come up for a closer inspection, a fantastic bonus for the underwater photographer.
Divers even pick up these dozy little sharks, but if you do that you will find yourself with a suddenly alert fish that is probably a bit narked at being disturbed. It will wrap its metre-long body around your drysuit arm and possibly your expensive computer, as you note that the denticles on its skin impart the texture of rough sandpaper.
The mouth end contains teeth, albeit small. It is unlikely to rip your arm off, although a tetchy one will probably try. Occasionally dogfish just lie on a diver's hands if treated gently.
With the reef abutting deep water, you can watch the dogfish swim off into the green void with that shark-like swagger, then circle and land on a suitable boulder to catch up on its sleep.
Dogfish are found at all depths beyond the cold freshwater run-off from the hills, which usually covers the surface layers to around 6m, but the best depth is in the 15-25m range, ideal for an early-season dive.
Other creatures you might find are velvet-backed swimming crabs, edible crabs, gobies and nudibranchs, and I once saw a cormorant chasing a school of panicking silver fish at 20m.
Once the diving is over, the charming town of Inverary beckons, offering friendly pubs with aromatic birch logs in the hearth and stone-flagged floors, not to mention good beer and a wee dram if you fancy.
To find the dive site, head for Furnace, eight miles south of Inveraray. Turn off the road to your left and head into the quarry. You don't have to enter the quarry complex, however, as a small car park is clearly visible on your right-hand side. Park here, walk the short distance to the waterside and the dive is just straight out.
For air and boat hire, use the Argyll Caravan Park Dive Centre three miles south of Inveraray on the A83 (0374 823001). Though closed in winter you can still launch your own boat from there.
Pick your depth, keep the slope to your left to start with and you will soon experience the wonders of the Loch Fyne Dogfish Dive.
THE CANTABRIA, Devon - by John Liddiard
The Cantabria is one of those small shallow wrecks that on a calm sunny day makes a pleasant and relaxing dive, but on an unpleasant day makes you wonder why anyone would bother.
This 1800 ton Spanish steamship ran aground in fog on 13 December 1938, steaming straight into the rocks at the west edge of Steeple Cove on the Bolt. All 24 crew scrambled ashore, but were then stranded at the bottom of the cliffs. They had to be rescued from their isolated haven by the Salcombe lifeboat.
Finding the wreck from a RIB is fairly easy, provided you are in the correct cove among many similar-looking coves along the cliffs of the Bolt. Steeple Cove is not named on the Admiralty chart but is on the Ordnance Survey map, about a kilometre towards Salcombe from the more obvious Ham Stone and Soar Mill cove. There is an old coastguard hut on the cliffs east of the cove.
Armed with the photograph of the Cantabria aground from Dive South Devon, you will find the wreckage lying broken along the west side of the cove, pretty much directly under the location of the photograph and spread mostly nearer the rocks in less than 7 or 8m of water. The only way to miss the main body is to go looking too deep and far out into the cove.
In water this shallow the wreck has been well broken by storms. Forward of the boilers there is little but scraps of metal, except for the anchor winch, chains and anchors.
Even these seem out of place compared to the original line and layout of the wreck. Many of the small rocks among the wreckage are the remains of the original cargo of iron ore.
The boilers are upright and broken open. One is in line with the wreck and the other slightly out towards the middle of the cove. Both are usually home to large families of ballan wrasse.
Further aft, the wreck is substantially flattened, but some structure remains. Looking beneath the plates reveals some interior spaces between sections of hull and collapsed decks. Beneath the propeller shaft are some nice wriggle-through spaces inside double-skinned hull sections where interior partitions have rotted away.
Beneath the hull are gaps between the steel plates and the rocks that I wouldn't even consider attempting. On one dive I was with a particularly skinny cave-diving buddy who didn't even hesitate - bottles off and beneath the hull like a ferret up a trouser leg. I met him further along the wreck with a big grin on his face.
The final significant item of wreckage is the iron propeller, resting flat on the rocks and overgrown with kelp.
This easy dive is at its best early in the year before the kelp takes over. With a boatload of divers, everyone can dive it as a warm-up, or if the group has a big spread of experience, some could dive the nearby Maine as a more serious dive, then escort beginners round the Cantabria as a second.
It's a few years since I last dived the Cantabria, and when I began writing I thought I must have loads of photographs of it in my files. After all, I had dived it many times with camera in hand. I found a lot fewer than I expected, and then it dawned on me: I had only ever dived the Cantabria as a second dive, using up dregs of air and film from a dive on the nearby Maine.
A half-full set can be stretched for nearly an hour at such shallow depth - it's even shallow enough for snorkellers.
Launch your RIB at the Inner Hope slip or from the beach with a 4x4 at Hope Cove, or at Salcombe, where the slip is at the far end of Shadycombe car park. Otherwise book a day-boat such as Alan House's Kara C (01548 511101) or Pat Dean's mv Lodesman (01548 843319). If you have your own boat, you can rendezvous with Lodesman for air fills.
Diver under Meanish Pier, Skye
Small fish hide among the tentacles of a lion's mane jellyfish under the pier
Long, delicate plumose anemones at the same site
Starfish in the kelp forest at Babbacombe
Another view of the colourful kelp beds
Sea urchin at Mullion
Spider crab at Mullion
divers in a narrow gully, Mullion
on the dogfish dive at Loch Fyne
Exiting the hull of the Cantabria past the propeller shaft
dogfish with sea urchin in Loch Fyne
view from beneath the Cantabria's propshaft
Kelp outside the Cantabria
Rotted partitions leave a maze of windows in this box-section of hull