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THE CLYDE SWARMS WITH WRECKS, from paddle-steamers to warships. In the relatively undived lower Clyde area, many of these are almost virgin territory.
Our skipper had marks for some wrecks in 40m and deeper that had never been dived before - he was just waiting for a team with the right experience to dive them. Salivating at the opportunity, but constrained by the plans of the group, I had a great time diving wrecks in the 30m range such as the Longwy (Wreck Tour 15, May 2000), followed by a second dive in the shallow water surrounding Ailsa Craig.
From Girvan, Ailsa Craig looked like a rocky button mushroom just offshore. It was only as the boat approached that I began to appreciate the scale of the island and the height of the cliffs. It is actually 10 miles offshore, two miles in circumference and 340m high.
Ailsa Craig is the eroded stump of a 50 million-year-old volcano. The near-vertical columnar basalt cliffs provide ledges on which thousands of seabirds nest. The island is also one of the few sources of micro-granite, a form of granite solid enough for the manufacture of curling stones.
Sticking up in the middle of the busy Clyde shipping lanes, Ailsa Craig has seen its fair share of wrecks. A lighthouse is still operational on the north-east shore, but is now automated, with the keeper's cottages privately owned.
Enormous foghorns are situated at the base of the cliffs on the other corners of the island.
From the chart, the waters below Ailsa Craig's cliffs do not suggest themselves as outstanding dive site potential. As so often happens with eroded cliffs, the terrain below them is a moderate slope of boulders down to a fairly flat seabed at 12m or so.
Approaching the drop-off point on the south-west of the island, the cliffs towered above us. Streaked with guano, I could have smelled them had the wind been blowing the other way.
We rolled over the stern and I was not surprised to see a forest of kelp 5m below. We had been issued with comprehensive instructions about how to find the remains of three iron ships from the 1870s and '80s: follow the boulders down and out until they meet the seabed, then turn east.
I was immediately distracted by a seal, which tormented me for 15 minutes by popping in and out of sight, 10m away at the limit of visibility. My seal-stalking efforts were in vain, however, and I went back to plan A - looking for paddle-steamers.
In the cracks and gullies beneath the boulders, it was a different world. Anemones and dead men's fingers formed in clumps on the walls. Wrasse hid in small boulder caves and beneath the rocks, while squat lobsters scuttled back into their crevices.
Continuing towards deeper water, the kelp line was surprisingly shallow.
At the bottom of the boulder slope, where it met the flat gravel seabed, the last terrace of boulders was free of kelp, giving the dead men's fingers and plumose anemones a chance to provide an unrestricted display of dazzling colour.
The first scraps of wreckage soon appeared: a few girders lying on top of the gravel, rusty-looking but polished to clean iron in places, where they had been scoured by heavy seas.
The first of the three wrecks was thought to be the 797 ton paddle steamer Duke of Edinburgh. On 18 January 1870 she steamed through fog at full speed into the rock, striking it so hard that half the ship was out of the water.
Subsequent salvage attempts recovered much of the cargo, but the Duke was a total loss.
The wreckage was so broken that had I not been told in advance, there was no way I could have known what type of ship it was. Indeed, nothing had ever been recovered to identify positively this area of wreckage, so it could easily be the remains of any number of other ships that had fallen victim to Ailsa Craig in the fog.
One wreck down, two to go. 100m or so further eastwards, we came to some more girders resting across the bottom of the boulder slope. As we followed the scraps of wreckage out perpendicular to the slope, the outline of the ship became obvious. Ribs and scraps of hull plating poked up from the gravel.
This was the remains of the 1083 ton steamship Austria, which hit the rocks on the night of 15 October, 1884.
The boiler and engine were missing, presumably salvaged many years ago. Further back, the pattern of debris drew together at the stern, still buried in stones but noticeably more complete and solidly braced than other scraps of wreckage.
We looped out from the main body of the wreck and eastwards back towards the bottom of the boulder slope, passing a few more scraps of wreckage on the way.
Now out of the lee of Ailsa Craig and heading into a gentle current, the marine life was both larger and more prolific. Armies of sea urchins were grazing on the rocks. Curious wrasse swam by to see what was happening. Pollack loitered in the current above the boulders.
More than 40 minutes into the dive and there was plenty of bottom time left, the maximum depth so far only 13m. It was probably another 200m before we come to the remains of the third wreck, the Pennon, a small 94 ton steamer.
Iron plates and girders lay flat along the boulder slope, with stray scraps of metal scattered to the gravel seabed. The machinery had presumably been salvaged.
We could have explored further, but after an hour in the water our air was getting low, we were all feeling the cold, and I was long out of film. Already at a depth of just 7m on the wreckage, there was no need for an additional safety stop.
We surfaced to a flat-calm sea beneath one of the peculiar Victorian foghorns.
Tomorrow we would be doing another large wreck on slack water in the morning, and after that I was now really looking forward to the second dive.
Sea urchin at Ailsa Craig
Wreckage from the Austria
The cliffs and seabird colony at Ailsa Craig
a dahlia anemone, with a selection of other anemones and soft corals
a plumose anemone
TIDESNot a problem at Ailsa Craig.
GETTING THERE Girvan is situated on the A77, 25 miles north of Stranraer and 55 miles south of Glasgow.
DIVING & AIR:Rachel Clare, skipper Tony Wass, 01294 833724, www.divingscotland.com. Tony has an arrangement with the local diving club for filling cylinders. The nearest oxygen-clean air and nitrox is 40 miles away at Largs.
LAUNCHING: Slip or beach launch at Girvan.
ACCOMODATION B& B and small hotels in Girvan offer excellent value for money. Girvan tourist information, 01465 4950.
QUALIFICATIONSThe shallow diving round Ailsa Craig is suitable for anyone, even novices on their first dive. There are plenty of wrecks in the 25-35m range to keep most divers busy.
FURTHER INFORMATION Admiralty Chart 2199, North Channel (Northern Part). Admiralty Chart 2126, Approaches to the Firth of Clyde. Ordnance Survey Map 76, Girvan, Ballantrae & Barrhill. Clyde Shipwrecks, Peter Moir & Ian Crawford.