Lands End Diving can arrange accommodation (01736 787567, www.landsend-diving.co.uk). Bill Bowen runs a compressor on the pier at Penzance (01736 752135).
Great Row, Cornwall
Forty minutes from Penzance, I get a call. Its Ben from Lands End Diving, asking about the weather. I am driving through drizzle beneath low cloud. Ben tells me the wind has picked up and the Lands End peninsula is fogbound. It turns out that Penzance is somewhere in-between.
So much for Plan A. There is no way we can dive deep offshore pinnacles with uncertain slack water and shearing currents. The risk of losing surface contact would be too high.
Fortunately, we already have a Plan B. Bens usual patch is off Lands End,
so we will look in the opposite direction, at the shallow reefs back past St Michaels Mount.
With a nice wide slip, launching from Penzance should be easy. Unfortunately the access is obstructed by the thoughtless arrangement of the hardstanding for boats in that corner of the car park, which seems almost designed to discourage launching. Why cant it all be laid out better to provide a straight-through route to the slip
Having said that, it doesnt take long to reverse the RIB and trailer through the narrow maze. Ben has obviously done it before.
St Michaels Mount wafts in and out of the mist like a castle from a fantasy movie as we cross Mounts Bay. Perhaps a more accurate description would be a Gothic horror movie, considering the rain, wind and cold.
Our first stop is Iron Gates. It looks promising on the chart, rising to 7m from a general seabed at 20m.
Fifteen minutes of trolling with the echo-sounder, and no one is convinced. We havent seen any echoes that would suggest sections of wall, overhangs or gullies, just a slowly rising hump.
That isnt to say that there arent any features to break up the kelp forest, just that none are apparent from the echo-sounder, and we want to be more confident in the quality of the dive before jumping in.
A mile inshore, a south cardinal buoy conveniently marks Mountamopus. Of all the reefs in the area, this is the name I am wishing and willing to be worth a look - the sort I would love to score in my logbook.
Unfortunately, the echo-sounder again reveals nothing to get excited about, just another hump rising from 14m almost to the surface. Half a mile to the east at Carn Mallows yields similar echoes.
Our last prospect is Great Row, just over a mile further on to the south-east. Zooming in on the GPS chart cartridge, the east face looks promising, rising to 5m from a 20m seabed. Our first pass shows some obvious steps and double echoes, the sort you expect from interesting terrain. Subsequent passes are inconsistent, but our mental picture suggests dropping into the shallows and heading east or south-east.
Reflecting on our results from the three previous reefs, Great Row looks the most promising. We dive.
Visibility is stunning. I am always amazed how, even when my enthusiasm on the surface can be sapped by a miserable day, give me
good conditions under water and I am instantly back in positive mood. The kelp flaps away into the far distance, with shoals of small pollack above.
A fold in the rock leads off to the east, soon developing into a diagonal chasm a couple of metres deep, in places just wide enough to drop into, though nowhere wide enough to swim along without squishing the mass of jewel anemones growing on the sides.
Eventually it opens out to a short wall heading more to the south and sloping deeper. Ben grabs my attention with the classic shark sign, an open hand upright on top of the head. Its so out of context for a UK dive that it takes a while for the message to sink in. He is pointing at a dogfish resting under the kelp.
I have long held the theory that UK diving is missing out on a major market for shark diving. If only we called this baby of the shark family the dog shark rather than the dogfish, we could market many UK dive sites for their resident sharks. Build a cage with very narrow bars and sell cage-diving trips with the fearsome dog shark.
The reef fizzles out with a few small boulders onto a rocky plain at 20m. Ben takes out his reel and hands me the loose end. I am again perplexed. Does he want to end the dive here I gesture that
I would prefer to continue. Ben just signals to hold the line and wait. Its only when he reels out that it clicks. He is measuring the visibility. I can just about pick out the lighter-coloured cylinder when he stops.
I suspect that I may be a little more visible, as I dive in bright colours rather than technical black. While he ties a knot, I tease a cuckoo wrasse with the end of the line. With the line reeled in, our dive continues.
If I had known better I would not at this point be out of film. Its one of those things that convinces me that the future is digital. We follow the slope up to 12m, then along another crack that widens and develops into a gorgeous winding canyon some 3m wide and 6m deep.
During the last Ice Age, much of Mounts Bay was above sea level.
The submerged beach is at the 20m contour and the canyon is probably an old streamway.
Back on shore, the knot in Bens line gives a measurement of 20m. To think I almost missed it all. When Ben phoned that morning to discuss the weather,
I could easily have been talked out of it.
I wonder what the other reefs are like
Dog shark among the kelp
Jewel anemones make the most of a shaded section of wall.
St Michaels Mount.
mv Rebecca Ann at Camusnagaul, skipper Richard Ross (01854 633380, www.creagardcharters.co.uk). The family business includes B&B at the farm, a hostel across the road and holiday cottages round the corner. The best slip is at Ullapool.
Conservation Cave, Summer
My first surprise is that the cave is not in the place I expected it to be. Caves are usually tucked away at the back of a narrow inlet, or perhaps cutting through a headland where the rock strata lie in the right direction.
But when skipper Richard Ross points out Conservation Cave, it is a wide shadow at the tip of a small headland heading straight back into it. I dont know what I expected, but this isnt it.
With no current, no wind and a barely perceptible swell, Richard simply stops his boat Rebecca Ann outside the cave, where it floats about pretty much in position while we kit up. If only all diving could be this easy.
We are in the far north-west of Scotland, in the Summer Isles. Under water, I am greeted by the usual shallow killer-kelp jungle and follow a cleft in the rock back to the entrance of the cave.
To either side, the kelp gives way to sessile animals that like the dark and can hang on in the surge that must come pounding in here when the sea gets up.
Even on a day that appears flat-calm outside, the entrance to the cave focuses the swell to the point where my progress is an average of sloshing back and forth, with forth just winning out.
I find out later that divers called the cave Davey Jones Locker until 1977, when Inverness Sub Aqua Club renamed it in honour of International Conservation Year. The name stuck.
The bottom of the cave is only a few metres below the surface, and there is air above all the way in. Its a cup of high-energy living space on a plain, kelpy headland.
Life on the walls changes as we enter. First, the kelp is replaced by typical wall life of hydroids and dead mens fingers. In longer and narrower caves, marine life usually passes through distinct bands, governed by fading light and changes in the strength of the surge of waves funnelling in.
Conservation Cave is again atypical. It is fairly wide, not that deep, and the height of the roof above the sea is about the same as the depth of the cave below.
Further inside, marine life comes in patches - of tunicates, of encrusting sponges, and of jewel, daisy and miniature plumose anemones.
Some of the encrusting life cohabits with its neighbours, and the borders of their territories overlap.
Others have harsh boundaries with no incursions. The only predictable part is near the gravel bed, where the walls are partly scoured. Dahlia anemones alone seem to enjoy this abrasive environment.
Yet in addition to all the vivid sessile marine life on the walls, the occasional crab that has set up home in a crack or recess, and the fish that loiter in the blue of the entrance, I am drawn to the soup of jellyfish trapped in the cave.
I suspect that conditions have to be just right for such a dense soup of intact jellyfish to first collect and then survive without being torn to shreds. A good storm coming in from the right direction, and Conservation Cave would become a natural jellyfish blender.
Perhaps thats what keeps all the anemones fed, or maybe its smaller plankton trapped in the same way.
After the surge of the cave, the calm of the sea outside seems out of place. We swim well out to give Richard room to pick us up, then climb on board while the boat just floats in position on a day that remains perfectly still.
Richard points Rebecca Ann back towards Dundonnel. The last time I dived from a Bullet 38 was in Weymouth; on the old Channel Chieftain III. Richard tells me he bought his boat from a skipper in Portsmouth.
Its a small world. Channel Chieftain III was sold in Portsmouth, so I had dived from Rebecca Ann before, in Weymouth. Pat Carlin, the original owner and skipper, had been at the helm then.
With Rebecca Ann on the mooring, we ferry ashore in the tender. Richard dons his midgeproof suit, a one-piece top with hood made of fine mesh. Thats the trouble with perfectly still days in Scotland. I have an instant I want one of those, whatever the cost moment.
Half an hour later Richard introduces me to his mum, who has imported a batch from Canada. Alas she has just sold out. Im reminded to get one before my next Scottish trip.
The Rebecca Ann heads for Dundonnel.
Skipper Richard Ross
Further back in Conservation Cave, the surface layer is a dense soup of trapped jellyfish.
Aberdeen Watersports (01224 581313, www. aberdeenwatersports. com). Contact the estate office on 013397 31669 before travelling to dive.
Linn of Dee, Aberdeenshire
to the waters edge, I am glad to have borrowed a single cylinder and stab
for the dive rather than taking my rebreather in.
Heavy technical kit is fine for hardboats, but minimal kit is far more comfortable where carrying is involved.
That doesnt stop dive buddy Tim from carrying his twin-set down the rocks, but then he is DIR, and we all know theyre a bit funny about kit.
The narrow gorge is giving me good vibes. On a hot and sunny August morning the water looks increasingly inviting, especially considering that just a couple of hours ago I was almost ready to write the day off, wondering if I would get any dive at all.
Aberdeen had been so thickly fogbound that we had trouble finding the way to Aberdeen Watersports, despite a street plan and clear directions from the centres website.
It was obvious that offshore diving was a non-starter.
Prospects improved when dive-centre owner Dave Gordon disclosed his fallback plan to show me his favourite freshwater dive, at the Linn of Dee.
We were soon heading for the Cairngorms, the sea fog clearing just a few miles inland to give a perfect day. The Linn of Dee is a few miles from Braemar, about halfway to Perth on the A93. It is a narrow and rocky neck in the river Dee with water cascading down rocks and through a gorge - in marked contrast to the aimlessly meandering water just a short way downstream.
Sliding in, I find myself swirling in a gentle merry-go-round on the surface of a circular scour hole. Descending a couple of metres the current diminishes, as does the daylight.
The water is warm and sweet - warm enough for Dave to dive without a hood and, dare I suggest it, warm enough even to contemplate diving in a wetsuit.
By the time we reach the pebble-strewn bottom at 9m, a combination of whisky-tinged water and the narrow walls above has cut ambient light to almost zero. I follow Daves light down-current, flicking my own from side to side in the hope of spotting a salmon.
The Dee is a salmon river, and later in the year these pools will be solid with fish. August is a little early, especially after a long dry spell that has left water levels too low for the fish to make their way this far upstream.
Daves light follows a snaking pattern towards me. I hastily raise my camera when I realise that he is spotlighting a small grey eel. After a series of two or three linked scour holes we reach the end, a wall that rises to form a natural weir below which the rapids begin.
We turn back, easily making our way against the flow, past our entry point and on upstream. A few more eels and perhaps a trout flick away from our light beams, but little other life.
Today the river is a picture of calm and tranquility, yet there must be plenty of days when the water cascades through the Linn, scouring the walls clean and rattling the pebbles round to form the gorge and chain of deep circular pits in which we are diving.
On the way here from Aberdeen, Dave had recounted such an event from several years ago. While preparing to dive he had noticed an increase in noise and a small rise in water level that provided just sufficient warning to climb clear of a deluge of water.
The river level rose well up the side of the gorge and trees had washed past as Dave watched from safety above.
The important lesson is to dive here only on a dry day that follows a period of dry days. Diving during or soon after rainfall is not a good idea; neither is diving during the spring thaw. Even on relatively calm days the waterside can be dangerous. Tourists have slipped in and drowned, unable to climb out and dragged under. A stone marker by the path commemorates such an incident in 1927. Without a BC this is not the safest stretch of water for swimming.
The smooth walls are objects of stark natural beauty. Fine layers of rock show a polished grain with enough random ripples to defeat complete regularity.
My mind drifts and wanders with the grain in the rocks. We passed Balmoral on the way here, about 12 miles down the road. Has any diving royalty ever dived the Linn of Dee Which pub is Her Majestys local, and will there be time to stop for a wee dram on the way back
Was there an SAS team in camo gear watching us through sniper scopes as we carried our diving gear to the water
We wind upstream through more interlinked scour pits, then force our way through a shallow and narrow lip to gain access to the next section.
Dave goes first, using hands, knees and elbows to wedge and climb into the current and over the lip. I have one hand occupied protecting my camera, so he then stretches an arm back to help me through.
The dive is just about right for a group of three. Many more and there wouldnt be room for everyone.
The next pool is wider and shallower, with a twinkling grotto to the north side where it catches the sun. A rectangular shadow above may be the old stone bridge, though my recollection from before the dive is that we would not be able to get directly beneath it.
The final pool is narrow and dark again, an aggressive current from
a small waterfall marking the upstream limit. We take turns to haul ourselves into the washing machine below the waterfall, holding steady until a flutter of the current tips us off balance and tumbles us out.
Back at the entry pool, I slither up the shelf of rock down which I had slithered earlier, only to slide back again. I have to lie flat and spread-eagled to keep enough grip to make progress. Dave demonstrates a more elegant exit, removing his fins and climbing a natural step in the corner. A group of walkers are following the riverside track downstream. A pair of tourists sit on the bench having lunch. Midweek it is not crowded, but the estate office advises divers to avoid busy weekends, and to have consideration for other visitors.
Carrying kit back to the roadside,
I reflect again that wearing minimal equipment was a very good idea, though I still wish I was carrying a 232 bar 10 rather than a 300 bar 12.
The dive at the Linn of Dee is in the pools below, where the walls of the gorge are undercut
Flying downstream as the current pushes through a narrow gap.
An eel in the river.
Holding on tight to avoid being swept through the gap
Taurus, skipper Andy Nye, launches at Dover (07976 314272, web www.taurusdiving.co.uk)
On the visibility board of snakes and ladders, the Dover edition has more snakes and shorter ladders. And this weekend, the dice is loaded. We roll a one and slide down the snake that leads all the way back to the start.
That doesnt mean to say that visibility is never good here, because on average it is at least good enough to let some light through. But this time we are far from lucky.
Weighed against such adversity, the great lure of Dover is the highest concentration of wrecks in the English Channel. In addition to the usual victims of war, grounding and foundering in bad weather, the sheer density of shipping has provided a far greater than average number of ships lost in collisions.
The risk of collision is not to be taken lightly. Even in the harbour, Tauruss skipper Andy Nye is in regular radio contact with traffic control, checking permission for each move of the boat, holding station for a few minutes as a ferry comes past.
Outside the harbour, only a few miles away, a constant stream of ships is heading south. Somewhere just out of sight in the distance, another stream flows north. Then, through the middle of it all, come the monster ferries heading to Calais and back.
All this traffic, even with modern radar and traffic control, makes it easy to understand how on 25 November, 1878 the liner Pomerania sank following a collision with the barque Moel Eilean.
Andy drops the shot as close to the bow as he can. Descending through fingertip visibility, I find it hooked across the fallen forward mast at 27m.
I follow it up to the port side of the hull, then work forwards. Somewhere nearby are the rolled-up sails, but I dont find them. In the early days of steam, the Pomerania was rigged for sail in addition to her compound engine.
For the next slack we go for a more difficult target, the admiralty trawler HMS Drumtochty, which struck a mine on 29 January, 1918. A smaller wreck is often easier and more enjoyable to dive in poor viz.
At 33m the shot is dug into a shingle bank. Guessing that I am at the edge of a scour, I head downhill until it levels out at 36m. I carry a submersible echo-sounder for just such occasions. Its about the size of a backup dive light.
Just pull it out, press the switch a few times while scanning a circle, and anything that sticks up should return an echo and give me the direction to the wreck. I dig to the bottom of my pocket and try to pull the echo-sounder out.
Trouble is, I havent used it in anger for years. I have become too used to the shot being nicely hooked in or, if it has missed the wreck, being close enough and in good enough viz to be able to eyeball it easily.
The clip is jammed. Neither I nor my buddy can get it loose. Later, on Taurus, I trace the problem to the securing bolt snap being bent fractionally out of line.
In a real emergency, I could have cut the short section of tape between the clip and the echo-sounder. But not today. Even for me, missing the wreck is not a big enough emergency to risk losing unsecured kit in near-zero viz.
Besides, I am not sure that something as small as a broken trawler would have shown up, especially with the shingle bank also returning echoes.
The book says 27m, so allowing for some tide we search a zigzag pattern along the bank. I find some large dahlia anemones, plenty of small dogfish, some humongous nudibranchs... and that my drysuit zip is not fully closed. But of wreckage there is no sign.
None of the other divers is successful either, though skipper Andy has a nice image frozen on his echo-sounder with sections of wreck at the bottom of the bank in 36m, and the shotline angling between them.
Perhaps I swam over it on the way down, or even zigzagged through the middle of it without knowing. Or perhaps with 27m in my brain I just didnt go deep enough. In visibility this low, a miss is as good as a mile.
Such a gem of wisdom strikes home again near the steamship Loanda. Reputed to be a good rummage dive, the Loanda was another collision victim, having been rammed by the steamship Junona 10 or more miles away, then towed within a mile of shore before sinking on 31 May, 1908.
My Weezle is nice and warm, having dried out in Andys airing cupboard. Back in the black water, the shot is on shingle at 27m, though I soon find scraps of the wreck a short way upcurrent - first some miscellaneous plates and ribs, then some very obvious bits of rudder hinge, followed by what looks like the stern gland, with a section of shaft disappearing into the shingle.
On a better day I may have been able to look up and see the wreck from such a location. Or if not the wreck, at least its shadow. Today we run a zigzag search across the line in which the shaft points and find nothing but some broken bottles from the cargo. My pocket echo-sounder I leave behind with its broken clip. Its the sort of dive on which I could have used a sketch to help me find the main body of the wreck. It cant have been that far away - one pair found it!
Blue skies over the white cliffs of Dover
Small bollard on the Pomerania.
After the dive
Ginger-beer bottle from the Loanda wreck off Dover.
Dive in 2 Pembrokeshire (01646 636684, www.dive-in2-pembrokeshire. com). Air is available from West Wales Divers (01437 781457, www. westwalesdivers.co.uk). Slipways at Neyland and Dale, beach-launching at Broad Haven and carry-launching for small boats at Martins Haven.
Stack Rocks, Pembrokeshire
Like all divers I have my prejudices. Some are just that - prejudices - while others are well-founded, or at least, I like to think they
are. One of them used to be Stack Rocks, a group of triangular teeth rising from the southern side of St Brides Bay in Pembrokeshire.
I didnt consider my prejudice against Stack Rocks totally unfounded. After all, I had dived there a couple of times in the past, most recently about 10 years ago. Neither had been particularly memorable dives. One was on a kelpy slope leading to gravel to the south-west of the rocks, and another was on flat rocky ledges in 20m or more, well off to the north of the rocks. That one wasnt bad, but not worth the effort compared to the more accessible and better diving round Skomer Island.
Yet over the past few years, I had begun to question my prejudice. Last time we took the club boats to Stack Rocks I had volunteered to drive while everyone else dived. I would dive somewhere better. Most of the divers came up with big smiles and plenty of enthusiasm for the site.
Stopping by West Wales Divers, I chatted to divers waiting for a fill. They had been diving Stack Rocks and thought the site well worth a look.
I made a mental excuse that perhaps they were new to the area and hadnt tried the better sites.
On the beach at Martins Haven, local dive operator Brian Dilly pulled in with a RIB to pick up divers. I was lazing on the beach with another group. With a nod and a wink he remarked that they were off to Stack Rocks: Should be a good dive. My mental excuse this time was along the lines that no skipper would say otherwise in front of a boatload of customers.
Yet slowly my prejudice was being whittled away. Should I give Stack Rocks another try
The opportunity arises on a day on which we should have been diving at the Hats and Barrels, reefs well west of Skomer Island. Dive in 2 Pembrokeshire has a couple of boats loading up from the Mackerel Stage in Milford Haven.
Local dive operators generally like to take two boats for safety, as the marine VHF radio coverage is unpredictable that far out, with the bulk of Skomer blocking the signal.
With a south-westerly wind picking up, its obvious that plan B will be needed - whatever plan B is. We gather on the quay to discuss options.
Divers on the other boat have a clear objective, the wreck of the Lucy and other sites on the north side of Skomer. With inshore diving now the order of the day, there is no longer a need for the boats to stick together.
Skomer With a nice hardboat for the day I dont really want to do sites I have done many times before. Freshwater Bay Exposed to the south-west. Skokholm Already in the pipeline.
We need somewhere sheltered from the south-west, and Stack Rocks fits the bill. My prejudice doesnt even stutter. As a plan B, its a dive I actually look forward to.
Skipper Andy points Volsung out of Milford Haven and up through Jack Sound. Its a lumpy ride, but well within the capabilities of an Offshore 105.
By the time we turn into St Brides Bay its sheltered and smooth. I get my sunhat out.
Dive guide Jason gives the briefing, partly for the divers and partly for the skipper. The boat is managed in a simple way. Andy knows the skippering and the fishing; Jason knows the diving. Between them we have a full crew.
The trick at Stack Rocks, Jason explains, is to enter the water right against the rocks, just west of the northernmost rock. Then its a matter of following the reef and gullies down to whatever depth we want and to the depth at which interesting bits run out.
I descend to a kelp-covered rocky plateau at 4m, then follow a shallow valley in the rock out to a notch in a wall that descends and overhangs in places from 4m to 12m or so. Only a minute or two into the dive, I already know what I have been missing.
The wall is smothered in dead mens fingers and anemones as good as anywhere else in the area. What little space is left for the brown turf of hydroids and bryozoans is also host to plenty of grazing nudibranchs.
I follow the wall north, then round a corner where it turns into a canyon. I now have two equally nice walls to flit between, only just too far apart to fit into a single photograph.
The canyon opens to a sloping valley, the entrance guarded by a large boulder and a spider crab that hogs the top of it. Just about the entire top of it.
Since tangle netting was banned, the spiny spider crabs have been getting steadily bigger. Its only one, and perhaps the biggest, of many gangly aliens. Its that time of year when they begin gathering in the shallows, making sure they arrive on time for their annual midsummer orgy.
We loop out to deeper water, satisfying my curiosity that, while there are still some rocky ledges as the seabed slopes out to 20m or more, by far the more spectacular scenery is in close to Stack Rocks.
Heading back in, its easier to peek under rocks and into crevices. A conger eel here, a lobster or two there, and plenty of edible crabs - all left in peace to continue growing bigger and fatter.
We are soon back among the walls and canyons. Just along from the original large canyon is a much narrower crevice through which I can only just fit.
I take care not to squish the jewel and daisy anemones peppering the sides.
Stack Rocks is an ideal dive for beginners with an 18m or 20m limit, with lots of colourful verticals on which to practise buoyancy skills and with a seabed safely inside the limit.
The root of my prejudice turned out to be simple - I had been starting too deep.
Moving to Wales, and the dive-boat Volsung at the Mackerel Stage in Milford Haven
Martins Haven makes a convenient launch point for RIBs
Spiny spider crab on a wall of dead mens fingers and anemones