Inshore Berwickshire offers a contrast with the serious wreck-diving increasingly centred there - JOHN LIDDIARD rediscovers old haunts, and some new ones too.
WHEN STRIVING TO WRITE about something new, I typically get further and further out to sea and ever-deeper below the surface.
On an Eyemouth technical week last summer (Eyemouth Technical, March), some of the wrecks were closer to Aberdeen than to Eyemouth, while others were nearer Seahouses.
There are plenty of technical wrecks in such a huge area of sea, but such long boat-rides won’t appeal to those who like the easier inshore diving.
My answer is to restart from ground zero and dive some of the inshore rocks and reefs St Abbs and Eyemouth have in such abundance – the pretty bits.
These are the sites that made the area such a hit with divers long before a couple of skippers began visiting the offshore wrecks.
Even better, some of these sites I have never dived before, so I can fill some gaps in my logbook.
Weasel Loch is the Eyemouth classic, traditionally accessed as a shore dive by descending a path and steps from the holiday park above.
I still have nightmares about doing a massive cliff-trek with full kit to Kynance Cove on the Lizard in Cornwall as a near-beginner, which is probably why I have never dived Weasel Loch.
However, it has a proper staircase and I hear it is nothing like as nasty a trek.
On a grey, wet day I suggest it to skipper Derek Anderson. It’s just around the corner and we don’t need to wait for any slack, so we can be out and diving before the miserable rain saps my enthusiasm.
Derek’s Scimitar is a Blythe catamaran with a big cabin providing plenty of sheltered space for changing.
Other divers arrive already changed from the Aquastars dive centre by the newer harbour basin.
Derek manoeuvres inside the mouth of Weasel Loch. It always amazes me how skippers take large boats so close to rocks and tight spaces into which I would be cautious about taking a RIB, especially in gusting winds. But years of working with boats in these waters provides a level of competence a typical club boat-handler could never achieve.
THE OTHER TEAM OF DIVERS follows the south wall into the loch, so we follow the north side, crossing them where the water gets a bit surging and shallow, and the mutual decision to turn round
Inshore it’s a bit kelpy, but closer to the mouth the rock face becomes typical of the area. The red-brown of the wall is broken with bright patches of yellow and white dead men’s fingers, clumps of plumose anemones on exposed corners, sea urchins munching away and cracks stuffed full of critters.
Rather than remain beneath the cliffs, Derek has directed us to head further out to Conger Reef. After several minutes’ swimming across rocks, sand and kelp, it’s the sort of distance that has me thinking that I might have missed it.
It’s a relief when, from 18m, the reef picks up with some massive rocks running parallel to the headland. Round the end, these open into a wide valley.
At first I think this could be the Cresta Run site we’ve been told to watch for, but I change my mind when we enter a narrow winding canyon leading off it.
The Eyemouth Cresta Run is far shorter than its namesake in St Moritz, but takes considerably longer to cover, as we are not travelling at 80mph.
In places the overhanging top narrows enough for the wafting kelp to create a tunnel. Eventually the canyon shallows and opens, so we turn round and follow it back down.
From the end of the valley, our agreed hour is almost over. As a shore dive, getting this far and then navigating back would be quite advanced. With a boat waiting to pick us up from our delayed SMBs, it’s a nice easy dive.
Derek has a diver-lift, so I don’t even have to climb a ladder, let alone the steps back up the cliff path.
We haven’t seen any congers, perhaps because the scenery encouraged me to stay higher on the reef, instead of exploring the rocks lower down.
An hour later, Derek drops us on Leager Buss, a little further towards St Abbs and a reef unknown to me, of the sort that only a local fisherman would normally know or care about.
Small, and too deep to be a navigational hazard, it isn’t even on the hydrographic chart.
With a little current running, we miss the reef-top and drop to the seabed alongside it. The outline is like the back of a camel with two humps, very close together, but with square edges and a canyon between them. From 18m we run a figure-eight around the reef, then rise a little and do the same again.
As at Conger Reef and the Cresta Run, the walls are covered with white and yellow dead men’s fingers, with lots of squat lobsters and crabs in the cracks.
A shoal of pollack, or perhaps saithe, hang off a corner, too far out to identify clearly.
THE AFTERNOON SUN breaks through the clouds as we drive a few miles north to St Abbs. Shore-divers are still making the most of it as we unpack at Rock House, run by Paul and Rachel Crowe. This must be the most convenient place short of a liveaboard at which to stay, located on its own rocky traffic island in the middle of the harbour area.
At low tide, loading Paul’s boat Tiger Lily is facilitated by an electric winch. With lots of divers here for the weekend, Paul is running four trips, alternating dive groups between them.
I am on trips two and four, so enjoy a leisurely start to the day and a chance to wander around the harbour and watch others loading up.
Boatmanship impresses me again as Paul edges Tiger Lily through the rocks at St Abbs Head and into the Skelley Hole. Here he turns round and gives the final briefing.
I already know Tiger Lily, because this Interceptor 38 used to run out of Weymouth. Paul now has the obligatory diver-lift fitted to the stern, providing a convenient gateway for jumping in and dropping the few metres to the bottom of this natural amphitheatre.
As we follow the channel out, an initial wallpaper of elegant anemones slowly gives way to clumps, and then a coating, of white and yellow dead men’s fingers, followed by plumose anemones, as we drop into the Anemone Gullies.
I recall my amazement when I first dived this series of three winding valleys 30 years ago. On a club trip with no prior knowledge we had just dropped in where the geology of the cliffs looked interesting, and chanced across them. They remain as pretty as the picture painted by my memory.
Lower down on the walls and on rocks among the gravel floor are some particularly nice dahlia anemones.
It is while I am flat on the gravel photographing one of these that my buddy pokes my elbow and indicates to one side.
A huge old lobster is edging out of his hole, waving barnacle-encrusted claws and taking an interest in my arm.
As I turn he backs inside, both old and wise to divers, though I wouldn’t have taken him anyway. I don’t eat seafood, and this is a marine reserve.
What I am hoping for are wolf-fish, but the best I can find is tucked into a corner behind another dahlia anemone.
Back on the boat, one of the other divers asks if we saw the four wolf-fish beneath a flat rock that he had pointed out at the end of the gully.
I had seen him doing something convoluted, but had obviously missed the first part of his signal.
Rather than winch everything back off the boat, we just unload what needs refilling and stack everything else into the corners in which the other group’s kit had been hidden.
Even my camera stays on board, safely out of the way in the forepeak.
Two hours later the process is simpler. The other group fully unloads, and we can spread out around a clean boat.
BLACK CARR IS A SIMPLE DIVE. We jump in along the line of rocks stretching out from the head, the Black Carrs, then follow the current and wall out and round to the tip beneath Big Black Carr.
I hope I have explained that correctly, because the naming is a bit confusing.
Once round the tip of the reef we’re out of the current, and it’s a simple matter to ascend the rock with a safety stop on the way. This 5m stop turns into a 15-minute dive by itself, because it’s just about where the overhang begins.
Off the reef, a shoal of mackerel are hoovering back and forth through whatever plankton they can find. Food must be scarce in such good visibility.
We end the dive with time saved for another one. I had asked Paul if on the way back he could drop us on the harbour reef for a quick dip on Cathedral Rock before swimming back in. This is the last trip of the day, so he’s in no rush and says he would rather drop us on top of Cathedral Rock and pick us up again, rather than risk us drifting off somewhere.
Cathedral Rock is easily reachable as a shore dive, but this offer is hard to resist. From the jumping-off point it’s almost disturbing to see the rock below through the clear water.
Other divers have a quick look through the arch and then explore further afield, but I spend time at either side of the main arch, then at either side of the small arch above it, finally swimming further out along the reef to ascend in unobstructed water, as per Paul’s briefing.
We’re back in Eyemouth for the next night with Marine Quest at the Harbourside. After a couple of days of rain, the excellent drying-room on the ground floor of the dive centre is put to good use. Everything damp, from trainers to undersuits, is spread out on hangers and shelves overnight.
But the wind shifts round until the only place skipper Iain Easingwood thinks could be sheltered enough to dive is in the bay this side of St Abbs Head.
I ACTUALLY GOT IAIN’S BOAT’S name wrong in the March issue. Jacob George is an Evolution 38 usually skippered by Iain, while Silver Sky is a 12m Interceptor usually skippered by his dad Jim, but they skipper each other’s boats when it suits them and crew for each other every now and then, just to confuse things.
One of their previous dive-boats was called North Star. All were named after boats Iain’s great-grandad owned and operated in his salvage diving business many years ago, mostly much larger herring drifters.
On a previous visit I had slipped an extra evening dive into the Ebb Carrs just south of St Abbs, with Jim skippering North Star, and had such a nice time that I had hatched the plan to cover a bunch of the pretty bits on this visit. I can only hope I’m better at rock and wreck names than charter-boat names.
From Eyemouth Iain starts off taking it easy over the waves. Then, as the boat pitches and rolls, it makes more sense to get the exposed part of the journey over with, so with due warning he adds a little throttle – but not too much.
Off St Abbs Head, first the Black Carrs and then Wuddy Rocks are breaking the waves. We decide to kit up and enter in the shelter of Wight Heugh, then point our dive towards Wuddy Rocks to see what we can find.
The seabed is a rocky slope with boulders of small to medium size. There are lobsters, shrimps and, just about everywhere, edible crabs, decorator crabs, swimming crabs and cute little hermit crabs.
Nearing the reef I can feel both the surge and a current pushing against me. Until this point I had maintained an outside hope of getting into the maze of canyons at Wuddy Rocks, but it’s obvious that the surge would be impossible, so we meander back into more sheltered water.
Iain has the diver-lift set up with a closed-circuit video camera and remote control from the wheelhouse, so he doesn’t need to come out to help us back on board, but he does anyway.
|GETTING THERE: Eyemouth is on the A1107, just off the A1. For St Abbs, continue a few miles north on the A1107 and turn towards the sea at Coldingham.|
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Dive St Abbs is in St Abbs Harbour at Rock House, with accommodation, kit shed, air/nitrox filling station and the boat Tiger Lily, www.divestabbs.info. Marine Quest is based at the Harbourside in Eyemouth, with accommodation, café, drying-room, mixed-gas filling station and Silver Sky and Jacob George, www.marine-quest.co.uk. Aquamarine Charters also operates out of Eyemouth with Scimitar, www.aquamarine-charters.co.uk. Aquastars dive centre, www.aquastars.co.uk.
FURTHER INFORMATION Admiralty Chart 1407, Montrose to Berwick. Ordnance Survey Map 67, Duns, Dunbar & Eyemouth.