MISERY What misery
LIKE MANY UK DIVERS, I’ve spent quite a few evenings on a liveaboard deck or a beach somewhere else in the world defending the diving around my homeland.
Sometimes I’m backing Blighty to folks from other countries, but often I’m trying to convince UK natives. The conversation usually goes something like this:
“Hi, how are you”
“Fine,” I say. “I’m looking forward to getting into the water.”
“Yes, we dive over here a lot and come every year.”
“Do you dive in the UK” I ask.
“Ooh no! You don’t, do you” They look worried as I nod. “Really! Why There’s nothing to see, it’s cold and miserable, why do you bother I never have!”
My typical response is to enthuse about the sheer amount of life to be seen back home, of interactions with seals and colourful anemone-covered rocks. Often, however, the other party concludes the conversation with a “yeah, but it’s cold!”
Case closed, they’re happy to miss out on some of the best diving in the world.
Why dwell on past conversations I was running this one over in my head as I enjoyed one of my best dives at the Farne Islands, off the north-east English coast.
I was at 17m, the rocks were covered in gently swaying soft corals, there were bits of wreckage to investigate, several grey seals were larking about, there was some sort of fascinating life under just about every rock and I was really quite toasty,
Perhaps best of all, the weekend’s diving hadn’t broken the bank and I knew that the person who had said there was no reason to dive “back home” could not have been more wrong!
The Farnes are among my favourite destinations. I’m fascinated by Northumberland, with its scenic castles, open moors and wildlife above and below the waterline. This group of 15-20 islands, depending on the state of the tide, has proved resistant to time and been colonised by scores of thousands of seabirds and several thousand grey seals.
Several hardboats operate daily from the nearby fishing port of Seahouses to enable us to enjoy the wildlife spectacle. They’re well worth it, whether you’re diving or not.
The islands have taken their toll on shipping over the years, with a map in the Seahouses Lifeboat Station (worth a visit to make a donation) showing the location of hundreds of strandings and wrecks over the years.
This hard history reflects the battering the coastline can take from the weather and the sea, but the wrecks are a draw for divers, the Abessinia and Chris Christenson being understandably popular.
Seahouses is a small, quaint place, and the boats that take out divers, sightseers, anglers and birdwatchers seem to outnumber those dedicated to fishing for crabs and lobsters.
A good chunk of the local economy seems to rely on the wildlife-rich waters, and the little harbour has car parking that makes it easy to get twin-sets and spare cylinders onto the boats, although a flight of stone steps built into the harbour wall will leave a few folk red-faced after hauling their kit up.
Taking us out is a well-respected skipper who owns several boats operating from the harbour. He’s a diver too (which always helps) and has a lifetime’s experience of these waters.
He tells me there’s a lot of paperwork involved in running a tourist and diving operation, and he’s been working for seven weeks solid. Still, the winter will be quieter, and he lists some of the destinations he has enjoyed diving in winters past. It’s a tough, but not bad, living.
As we head out to the outer islands past Inner Farne and the National Trust Visitor Centre – a 30-minute trip – we get our kit ready, checking over manifolds and ensuring that pony-bottles are turned on and rigged correctly.
The raucous squawking of the terns and guillemots fills the air and puffins fly busily around us. These awesome birds spend their winters floating and fishing in the North Sea and can dive in excess of 30m in search of fish, so while they may be cute, they’re also very tough.
WE COME TO REST in the lee of Longstone Island. The tide is almost out and scores of seals are resting amid the rock pools, with many floating in the water, checking us out.
Fully kitted, we enter the water. The sea is calm and the now-slack water promises little current. As we drop, the plankton-rich water gives everything a greenish, unearthly tint.
We descend to 10m, the rock wall on our left. Forests of swaying kelp and oarweed give way to a remarkable seascape that appears to be getting brighter with depth.
It’s the ghostly white of dead men’s fingers, the soft coral that covers the rocks and deserves a name that would better describe its delicate beauty.
My torch-light reveals the coral’s detailed nature and the bright pink of the calcareous algae-covered rocks, their resident urchins, and vast array of starfish.
Several ballan wrasse, revealed as bright red in the light, look to us to disturb the sand and free some morsels of food.
It’s at this point, as my buddy and I shine our torches into the delicate structures of a small lion’s mane jellyfish and marvel at its construction, that I’m reminded of that allegation that there is “nothing to see” in British waters.
“Bollocks,” I mutter through my reg. I’ve seen far less diversity of life on many dives in the Med and Atlantic. I focus on the walls and see uncountable tubeworms, busy hermit crabs and whole chunks of rockface covered in elegant anemones in vivid pinks, orange and delicate whites. A shoal of what I think are pollack drift past – this dive alone bursts the “nothing to see” myth.
What of the other myths, such as temperature Well, it’s not tropical water and my computer registers 14°C, but I’m warmer now than I have been on some dives in the Med in a semi-dry, or towards the end of several Red Sea dives when depth and a long dive in a 5mm wetsuit have left me shivering.
It’s all a matter of being prepared for the conditions, and cold should not be a factor. A hood, gloves and a drysuit are pretty much mandatory, but beneath my compressed neoprene drysuit I’m wearing just a few base layers, and being custom-made it’s perfectly comfortable. Another myth busted!
I’LL THROW IN ANOTHER OFFERING to tempt folk into UK waters – diver-lifts, especially those fitted to the stern of a boat, are simply excellent. Gone are the days of taking your kit off and hauling yourself up
a short ladder or over the gunwales, accompanied by “we’ve landed another big’un!” from the on-board comic.
This is one area in which UK diving wins hands-down over warm water. Rising effortlessly level with the deck is far better than an undignified entry into a Red Sea RIB, arse in the air!
Over a coffee my buddy and I chat happily about the dive and how much there was to see. We swap stories with a group of divers from another club.
The skipper takes us to a small jetty on Longstone, and we disembark to inspect the red-and-white-banded lighthouse.
Several young seals shuffle out of our way, but my fellow-divers are respectful and keep their distance. The nearby water is full of seals and they seem to be taking as much interest in us as we do in them, though a pair of unhappy oyster-catchers shriek their black-and-white heads off and fly nervously around.
The next dive takes us a little distance from the lighthouse and Longstone with its seabird colonies of shag, guillemot and razorbill crowded into a limited space and squawking to each other for no apparent reason.
We move south-west to Staple Island and the Pinnacles. I’ve rolled up my SMB again and switched to an air cylinder – I’d also brought a 28% mix in another cylinder in case the extra bottom time would prove valuable.
Often skippers have to choose sites on the day, so it’s useful to have a little leeway in terms of gas mix.
“Keep the rock on your left!” warns the skipper as he slows the boat and keeps it steady against the slight wind with gentle bursts of the throttle.
We descend a little more slowly on this dive and take in the kelp-dominated landscape. Among their tough holdfasts common sea urchins graze along with their slightly smaller but longer-spined cousins the shore sea urchins, though only in the shallowest water.
Spiny starfish, common sunstars and smaller cushionstars prowl around, looking a million miles away from the voracious if slow predators they really are.
Near the bottom we correct our rate of descent with bursts of gas into our suits. The seabed is a mixture of broken shells and sand between rounded boulders the size of armchairs.
My buddy waves me over to look at a lobster under a rock. It eyes me dubiously, perhaps having experienced divers in the past who have tried to drag it out to take home for the pot. I’m not a fan of the practice, and depending on the season and location it may be illegal anyway.
Lobbies and crabs are commonplace and I can’t help but encourage them to raise their pincers for a photo.
AT THIS POINT A SEAL speeds past, stopping only to nip at my buddy’s fin. Lifting our heads from the rockwork we see three greys sporting in front of us. They speed off and then return, with one seemingly playing peekaboo.
Eager not to spook the animals, I crank down the power on my strobes and slowly approach, trying to look as friendly as possible, though probably failing with my huge dome-port and spindly strobe arms.
We’re at 20m and light is limited, so it’s a balancing act between scaring the animal and getting the best shots.
I’m tempted to ditch the camera as the seal and I study each other. It barks at me a few times (a strange experience, as I feel the sound rather than hear it), and I put the camera down before it moves towards me to explore my hand with its muzzle.
My buddy is having similar experiences, though “his” seal keeps swimming up to him, nipping his fin and then speeding off before he has time to see it properly.
In two dives I’ve spent more time with large, intelligent marine mammals than I’ve had in a weeks’ worth of diving in the Red Sea. Dolphins, pah!
As we fin along, we become aware of a few girders and plates and realise that we’ve made it to the wreck of the St Andre, a French cargo vessel that sank in 1908.
As with most wrecks in the area it is very broken up, though the rudder-post and now bladeless propeller are photogenic.
The St Andre is merging with the seabed and offers shelter for several fish that scatter as we approach, hoping perhaps that we’ll smash open a sea urchin to feed them. I resist the temptation and decide instead on trying to position my buddy for a photo.
The long-suffering chap knows the drill and poses, probably grumbling a little.
That night, we have a barbecue at our bunkhouse and chat while the compressor does its job. Everyone looks a little red from the sun, but they‘re all grinning.
None of us was cold, we all saw a great deal and not one of us was miserable!
|New to UK sea-diving|
* Sea water is denser than fresh, so you will be more buoyant than at an inland training site. If that’s where you’ve been diving, add some weight to compensate – try 2kg, but be ready to fine-trim your total weight and where it is located.
* Consider a straightforward shore-dive or one in confined waters such as behind a breakwater or within a harbour. A dive centre on the coast will probably be happy to take you on a dive to familiarise you and your buddy with the local environment.
* Carry a torch (and backup) even in daylight, as the available light on the bottom may not allow you to appreciate the sights. Grey rocks will suddenly show their true pink hue and a blur in a crevice will reveal itself as a richly coloured lobster. You may also need a torch to signal to your buddy.
* Even on the warmest days, sea winds will cool your head very quickly after a dive, so a hat is a must. Ridiculous jester hats bought from festivals should be avoided.
* Take your time, no need to fin like crazy. A good skipper will drop you at the best spot according to weather, current and tide.
* If you haven’t used a diver-lift, grip the side-handles and be ready for the sudden increase in weight as you leave the water.
* Ensure that your kit is serviced and checked out before your dive. UK dive-boats are unlikely to carry spare mask- or fin-straps and you don’t want a failure under water.
* Redundancy is a must. I never dive in the UK without a pony bottle, and many divers opt for the enhanced self-reliance that comes with a twin-set.
* Drysuit skills are vital too. Don’t be figuring out how your auto-dump works as you descend onto a delicate environment or sharp-edged wreck.
* You’ll be carrying more kit than you might in the tropics and your trim will be influenced by pony bottles, extra weight, drysuit etc. Consider a course to boost buoyancy skills before practising in a confined site kitted-up as you would be for sea-diving.
* Carry a delayed SMB and be able to use it. Waves and obstructions may make it hard for a skipper to locate you without a signalling device, so a flag and strobe are worth carrying, as are torches, a whistle and a heliograph (an old CD).
* Listen to the briefing. If the skipper says keep the rock on your right, you do so.