Pride of Man
AS MY PLANE APPROACHED Ronaldsway airport, the heavy grey clouds cleared to allow shafts of late-afternoon sunshine to dapple the view below in bright patches of light.
We flew in over the sea, and as the coast of the Isle of Man came into sight I was able to take advantage of my aerial view to do what all divers do as we come into land at a dive destination – check out the vis.
It looked promising. Half an hour later, as I left the airport, the heavens opened, a sudden change in the weather that I was to learn is characteristic of this island in the middle of the Irish Sea.
I was diving with Discover Diving, based in Port St Mary at the southern end of the island. It operates the 12m hardboat Endeavour and, with more than 30 years’ experience of diving around the Isle of Man, is expert at finding a sheltered spot for a good dive in all but the most extreme weather. It also serves homemade cakes and endless hot drinks, has a dive-lift and the most civilised loo I’ve ever seen on a boat!
Our week began with a couple of shallow dives on the east coast, just south of Port St Mary.
Garden Rock is a pinnacle close to the cliffs rising from a sandy seabed at 18m, and the Ledges is an area of rocky gullies, overhangs and small walls.
With visibility of around 10m and plenty of lobsters, crabs, soft corals and other colourful marine life to see, it was a gentle introduction to what would become a week of spectacular diving.
Both sites lie within one of three areas around the coast that are completely closed to fishing. Five further regions allow only restricted fishing activities, or are protected for their eelgrass meadows, horse-mussel beds or other important underwater habitats.
As a diver I’m always attracted to places in which marine conservation is taken seriously, and the Isle of Man is certainly one of them. The main fishery effort is in dredging for scallops, both the larger king scallops and the smaller queenies.
Last year I dived there with a group of marine biologists and we were permitted to dive a scallop bed in the Port Erin Closed Area that was established in 1989.
It has been recognised worldwide for its success, and when you dive there it’s easy to see why. As well as several king scallops per square metre (and I never knew scallops could grow so large!) the area was alive with all sorts of other marine life – a superb example of what the seabed can look like when it’s left undisturbed.
THE NEXT DAY the brisk easterly had grown stronger, so we did what you can always do on an island, and dived on the other side. Steve and the crew braved the rough seas off Port St Mary to bring the boat and our kit around to Port Erin, where we stepped on board and headed off to explore the sheltered waters of the west coast.
The wreck of the Citrine lies at the base of Bradda Head, just north of Port Erin. The steamer was on route from Belfast to North Wales in ballast in March 1931 when she struck rocks in thick fog. Two of her crew survived by climbing the steep cliff to safety, but the other 10 perished.
Today the remains of the 50m ship lie scattered on the seabed close to the cliff at 14m. The boiler and engine are recognisable among the broken wreckage, and on the collapsed bow section to the south you can just make out winches, chain, an anchor and a spare propeller.
The most obvious marine life here is a bold group of ballan wrasse that hover around the divers in the hope of a free meal, but when I visited the wreck it was an anglerfish that stole the show.
The afternoon dive was another treat for those of us who love spotting critters. At Fine Bay Pinnacle we were promised a wealth of small, colourful subjects, so the photographers among us switched to our macro lenses, and we were not disappointed.
Comparing notes afterwards, we calculated that between us we had seen at least 10 species of nudibranchs, not to mention other beautiful mini-beasts such as squat lobsters, spiny scorpionfish and Devonshire cup corals.
The pinnacle itself rises from the seabed at 20m to within a few feet of the surface, and a “normal” diver could easily swim around it in a few minutes.
For an underwater photographer in macro mode, however, its mass of cracks, crevices and overhangs can take hours to explore.
SO FAR ON THE TRIP we had only glimpsed the grey seals for which the diving around the Isle of Man is so well known. All that was to change with a dive at Gibdale Bay on the west side of the Calf of Man, the small island at the southern tip of the main island.
The plan was to do a gentle drift along the bouldery slope, admiring the mass of white and yellow soft corals, purple and pink urchins and vividly coloured cuckoo wrasse. The seals had other ideas.
Within minutes of our being under water, dappled silvery torpedoes of blubber with puppy-dog eyes and a bushy fringe of whiskers were swooping by, barrel-rolling effortlessly into view before disappearing with a flick of a flipper.
Ignoring them was impossible – not that you’d want to, because every now and then you’d feel a tug on your leg and find yourself looking down into a huge pair of eyes, while a less innocent-looking set of teeth gripped your fin.
My buddy and I abandoned the drift dive and tucked ourselves up in the shallows of a small bay to enjoy the show.
Being in the water with seals makes you feel incredibly clumsy as they swirl around chasing each other at incredible speed, and watching them with other divers is huge fun, because they love to sneak up from behind, then tug on anything that attracts their eye.
Usually it’s a fin but sometimes it’s an arm or, more alarmingly, a hose or piece of camera gear. Fortunately they are fairly gentle.
Yellow fins appear to be a favourite, as does unbalancing a diver completely, causing you to end upside-down in a tangle of kelp and SMB line. I swear you can almost hear them laughing!
BY THE MIDDLE OF THE WEEK the wind had decreased, allowing us to experience some of the less-sheltered sites.
The first of these was the Burroo, a spectacular rocky outcrop on the very southern tip of the Calf of Man, shaped like a huge dragon with its head lowered as if drinking.
Exposed to the full force of the weather and tides, this is a site that can be dived only on a calm day and at slack water, but it’s one for which it’s definitely worth waiting.
The vis was at least 15m as we dropped down to an underwater landscape every bit as rugged as that above. The kelp soon gave way to a series of sheer walls, huge boulders and intriguing gullies.
At 20m the rocks were covered in a fluffy carpet of oaten-pipe hydroids that was being grazed by an army of nudibranchs. A little deeper and these were replaced by a colourful patchwork
of anemones – huge, plump plumose anemones in bright white and orange, and jewel and elegant anemones in vivid shades of pink, orange and purple.
Lobsters and crabs peered out from beneath the boulders, and shoals of ballan wrasse and pollack darted above. If you ever need a site to show someone sceptical about British diving just how stunningly beautiful our home waters can be, then this is the place.
AS WE ROUNDED THE REEF and started heading back towards the shallows, we were treated again to a full-on display of seal clowning and grace.
Back on the boat my fins were removed and a mug of tea placed in one hand and a bacon roll in the other. Life really doesn’t get any better than this!
The Burroo was so spectacular that we dived it again next day, but that afternoon it was time for some more metal.
The 6563-ton Clan McMaster was on her way down the Irish Sea from Glasgow to Liverpool in September 1923 with a general cargo including coal, cotton and sewing-machines when she struck rocks in thick fog in the swirling waters between the Calf and the main island.
The crew of 80 reached the shore safely, but the ship became a total loss.
The shipping company salvaged some of the cargo, but it is said that many a local household became the proud owner of a new sewing machine.
Today, more than 90 years of weather and tide have taken their toll on the ship, which lies completely broken on the shallow, rocky seabed of Calf Sound. The remains of the huge engine and boilers wear a crown of kelp and, like the propshaft, are home to great swathes of plumose anemones. Seals are common there, and flit among the old metal ruins.
The tides are ferocious, so our dive was timed to coincide with slack water. In practice that meant sheltering in the wreckage for the first half of the dive, then watching the tide roar the other way for the second half. It did mean, however, that when we surfaced we were taken to the west, and away from the treacherous rocks in the Sound.
ON OUR LAST DAY the wind had dropped completely, the sun beamed down from a cloudless blue sky and the sea was flat-calm. To make the most of such conditions, it was decided to dive Chicken Rock, a stack with a lighthouse on top of it about half a mile south of the Calf, and apparently even more spectacular than the Burroo.
I had been battling for most of the week with a cold. It was getting worse, so I did the sensible thing and missed out.
It was a decision that may have saved my eardrums, but that evening I had to listen to my fellow-divers raving about the amazing gullies busting with colour, stunning vis and walls plastered in life.
To help me get the picture they showed me their photographs, and I could see that they weren’t exaggerating.
To make matters worse, they dived the Sugarloaf Caves in the afternoon: shallow, sunlight crevices famous for their colourful marine life and diving guillemots.
There’s only one thing for it – I’ll just have to go back to the Isle of Man!
|DISCOVER DIVING’S boat Endeavour can take 12 divers. A full charter for six days costs £500 a day (two dives), but individuals can book on at £50 a day. Tanks, weights, air and nitrox are supplied and rebreather and technical divers catered for. DD also has a self-catering flat for up to 14 at £20 a night, www.discoverdiving.im|
FERRIES:The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company runs a conventional ferry from Heysham that takes 210min and a fast (165min) ferry from Liverpool. A return for two adults with car costs from £268, www.steam-packet.com
AIRLINES: EasyJet (London Gatwick, Liverpool and Bristol from £50 return); Citywings (Belfast, Blackpool, Gloucester, Newcastle, Jersey and Glasgow from £50 return); Flybe (Liverpool, London Stansted, Manchester and Birmingham from £30 each way); and Aer Lingus (Dublin from £70 return).