I’m giving an online talk to the Royal Photographic Society Nature Group next Saturday, entitled “Beneath UK Seas” and I will be talking about how to shoot the amazing wildlife to be found all round our coast (as well as lakes and rivers!). I hope to dispel the commonly held misconception (among non-divers) that UK waters are dark, murky and offer little to see. Follow the link if you’d like to attend: https://rps.org/events/groups/nature/2021/february/beneath-uk-seas/
Our final day aboard MV Clasina began with a dive on another klondiker (like the Lunokhods-1 we saw earlier in the week), the Pionersk. This huge fishing factory ship foundered in the 1990s, but is rather shallower than many of the other wrecks we dived. Consequently, it is more kelp encrusted and sadly the vis was rather poor, so I was limited to very close focus photography. The fact that we were so disappointed with the vis on this dive (“normal” UK vis – approx 3-4m) just goes to show how good the visibility had been on the other dives of this trip. Good weather – calm sea and bright light – helps, as does the sandy sea bed under most of the wrecks we saw; however, the lack of large amounts of algae in the water here is a massive help too (many of my shots from this week have a bluish tint, rather than the pea soup we have come to expect in the UK.
Our week aboard Clasina finished on a highlight with a return full circle to the first site we saw – the Fraoch Ban. This marvellously intact and upright wreck on white sand did not disappoint, and we saw angler fish and octopus in addition to the flatfish on the sand, spiny spider crabs on the hull and shoals of small fish around the superstructure we saw last time. A fitting end to an excellent stay aboard MV Clasina.
The dives were finished early, to allow the disembarkation of the mountain of gear which ten divers bring onto a live aboard. Rob and I bade farewell to our buddies from East Cheshire BSAC, as they were on the afternoon ferry. It was a more leisurely end to the day for us, as we had a couple more days left on Shetland.
On our cruise back south to Lerwick from Unst, our first stop was the Gwladmina, a large Victorian steam ship which sank upright in 38m. Most of the cargo seems to have been recovered and, descending the shot line amidships, we were able to complete a circuit of the ship – bow first and then astern along the exposed prop shaft and then to stern with rudder blown off to salvage the prop.
The second dive was not a wreck, but a scenic site for a change. The Giant’s Legs is an iconic geological feature at the southern end of Bressay, where the headland has been eroded into a series of broken stacks. Underwater, the terrain consists of series of submerged stacks. We saw many nudibranchs, but I had camera problems and had to return to the boat, before getting back into the water agains. Two dives for the price of one!
Another morning, another wreck!. In this case, the Jane, a cargo ship which came to grief in 1927. The wreck lies on its side, with a large propellor and rudder visible. It stands several metres proud of the sea bed but shows signs of collapse in several places.
Our second dive was a drift off Burra Ness, on our way to Balta Sound. The sea bed consisted of maerl and coarse sand with very large undulations caused by the tide. We saw many hermit crabs, one or two nudis and a huge plaice.
The evening saw us in Baltasound, where we chatted to the skipper of the Björn, a gaff Cutter rugged ketch flying the Norwegian flag. In fact the owner was from Iceland and had sailed to Shetland via the Faroes, on his way to Bergen and points south in Norway to overwinter.
We also walked up to Balta Light, the most northerly pub in the UK. In these Covid times, we decided not to stay inside and drank our pints in the surprisingly cold beer garden.
Baltasound has several other notable landmarks, including the John Peel memorial bus stop (currently sporting a “2020 vision” theme in “honour” of a certain Mr Cummings) and also a memorial to the crew of the WW1 submarine E-49, the site of our dive the next day.
NOTE: I wrote these blog posts at the time of the dive trip, but was not able to post them at the time, so there’s roughly a week’s delay between the date of posting and the day they were written.
The Shetland Islands is a place I have long wanted to visit and I was lucky enough to be invited by my buddy Rob Bailey to join him on a week-long charter aboard the new liveaboard MV Clasina skippered by Bob Anderson.
We arrived in the attractive town of Lerwick first thing this morning off the overnight ferry from Aberdeen, and transferred a small mountain of gear onto Clasina. Rob and I had met our fellow divers on the ferry and, predictably we all got on well – an experienced group from East Cheshire BSAC.
Our shakedown dive was a corker, on a trawler called Fraoch Ban (gaelic for White Heather), a trawler whose internal bulkhead had failed, causing its catch of sandeels to shift, which capsized and sank the boat.
The first thing that struck me was the amount of light. Like many of the best Shetland wreck sites, the Fraoch Ban lies upright on sand, which reflects a lot of light. The visibility was about 15m, which meant we could see from one end of the wreck to the other. A large winch and gantry sit on deck and a large shoal of fish swirls around the site. I spotted a new (to me) species of spider crab and others saw octopus and angler fish.
The second dive was close by at Noss Head, a cliff dropping into the sea with a series of deep gullies. This exposed site has wonderful purple rock formations and many anemones – dahlia, Devonshire cup corals and even patches of jewel anemones.
The surge reduced the visibility but the gullies made for an interesting swim and I was buzzed by a couple of seals – the female coyly checked me out from just beyond camera range and my buddy told that a large male was watching me from behind; as is often the way, I was not even aware he was there.
Link: Shetland trip day 2
As we pass the halfway point of the trip, this day was a real highlight – a site so good, we dived it twice. This wreck was the E-49, a British WW1 submarine which hit a German mine in March 1917 and tragically was lost with all hands at the mouth of Baltasound. The life of a submariner must have been terrifying and heaven knows what those men experienced when the mine exploded. It is always sobering to visit such war graves and though some feel that these sites should not be dived, I think that these wrecks are a memorial to the bravery of our forebears. What struck me was how small the submarine is; this 55m tube must have been an incredibly cramped place for the 30 crew to live.
She lies upright in 32m on coarse sand, which provides stunning light and visibility. The bow section is blown off and lies a few metres away from the main wreck, which lies mostly buried in the sand. The conning tower is broken off and lies to the port side. The stainless steel periscope is clear to be seen and many other details of the gears which operated the ballast tanks, winches and hydroplanes are visible. The wreck tapers off into the sand, with the propellor just visible.
Having finished our pair of dives, we returned to Baltasound and got a taxi to see the amazing colonies of Skua, Gannet and Fulmar at Herma Ness and which also gave us a marvellous view of the light house at Muckle Flugga. This marks the northernmost reach of both Shetland and the UK. It was amazing to think that the was only the Arctic to the north and the whole of the Atlantic to our west.
The skipper’s briefing described our first site of the day as “Shetland deep”, in other words 40m, but in clear and calm water. I don’t often venture below 30m because usually there’s not much to photograph. My previous experience of wrecks at depth is that there is too little light to make pleasing images. However, our site this morning – Lunokhods-1 – was worth the depth.
Sunk relatively recently (1993), the Lunokhods-1 is a “klondiker” (factory fishing ship) which dragged its anchor and ran aground in a storm. Consequently, the bulk of the wreck is shallow, but the bow section sheared off and slid down the slope to about 40m.
The skipper put the shot bang on the bow, so we had an ideal dive profile – descending first to maximum depth to admire the view looking back along the bow with the divers visible in silhouette and their probing torch beams picking out details of the wreck. The clarity of the water meant that plenty of light penetrated to the sea bed, as well as providing great visibility.
After this highlight (sadly a short stay), we zig-zagged up the sloping debris field, so that by the time we reached 12m, our decompression commitment was spent. With additional time in the shallows, the safety stops were completed and it was time to send up the SMB and reluctantly return to the surface and the waiting Clasina.
We motored to the Out Skerries for the next dive. This group of small islands is so called not for being remote, but is derived from the Norse word for East.
Our second dive was under the lighthouse on Bound Skerry. The rocks slope steeply into the water and this contour continues under the water. Dropping into the clear water to 20m we followed the wall along to the point looking for crayfish (Palinarus elephas).
Along the way, I found a nice dogfish (Scyliorhinus canicula) sheltering in wide crack in the rock. After searching for a while in the kelp, we were rewarded by discovering a nice crayfish. Despite the yellow antennae, these impressive clawless crustaceans are surprisingly well camouflaged among the yellow brown kelp and purple rock. This fine individual tolerated both Rob and I taking turns photographing it.
Greenends Gully is a site I first dived in the early 1990s and, although the shore access has changed much over the intervening years, it remains a shore dive which is emblematic of that lovely stretch of our coast. It is a deep gully that runs out from a small headland to the south of Eyemouth harbour and is stuffed with marine life – mostly crustaceans.
I dived it most recently en route for a ferry crossing to the Shetlands and having visited St Abbs only a few weeks ago in outstanding conditions, it was not so inviting this time due to the swell I could see a few yards off these rocks.
I dropped off the end of the concrete path, into a gully which led down and out towards the open sea. Although there was swell further out, the water was perfectly calm (though perhaps a little stirred up) within the gully.
This is an excellent site for several species of crustacean and I saw half a dozen lobsters (Hommarus gammarus) and many of the ubiquitous short-clawed squat lobsters (Galathea strigosa) in quite a short length of rock. The latter did not seem as nervous as usual and I was able to approach and photograph them. They are most often seen upside down, gripping the roof of their caves, most inaccessible for photography. I was able to capture several individuals and watched in one case, as it grasped the rock behind and elegantly turned itself upside down.
An aspect of photography I enjoy very much is to stop and spend time watching the behaviour of wildlife. On this occasion, I watched as a lobster manipulate stones accumulated in its burrow and bulldoze them out of the area. I noticed that of the half dozen individuals I saw, one had no claws and the other had a broken claw.
After 45 minutes, I decided not to outstay my welcome and return to my start point. I was caught out by how much the water had fallen and it was a bit of a scramble to get out of the water; I was very grateful to my buddy for being on hand to help me up with my kit!
My first dive trip out of lockdown was on a long-planned Worcester Divers trip to St Abbs, on the East coast and just over the border into Scotland. In view of the pandemic, I had expected this trip to be cancelled, but to my delight we got the green light. This area has some outstanding diving and not only were we lucky to travel, but we dived it in ideal conditions – the westerly air stream had kept the sea flat and we were blessed with plenty of sunshine.
St Abbs is a nearly ideal dive location, as the main dive sites are reached by only a few minutes travel time in the boat – just long enough to kit up, in fact! Paul, the skipper of “Shore Diver”, is a diver himself and so knew exactly where to drop us in. Highlights were anemone gully, Tye’s tunnel and Skellies Hole. All of these have amazing topography to enjoy, as well as excellent wildlife for our photography.
Some of the group stayed in self-catering accommodation in the harbour, whilst myself and a couple of others parked our campervans on the quayside. This lack of travel time meant that we completed three dives per day, without it seeming like an effort. And there are so many subjects to go at, that I was grateful to be able to spend three hours per day underwater.
St Abbs is a great wildlife location, but it is particularly interesting for divers because it contains such a variety of life. Many southern species are in evidence, alongside many species usually seen further north. Sadly I was not able to capture a useful picture of the wolf fish, emblematic of the area, but the crustaceans, fish and soft corals were seen in abundance.
I will be giving a presentation to Worcestershire Camera Club on Tuesday 3rd March 2020, entitled “Adventures in UK Diving”. This photo talk will feature the best of my UK underwater photography over from over the years (including a number of award-winning shots) and I will showcase the amazing beauty and diversity of British sea life. The presentation starts at 19.30 in St Stephen’s Church Hall (Bishop Allenby Hall), St Stephen’s Church, Droitwich Road, Worcester, WR3 7HS. You’re welcome to come along, if you’re interested.