dives, trips

Shetlands – day 6

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.

Links:

<– Shetland day 5

dives, trips

Shetlands – day 3

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.

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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.

Links:

trips

Shetlands – day 1

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

dives, trips

Shetlands – day 4

My buddy Rob inspecting the conning tower of E-49

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.

The bow section, which was blown off by the mine which sank the submarine
Much. of the. external plating has corroded away, revealing the pressure hull
The conning tower has broken off and lies on the sand
looking down the. conning tower
Wonderful to see the. whole wreck spread before us
Reluctantly ascending from the E-49

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.

Links:

dives, trips

Shetlands – day 2

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.

Links:

<– Shetland trip Day 1

Shetland trip Day 3 –>

trips

St Abbs

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.

trips

Fireworks and flame shells

Underwater photographers tend to take a different view of dive sites on a trip to non-shooting divers. We will often be keen to keep returning to the same site repeatedly on a trip rather than trying to see a different site on each dive. So it was on a recent trip to West Scotland, I dived in only two sites. In each of two sea lochs, I dived in a single area. However these were very much contrasting locations, one a very clean high energy site needing slack water and the other a slightly murky low energy spot. Each is home to unusual but “locally common” species, well worth braving the 6-degree water temperature for.

Loch Duich is home to the impressive fireworks anemone and the maerl bed of the narrows at the head of Loch Carron is home to hidden flame shells, as well as a mass of macro subjects. Here are a selection of images to give a flavour of the sites.

First of all, Loch Duich:

And here’s North Strome on Loch Carron:

trips

Loch Leven Sea Pens

Loch Leven is one of the smaller sea lochs. It is only just more than six miles long and very narrow – especially at one point about two miles from its head at Kinlochleven. However, it does offer some species not often seen elsewhere. Diving from its shores also offers reliable diving in any weather at any time of year. Today, the water was warmer than the air. We were searching out sea pens- long filter-feeding creatures found in quieter sites. Entering the water by the graveyard about half way along, my buddy and I passed over seemingly endless mud. At about 12m, the sea pens began to appear; this site offers all three of the native species. Pressing on, we found a large cluster of the tall sea pen (Funiculinaquadrangularis). These beautiful creatures are more than a metre tall but very thin. Seen in close up, they are lined with feeding polyps. I was very pleased to capture a splendid tall individual with several others in the background.

Our second site was further up towards the head if the Loch, beyond the narrows. Using a convenient slipway, we found a steep bank of broken stone leading to a muddy bottom at about 20m. The very fine silt makes photography very challenging, so the success rate was limited, but the eerie undulating mud, pockmarked with burrows made for an interesting dive. It did, however, yield a nice shot of a phosphorescent sea pen (Pennatula phosphorea).

dives, trips

1000th dive

I logged my 1000th dive whilst on this trip to the Red Sea. I know that this is not an especially remarkable total, but it is still a large number of dives for a recreational diver. It felt as if that dive should have been accompanied by fanfares and mermaids (or maybe one of the local Dugong).

However, it turned out to be quite a low key leisurely shore dive from the dive centre at Marsa Shagra. I think it sums up what I love so much about scuba diving- it was in the company of a like-minded buddy; in this instance we had been strangers 24 hours before, but we felt like firm friends after a couple of shared dives.

During the dive, I didn’t notice any species I had not seen before, but it was a pleasure as usual to waft weightless through the water. It has to be said that it was most welcome to escape the English winter and drift over a Red Sea reef in the late afternoon sun, observing the fish going about their normal business and shooting images as I went.

I saw a Stonefish hauling itself across the sand, a Lionfish hunting for prey and flocks of Goatfish prospecting in the sand. The Anthias were pulsing in and out of the coral heads, whilst Groupers drifted across the reef, hoping to pick off an unwary small fish. Humbug dascyllus played hide and seek among the branching corals, whilst iridescent Pale damselfish rose high above the reef feeding on tiny particles in the water.

Here’s to the next 1000 dives…

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trips

Red Sea Safari

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I usually spend February half term in Scotland on a shore-diving, camper-van trip. This year I have no camper van, but I am having a camping shore-diving trip, albeit in a rather different location. In September 2015 I won the grand prize of the British and Irish underwater photography championships, run by BSoUP and generously sponsored by Oonasdivers.

So here I am in Egypt, sat in a tent feet from the shore of the Red Sea. Although Marsa Shagra is South of Marsa Alam (which has an international airport), my flight was from Gatwick to the more northerly Hurghada. The airport is large and modern-looking but was pretty quiet. I did not see any other arrivals from UK; most of the other flights seemed to be from Germany and Russia.

I had gone all through UK security without opening any of my bags, but I had to open both camera boxes for Egyptian security. He asked me various questions about my gear, but did not seem interested in the answers. His parting shot was “don’t get bitten by a shark” and then was amazed when I said I’d be very glad to see one, he insisting that it was bound to eat me.

Following that, I was the sole passenger on a very entertaining four-hour minibus drive south to Marsa Shagra. The roads are very straight, but vehicles appear to completely ignore the road markings. The rules seem complex at first- use main beam when overtaking, but switch off lights if you’re giving way; alternatively flash furiously for either of these situations. Hazard warning lights indicate imminent lane change in any direction, sometimes taking a turning or else coming to a stop. The vehicle horn is used to say “here I am”, “get out of my way”, “hurry up” or just to play a tune.

Speed limits are entirely notional, so physical means are used to control speed- there are vicious speed bumps when passing a hotel or through a settlement; the police check points have chicanes and tyre puncturing devices on hand.

At one point, we drove through a town where a slow speed (speed bumps instead of road markings) game of chicken ensued, with cars darting from one side of the road to the other, three abreast in a narrow street, seemingly without reason. Priority is mostly based on size- don’t mess with a lorry, but a van clearly beats a car. The cars maintained distances of several inches apart and there was liberal use of the horn, but no physical contact was made and it all seemed good natured.

Lots of trucks have very colourful decorations, many celebrating their teutonic origins, though usually badly spelled. Many vehicles have flashing LED lights of many colours and some have lights under the vehicle too. In the other hand, I saw a number of vehicles with no tail lights. I saw an open truck full of camels at a petrol station and a pair of locals sitting in the road by an open locker in their HGV trailer, seemingly cooking a meal. No one seemed in the least bit perturbed by any of this.

So, after this eventful journey, I reached the tent where I write this, 18 hours after leaving home. Sleep now, and then some diving….

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Location:Marsa Shagra