TO HAVE A BIRD FLY PAST or even right up to me out of sheer curiosity is something that has never happened even at the waters surface. Which is why it is such a strange, surreal experience for precisely that to happen while diving.
The sea just outside the Sugarloaf Caves in the Isle of Man is shallow - no more than 10m. On a sunny day and with reasonable visibility, typically 10m, the undersea scene is one of gently rolling kelp and dabberlocks plants swaying about in the light swell, while jellyfish drift past, and the occasional pollack swims overhead.
The first indication that something strange is happening comes on looking up and seeing floating black blobs with small webbed feet attached. Suddenly the blobs move and, as they do, a bird appears, diving downwards with a stream of tiny bubbles in its wake.
Its movement can still be termed flying, as it flaps its wings and allows its legs and feet to trail out behind it. The speed that this swimming/flying bird can attain is quite amazing, pushing autofocus camera technology to the limit.
Locking the focus on, and maintaining it, is difficult, but just possible. It is certainly helped by some of the birds swimming down and peering from as little as 2ft away at the curious air-belching creatures.
If this happened just once or twice it would be wonderful, but to have it happen time and time again, with as many as four or five birds swimming into view at any one time, has to be one of divings most memorable experiences.
Sometimes a bird swims around, circling the diver and then bearing away. Sometimes one will head straight for the diver before using its outstretched wings as a brake, stopping a few feet away before heading back to the surface. Some birds are lone divers, others swim in groups, even small formations.
When I watched them they made no attempt to do anything other than look at the divers - clearly fascinated, they didnt try to feed or swim away.
During dives with such amazing creatures, film soon becomes exhausted, air finally runs low and, even in a well-insulated drysuit, cold is felt - fascinating diving still has to obey the rules, after all.

tidally constrained
It comes as a bit of a shock to discover just how colourful the Irish Sea can be. In the surprisingly clear waters surrounding the Isle of Man are some of the most luxuriant masses of anemones and the friendliest fish to be found anywhere in the temperate waters surrounding Britain and Ireland.
The Calf of Man, the small island off the southern end of Man, offers excellent diving, although it is somewhat tidally constrained. Of the dive sites on offer, and there are plenty, it is the Burroo which is one of the best, and my favourite.
Here a rocky reef juts out away from shore and drops gradually downwards. The sea floor is bedrock, with deep V-shaped gullies and some lumpy outcrops.
In deeper water (20m-plus), sparse kelp covers the flatter surfaces and is home to very large numbers of ballan wrasse. I have counted 14 in view at one time.
Sloping surfaces are densely coated with sea firs or hydroids - specifically Tubularia indivisa, which is incredibly common hereabouts - along with anemones and dead mens fingers.
But under some overhangs, the anemones dominate. They are dense and colourful in their oranges, whites, greens and more besides, with various species jostling for space. The cacophony of colour is equal to that on any similar-sized coral reef.
Nearer the shore, it is possible to find more exaggerated rocky outcrops. Here is more kelp, but it is quite easy to spot a rare pink-encrusting relation to the dead mens fingers.
Wrasses are abundant - ballans, of course, but many cuckoos, corkwings and rockcooks too.
The fish are disconcertingly approachable and will all swim skittishly towards divers, only to shy away as exhaled air finally disturbs the underwater peace. Only in summer, when corkwings make their nests, do they become aggressive. Then they will nip away at divers in an attempt to drive these huge threats away.
Penetrating the undersea cliffs here are deep gullies, the haunt of many seals. Discarded fish bones can indicate a favourite eating place, and entering such a gully can result in fins being tugged. Manx seals have learned to enjoy this trick, as others do elsewhere. Given the choice, it appears that yellow fins are their favourite.

spot the tadpolefish
On the outside of the Calf there are excellent drifting opportunities. Low bedrock outcrops at depths of more than 20m have little kelp, but are home to many other creatures.
At reasonable speeds it is possible to cover ground but also to tuck in and stop, to examine creatures such as octopuses more closely. Wrasse are abundant here too, and still friendly.
Between Port St Mary and the Calf of Man are moderate sea-cliffs, at one point fissured so that the Sugarloaf Caves have been formed. The caves are a fascinating and quite safe dive in themselves. If youre lucky, its possible to find tadpolefish in the backs of the narrow fissures. But it is at their entrance that you can watch those seabirds flying underwater.
Guillemots and others nest on the multiple ledges of the cliff face. Many can be seen in rafts floating about below the rock and, if youre careful, under the water too. As with any wildlife, a bit of knowledge helps enable them to be seen.
Obviously, going out with these birds when theyre nesting is unfair, but by late June they are much more relaxed and hardly give boats a second glance.
Motoring up and leaping in is not the best approach. Having watched people disappear off the boat into the water, the birds seem apprehensive, and it takes a long time for them to investigate further. But dropping into the water some distance away and finning means that the birds become curious about where the bubbles are coming from.
They are clearly interested to see divers. Fortunately it is in the shallows, at less than 10m, that the underwater birds are best watched, so bottom time is plentiful and the display can be enjoyed for as long as the birds dive, or your air lasts.
On the other side of the island is Port Erin. For the friendliest of fish, this is the place to be. The old breakwater, which is visible at low tide, has cuckoo and ballan wrasse, which adore divers. This is partly because some people, misguidedly, break open urchins with which to feed them.
You can tell because if you offer an empty urchin to the fish, they will dart over, only to swim off in disgust when they realise that it is empty. For whatever reason, they are happy to swim up quite close to you.

walk in the garden
A very different site lies off Fort Island to the north of Castletown, a boat ride from Port St Mary. Under the low, tumbling cliff is a nondescript-looking area of water which betrays nothing of its beauty from the surface. This is an area of bedrock worn into a multitude of shallow, multi-directional gullies, lined with coarse shell gravel. The rock below the sparse plants of the kelp park is coated in plumose and other anemones, as well as clumps of bushy hydroids.
Large frilly sea-slugs browse on the sedentary marine life, while the inevitable wrasse cruise through the kelp. Dogfish like the area too, and can be spotted napping on the gravel. Under boulders live other fish, including large ling and many codling, while above the kelp line pollack shoals can cloud the brightness on a sunny day.
This dive compares well with a walk through a rambling Victorian garden. Everything is somewhat unkempt, but knows its place. Peering along gullies is like looking at flowerbeds cluttered with just a few too many plants, but beautiful nevertheless. This is a dive which could turn the tekkiest of divers into temporary naturalists.
Diving in the southern Isle of Man can be wonderful. Weather is of course unpredictable, and visibility, whilst often 10m and more, remains weather dependent. Despite these most British of shortcomings, its well worth planning to dive here, because these sites are among the best on offer.

A guillemot
in one of the anemone-lined gullies
ballan wrasse
A seal in one of the gullies on the Calf of Man
A rocky reef with plumose anemones and oaten pipe hydroids
Weather allowing, conditions in the Isle of Man can be as good as youll find anywhere in the UK for underwater photography


GETTING THERE: Drive to the ferry (Isle of Man Steam Packet Company) from Liverpool. Using the SeaCat, the journey time is just 2hr 15min. Prices vary depending on crossing time and season. From£120-250 for a car with additional charges for extra passengers. Call 0990 523523 or www.steam-packet.com
DIVING : The hardboat Blue Fin, a 26ft Cygnus Cyclone, is operated by David Richie Richards out of Port St Mary and has emergency oxygen on board (01624 833519, e-mail d.richards@advsys.co.uk ). Maryeared Diving is a liveaboard based at Conwy in North Wales offering charters to the Isle of Man, see www.maryeareddiving.freeserve.co.uk
AIR : Aquatech Diving Services, Port St Mary (01624 833037), Diving Air Services, Douglas (01624 628123).
ACCOMMODATION: Prices vary, but there is something to suit every pocket, from self-catering flats to five-star hotels. Contact the Isle of Man Tourist Board on 01624 686766, www.gov. im/tourism.
WHEN TO GO: As with all temperate areas, the weather can be fickle at any time, but from May to August is best. In June aggregations of basking sharks sometimes occur around the Calf of Man. Avoid nesting times if you want to dive with the birds (late June onwards is better).
FURTHER INFORMATION: The Isle of Man governments website, www.gov.im, has plenty of information on it. A web search using Isle of Man & scuba diving also brings up many sites, or read the Diver Guide, Dive the Isle of Man.