|WE NEED TO COVER MORE EUROPEAN DESTINATIONS said Steve, the managing editor. He probably meant the Mediterranean. In fact I know he meant the Mediterranean. But while I enjoy diving in the Med, its not something that I let get in the way of the peak of the UK diving season and my main preoccupation, wrecks.|
Ever one for creative interpretation of orders, I travel to a European destination that is genuinely European in that it is not part of the United Kingdom. In fact, it is not even part of the European Union - the Isle of Man.
Waiting for the Seacat at Liverpool, there is a strong southerly wind. It is hardly noticeable on the crossing, yet later that evening on the Isle of Man it doesnt bode well for the next day.
I make contact with Mike Keggen of Isle of Man Diving Holidays. We agree that with the early slack being early and a strong wind, we should wait until the afternoon and see what develops.
I pass the morning with a look around the capital, Douglas, with its famous seafront and horse-drawn trams.
By high water its still too blowy to go far. We head just down the coast from Port St Mary to Sugarloaf Caves, part-submerged caves and tunnels into and through the cliffs. Its one of those dives that some divers love and others hate, says Mike.
I know what he means. Its shallow and its marine life. Some divers would object on a matter of principle. I have an excellent dive. I love it so much that I tantalise myself with the idea of doing it again as a second dive every day, only to pass in favour of other sites I have not yet dived.
Next morning, the wind has disappeared and there is not a cloud in the sky. With the tides an hour later we make an early start for slack water.
There are some names that just have to go in a divers logbook - for the name, if nothing else. Who could resist the Drinking Dragon At the south-east corner of the Calf of Man this rock is more properly known as the Burroo, which actually translates as Fortress.
In a calm sea it takes only 15 minutes from the slip at Port St Mary to the tip of the Calf. Sometimes these natural rock sculptures take a lot of imagination to perceive, but as we come side-on to the Burroo, the Drinking Dragon is obvious. The holes and cracks in the rock suggest interesting topography under water.
The tide is still just moving north as we drop into 20m in the area that would have been swept by the dragons tail. The seabed is a smooth plate of rock cut by rounded winding gullies. Some are little more than cracks, others narrow canyons 3-4m deep, just wide enough to swim along. The walls are tightly packed with plumose anemones.
The current is slack enough that we could have swum against it. Nevertheless, we head with the current and towards the shore, the seabed gently shallowing and the gullies getting bigger.
We have seen seals basking on the rocks before the dive, and Mike has mentioned that as we get closer in they will check us out, but Im still surprised when the first one shows up.
With a black muzzle and fins and grey flecks on its body, all I can see at first is a big fishy outline of silver-grey. Then the seal flicks its fins and jinks towards me, and its identity suddenly becomes obvious. I follow it into a gully and patiently wait while it settles by a rock to scratch its back. With only two shots left on my film, I need to make them both count.
On the way back to Port St Mary we keep a look-out for basking sharks. The sea conditions for spotting a fin are about as good as it gets and the Isle of Man is famous for baskers in early summer. They are not the main reason for my trip, but a sighting would be a nice bonus.
For a second dive we head south again and through Calf Sound to the wreck of the Clan MacMaster. Earlier I had driven to the observation point and watched the tide ripping through, a strong wake and standing waves building over every little rock. Close to slack water this has faded to gentle ripples.
The Clan MacMaster was a 6535 ton steamship on its way from Glasgow to Liverpool when it struck the rocks of the sound in thick fog in September, 1923. The sea was calm and all the crew made it safely ashore.
Much of the general cargo was salvaged before storms broke the back of the Clan MacMaster and, over the years, dispersed the wreckage about the west side of Thoulsa Rock.
From the rock Mike leads me deeper until we come to the more cohesive stern part of the wreck. The line of the keel is still obvious. We follow the propeller shaft down to the stern and steering, then back to a beautifully open and decorated engine at the other end.
With the current slowly building, we avoid going further forward. Being swept off and along the shallows would not be dangerous, but it would bring our dive to a premature end.
Instead we follow the rocks out into the main channel of Calf Sound, along walls of big white plumose anemones. Rounding the last rock, Mike pops a delayed SMB and we are off along the sound, flying above a seabed of big white dead mens fingers.
At the start there are occasional scraps of wreckage. I swim cross-current for a look at one which looks enticingly like the frame of a rudder, but turns out to be an old bit of trawl gear.
The seabed becomes more varied. Anemones, hydroids and mussels compete for real estate with the dead mens fingers.
The current pushes us shallower and to the north. We end the dive above streaming kelp. I duck among the roots to see that the sessile animals are still having a party in the shade. Im glad that it is Mike rather than me who is holding the SMB.
Conditions are still calm in the morning and we head south again. It doesnt take long to get a good echo from the Fenella Ann, but as the wreck is 38m down with the tide still slacking it takes a few attempts to get the shot in place.
This small wooden scallop-dredger sank only in November 2002. Having struck the Burroo on the way back to Port St Mary, the Fenella Ann made it another mile north before sinking. The two crew were rescued by another local trawler.
In clear green water it doesnt take my eyes long to adjust to the light. Descending the line I can soon see an entire toy fishing boat laid out below me. Its all there, from rigging to instruments in the wheelhouse. Everything is furry, coated with a dense mat of hydroids.
I work my way round slowly, taking in the detail of the rigging and fishing gear. Its a gem of dive, but with its wooden hull I wonder how long it will survive.
An hour before the afternoon slack, the sky has darkened and the weather is a bit squally. We head south and through Calf Sound, hoping for a little shelter from the land.
We get some shelter, but it is still a rough ride to the wreck of the Thracian, a 2154 ton four-masted barque. The Thracian was newly constructed at Greenock and under tow to Birkenhead to complete fitting out and be loaded with cargo.
On the night of 14 October the ship capsized in a storm. The tug Sarah Joliffe was forced to cut the tow cable before the Thracian sank. None of the 17 on board survived.
The shot is hooked into a miscellaneous scrap of wreckage right next to the stern at 36m. Upturned with plates fallen away, the curved frame of the rudder and the V-shaped ridge of the keel have a magnificent covering of anemones. At the other end of the wreck the bow is equally spectacular, with even more fish.
As we head through Calf Sound on Monday morning its getting rough again, though things improve as we get away from the strong inshore currents, out to the west and the wreck of the Ringwall.
On a highwater slack the seabed is at 38-40m, though I manage to spend most of the dive at about 35m. This small coaster of 407 tons sank after striking a mine in January 1941. Mine damage is immediately apparent amidships. The wreck is broken, with the holds and forward part twisted perhaps 30 out of line, with the aft part containing the wheelhouse, engine and boiler.
Planning to dive again on the west side of the Isle of Man, we leave the boat at Port Erin rather than driving it all the way back to Port St Mary.
Its Tynwald Day, marking the opening day of the Isle of Man parliament and a bank holiday. The Queen is visiting for the ceremony, to tour the island and open a few buildings and other occasions while there. I just have a wander round Port Erin and enjoy the sunshine.
By late afternoon and low-water slack the wind has picked up again. Its too rough to dive, so I help Mike recover the RIB and head off for the motorbike racing.
The Isle of Man is famous for the TT races but there are several other races through the year on different road circuits. This weeks is the Southern 100, a series of 100-mile road races on a short route beginning and ending in Castletown. I follow my nose along the road until I meet a closed section, park my car and join a group of spectators sitting on a wall at a bend.
I soon get chatting to a local motorbike enthusiast who explains it all to me. In the TT, bikes run against the clock. In the Southern 100, each class of bike races together.
Just south of Castletown I have stumbled on one of the best spectator spots, a 90 bend at the end of a long straight. Tonight is the opening practice night, so the first few laps are cautious before the riders begin to push it a bit.
On the TV news Sir Norman Wisdom, one of the islands most famous residents, is shown playing the fool as Her Majesty opens Tynwald.
The last day of my five-day trip comes all too soon. There are no constraints on choice of dive site. Slack water is late in the morning and surface conditions couldnt be more perfect. We head out seven or eight miles east from Port St Mary to the wreck of the Liverpool.
This 686 ton ship is another wartime casualty, this time World War One. She struck a mine and sank in December 1916. The name recurs throughout her story. She was built in Liverpool in 1892, was on her way from Liverpool to Sligo, and sank in Liverpool Bay.
At 38m long, the wreck feels larger than its 686 tons would suggest. The layout is conventional, with holds either end of boilers and engine amidships. As with the Thracian and the Ringwall, the wreck is teeming with fish - pout, coalfish, pollack, congers and one or two bold lobsters strolling about.
Visibility is good enough that I can hang off the stern and see the propeller, rudder and steering quadrant while popping my delayed SMB at the end of the dive.
Local divers comment that it is unusually murky and recount tales of looking up to see the boat above.
The second slack water is now too late in the day to be worth waiting for. Even so, there is a wreck dive possible to the north of Port Erin. The 650 ton coaster Citrine struck the rocks and sank in 16m in 1931. Much as I like wrecks, I pass.
No, theres nothing wrong with me. Its just that, having concentrated on wrecks for the past few dives, it was about time for a reef and scenic again.
Anywhere round the southern tip of the Isle of Man or the Calf seems to offer good scenic diving without going that deep, and there are just too many sites from which to choose.
Mike suggests an outcrop of rock on the west of the Calf called, simply, the Stack. This would normally be a drift, but by descending close to the rocks we can work our way out in the shelter of the reef.
We land in the middle of a valley in about 15m. The floor is a mixture of dead mens fingers and kelp, and the walls are solid squidge. There is just about everything; sponges, hydroids, anemones from the tiny jewel variety to fat-looking plumose anemones and, of course, yet more clumps of white and yellow dead mens fingers.
I have to force myself to move on, if only to get a feel for the bigger picture. Even so, I dont get far. There is just too much to see in one place. The valley opens out to a shingle bay, sloping sides covered in yet more anemones.
Its a beautifully sunny evening as we head back to Port St Mary round the bottom of the calf, past the Drinking Dragon. We keep a loose lookout. There are still no basking sharks, but then, we didnt really look that hard.
Besides, who cares with wreck and scenic diving as good as this The Isle of Man is located about halfway between Lands End and St Kilda, and a little bit to the east, which pretty much sums up the diving.
|Practice day for the Southern 100 motorbike race |
|A seal looks up from scratching its back |
|Drinking Dragon - the Burroo |
|horse-drawn tram on the Douglas seafront |
|trawl winch of the Fenella Ann |
|The rock beneath the Burroo is scoured with rounded, winding gullies |
|An old net caught across the wheelhouse of the Ringwall is now weighed down by marine life |
|Rudder of the Thracian |
|a lobster has set up home in the end of a capstan on the bow of the Liverpool |
|pinnacles with white plumose anemones separate the Clan MacMaster from the drift through Calf Sound |
GETTING THERE: Ferry from Liverpool or Heysham to Douglas with the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company. The high-speed service from Liverpool takes four hours. Return fare for a car with two passengers ranges from 190 to 320, being cheaper out of peak season, midweek, at night and booked in advance (08705 523523, www.steam-packet.com).
DIVING & AIR : Mike Keggen runs a 6.5m RIB suitable for eight divers, based in Port St Mary (01624 833133, www.isleofmandivingholidays.com). Diving costs 26 per day with two dives and 12 litre air fills.
ACCOMMODATION : Mike Keggen has a three-bedroom apartment sleeping eight for 400 per week (01624 833133). While John Liddiard was there it was already booked and he stayed at Jakin Guesthouse (01624 832420).
NON-DIVING ACTIVITIES : Motorcycle races, local heritage, walking, cycling, golf, sailing.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2094, Kirkcudbright to Mull of Galloway and Isle of Man. Ordnance Survey Map 95, The Isle of Man. Shipwreck Index of the British Isles, Volume 5, by Richard and Bridget Larn. Dive Isle of Man, Diver Guide, Maura Mitchell & Ben Hextall. Isle of Man Tourist Information 01624 686766.