GOOD THINGS COME to those who wait – that good old English adage extolling the virtue of patience. Too true, I reflected, as we made our second crossing back across the Channel to Poole from Guernsey.
This time we were travelling back in style on Condor Ferries’ Liberation, its all-new super-fast three-hour ferry, rather than being crammed onto its much older Clipper in rough seas, as we had found ourselves on our first Guernsey attempt to check out the island’s diving.
Attempt one, at Condor’s invitation, had turned out to be a bit of a disaster, because the weather had closed in and the speedy Liberation was holed up in St Peter Port, Guernsey, so our dive-gear stayed bone-dry for the weekend.
Attempt two saw us cruising over flat-calm seas in blazing sunshine and with minimal wind, together with the promise that our dive-gear would get a proper soaking this time round.
Prior to both sailings and after some research on what Guernsey has to offer diving-wise, I’d eventually made contact with what my sources had told me was the “font of all knowledge” where anything diving-, fishing-, or generally sea-related is concerned on Guernsey.
This “font” turned out to be an awesome chap named Matt Eker, who runs Dive Guernsey and whose vessel doubles up as a commercial scallop-diving outfit.
After a few email exchanges, phone-calls and the already-mentioned failed trip to the Channel Islands, we were eventually able to load our gear and a pile of nitrox-filled cylinders onto Matt’s boat, which operates out of the harbour at St Peter Port.
Conveniently, Matt’s dive centre/shop/ air station sits right on the harbour wall itself and, prior to being a dive-shop, had had only one other role as a building – as a WW2 German gun emplacement.
England gave up the Channel Islands to the Germans during the war and its occupation has left an historic mark, with emplacements and fortifications found all along its coastline. Just to explore that historic building was exciting enough for me, let alone what lay ahead for us under water over the coming weekend.
Prior to our trip, Matt had emailed us a selection of itineraries to consider, and with various dive-sites up for grabs, the choice was ours. I immediately warmed to Matt’s relaxed approach, and it was clear from the off that Guernsey didn’t really see much in the way of diving tourism.
That’s why we had free reign over our schedule, with no other divers’ needs or wants to consider.
They don’t particularly need visitors either, it seems, which makes for a less rigid and almost VIP experience.
MY DIVE BUDDY for the weekend and I elected to take up Matt’s offer of a nice scenic dive to get us going, followed by a decent wreck to give the day some contrast.
From the quaint St Peter Port harbour we gently motored towards some impressive-looking cliffs, and Matt hugged the coastline so that we could absorb the endless view of spectacular beaches and posh cliff-top houses, owned by bankers, retail-chain owners and the like.
Diving with nitrox appears to be the norm in Guernsey, where all the favourite dive-sites seemed to be within the 25-30m mark. The sea-cliffs that surround the island drop steeply and dramatically into the depths and the tidal range alone is around 10m, which I guess accounts for the depth of its most interesting sites.
When diving these kinds of depths around the mainland UK, we’d find ourselves some way offshore, often miles, but that isn’t the case in the Channel Islands, where you can find such diving seemingly just metres offshore.
Matt found a submerged pinnacle of rock to put us on. It was named the Ozanne Wall, and on descending the top was found easily at just 8m below the surface, with a drop to a tad over 30m.
Where the rock ran out, a gentle sandy seabed began and sloped off into deeper water still. Reassuringly and thankfully (because I’d left my torch on the boat), the light levels remained constantly good as we made straight for the 30m mark.
Descending the wall of rock, I was blown away by the abundance of soft corals, fans and sponges that decorated every inch of space until we hit sand.
The water clarity was up there with what I would consider to be great UK diving conditions – the type of “yeah, but you should have been here last week” kind of vis about which we all like to brag.
Actually, Matt did say that we should have been there last week… We cruised about the pinnacle with ample bottom times owing to our generous nitrox fills, and spent time with a selection of fishy friends that appeared as curious about us as we were about them.
A highlight was a chance meeting with a photogenic lumpsucker, which I later found are now quite rare off Guernsey.
It’s alleged that they’re taken from their natural environment to service salmon farms elsewhere as some kind of cleaner fish.
We kicked slowly back up the pinnacle wall, which eventually brought us to our safety stop and then finally back aboard the boat. Being a commercial fishing and diving vessel, Matt’s boat doesn’t come equipped with a diver-lift, so if you were considering bringing your twin-set with you, I’d think again. Access to the boat is via a ladder thrown over the side as and when it’s needed.
OUR SURFACE INTERVAL was spent tucked into an idyllic-looking cove, which coincidentally formed part of the grounds of the hotel where we were staying.
While absorbing our beautiful surroundings, we considered what we might like to do for our next dive and Matt’s description of the Oost Vlaanderen or the Cement Wreck, as it’s known locally, sounded right up our alley.
The Dutch-built barge was carrying a cargo of cement and guns before the Royal Air Force spoilt her day during WW2. Today the wreck sits in 32m of water, upright and, from Matt’s description, a proper, friendly wreck with many recognisable features still in place.
On finding the site, post tea and sandwiches, we mucked in to help drop the shot in the right place.
Looking overboard, we could see that the visibility looked promising. I had a feeling that this was to be an exciting dive.
On descending the shotline of a wreck, it’s always a great feeling when you notice the light levels remaining constantly good – and you know it’s going to be a great dive when the wreck appears with 10m-plus of descent still to make.
That was the situation here, and on reaching the seabed at 32m the gigantic structure loomed above us. The impressive bow was easy to identify, and after diving countless tangled heaps of metal in UK waters, it was refreshing to dive on a wreck that was unmistakably boat-shaped.
A slight current stayed with us, but it was easy to escape from in the lea of its pull. We made for the deck-level where the holds are visible and provide some interesting swim-throughs in places where areas of metal have given way.
Heading towards the stern, we found the remains of the wheelhouse and a set of inviting-looking stairs that we had been told pre-dive led to the engine-room.
We were able to wriggle some way in and could probably have made it down the stairs, but my sensible side took over and we left it alone.
A circuit of the wreck can be completed in one dive and this is a perfect nitrox site depth-wise. With 10-15m of visibility on our side, locating the shotline again was simple.
Feeling super-pumped post-dive and with the pub now firmly in our minds, we made the short journey back to St Peter Port, where we unloaded the cylinders ready to fill for day two of our expedition.
IT TAKES ABOUT AN HOUR to drive round the whole island by car and it’s well worth making this part of your trip itinerary. The jagged cliffs give way to white sandy beaches, which are in turn peppered with German defensive structures, many looking as if they were built only yesterday.
St Peter Port, the capital, is home to a decent selection of pubs, restaurants and coffee-shops alongside all those shops you’d expect to find on a UK high street. The islanders are clearly proud of their home, and I struggled to find a shred of plastic or litter on any of the beaches that we visited.
The weather remained good for day two, although the wind had picked up slightly, so the dive-sites we could have looked at round the island of Sark were now unreachable.
I’m told that these sites are well worth a visit, so put them on your schedule if you visit Guernsey.
We decided to explore two more reef sites, the Sheep Reef and Longue Pierre, East Face – both of which can take you down to 45-50m if you so desire.
These sites are reasonably sheer walls that come festooned with jewel anemones, fans and corals and reminded me of the type of diving one would experience in Cornwall.
One or two barrel jellyfish made an appearance too; these giants have been spotted all around the UK south coast over the past couple of summers and reach an impressive size.
Matt had invited a scallop-diver friend to join the boat for day two so we felt over-dressed in our wings, cameras and additional bits of kit, as he threw on just a cylinder, backplate and what looked like a single hose coming from his first stage.
With everything in very close proximity to St Peter Port, including the dive-sites we had chosen, we were able to pop back to town for lunch before heading out again for our second dive of the day.
The ferry terminal sits right by the town too, so there were no worries about leaving lots of time to make our return journey home.
I asked Matt on our way back to port why there wasn’t a bigger diving scene in Guernsey, especially where visiting divers were concerned. He thought that holiday divers might weigh the cost of a Red Sea holiday favourably against the cost of the ferry and a hotel because there wasn’t much in it.
That said, you could load a car with dive gear and take two people for a three-day visit on the Liberation for around £210. Coldwater diving is what it’s all about here, so if you’re more inclined to spend a week in a light wetsuit in guaranteed weather, perhaps the Red Sea is where your money is better spent.
I LOVED THE FACT that the diving around Guernsey is unique and it felt as if I was doing something not many divers normally do. I also liked the idea of a tailored VIP-style dive trip, visiting pristine coldwater sites with the feeling that you’re the first people to dive them.
Matt’s relaxed approach meant that we could change the schedule if required, and he really did turn out to be the font of all knowledge. Diving anywhere in the world and using an island as your base is exciting, whether it’s Guernsey, Lundy, the Maldives or the Brothers.
My advice would be to take a break from the norm, peel away from the crowds and do something different by visiting Guernsey with your dive buddies.
Before you take that plunge, however, do check that the weather is going to be on your side before you leave for the island – because getting home again isn’t much fun when the sea is angry.
LIBERATION FERRY: £210 for one car/two people return, www.condorferries.co.uk
FERMAIN VALLEY HOTEL £340 for two people sharing for three nights, www.fermainvalley.com
DIVE GUERNSEY Around £20 per dive, www.diveguernsey.co.uk