Chasing the vis in Skomer
A SUMMER DIVE EXPEDITION took us to the beautiful Pembrokeshire coast in south-west Wales, and in particular Skomer Island. Imagine Lundy surrounded by a bunch of other little Lundys and you’re there.
Preparation for any UK-based sea-diving trip starts with following the weather forecast a week prior to the trip, and we all know that the weather on the exposed Welsh coast is susceptible to dramatic change.
It wasn’t looking particularly great a week ahead, but a favourable window emerged and we went for it.
I live on the south coast, in Brighton, and the road map indicated that my journey to our base in the idyllic fishing village of Dale would cover exactly 300 miles, complete with a tour of the length of the M4.
For me, the adventure of a dive-trip begins on leaving the house, even if that does include some of the most frustrating motorway driving on the planet. The trick is to either set off super-early in the morning or get your driving out of the way at night.
We chose Brian Dilly of Dive In 2 Pembrokeshire to look after our team over the weekend. His website, albeit of a basic design, struck me as being the most informative and enthusiastic of the few available. It was packed with inspiring photos, videos and relevant information, accompanied by informative maps of dive-sites and the general area. With Brian’s 25 years of diving experience there, what could possibly go wrong?
We had chosen two full days’ diving from one of Brian’s hardboats. The Eva Ann had, we were told, only recently been fitted with a diver-lift. He would also be running two other boats full of divers – Eva Ann’s sister-boat Overdale and a pretty standard-looking RIB.
We had also ordered packed lunches for both days diving at £5 a pop – locally sourced produce and home-made cake, all lovingly prepared by Brian’s wife. This would later be washed down by unlimited amounts of tea and coffee.
Depending on the tides, ropes off would take place either from the pontoon at Dale or the marina at Milford Haven.
I was banking on Dale, firstly because I was staying on a campsite within spitting distance of the pontoon and secondly because I think it’s a far prettier place than Milford Haven.
Most of our team were staying in B&Bs of varying standards at Milford Haven, so I’d drawn the shortish straw. Allow 20 minutes to reach the marina at Milford Haven if you do choose Dale as your base, as well as a decent amount of kit-faffing time once you reach the pontoon there.
There would be two dives a day. Brian announced when we booked that he had more than enough cylinders for each diver and charged for air-fills only, which was refreshing. Nitrox appeared to be in short supply, however, so if you’re looking to extend your bottom time bear this in mind prior to the trip.
ON REACHING THE PONTOON ON SATURDAY MORNING, Brian indeed appeared to be carrying enough cylinders to service an army of divers. With ropes off an hour later than planned, the three boats set off in convoy up through the Haven, with the oil refinery and heavy-duty shipping as our backdrop, past the dramatic cliffs of St Ann’s Head and into the huge swell of open water.
Once away from the refinery, one can begin to appreciate the dramatic scenery, with Skokholm Island visible first, followed by Skomer, further north in the distance.
Both sit close to the mainland, where we were heading for dive one. According to Pembrokeshire Online: “The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park displays a greater variety of geological features and associated landforms than any equivalent area of the same size in the British Isles.” The ancient volcanic history is evident from the impressive cliffs and crags, as is the immense geo-diversity that follows the coastline.
The sea was lumpy, to put it mildly, and I wondered what might happen if we hit one of those huge waves broadside on.
The skipper announced that the ride would settle down once we reached the north side of Skomer and the tip of the mainland, in the lee of the wind.
A highlight would be passing through Jack Sound, a patch of angry-looking water that funneled through a passage between the mainland to the east and Midland Isle – Skomer’s little brother – to the west. At the southern entrance to Jack Sound the 10m-at-most seabed suddenly plunges to 30m, creating a wild and turbulent section of white water as the sea is forced over the obstruction – definitely not bathing territory!
Once through the Sound the sea flattened out and we were able to move about, putting gear together and, for those who needed it, using the cramped head in peace!
WHEN APPROACHING a UK site, top of my list is a visibility assessment, always with a sense of optimism. It’s usually obvious when you’re about to submerge into pea soup, but that’s not always the case when it looks ropy at the surface.
Our first site, a wall somewhere along Haven Point, looked “reasonably promising” and, of course, the boat-crew reported that “last week it was 10m-plus”.
There was only one way to find out, so I grabbed my camera and torch and jumped in. I made a note to avoid the fishermen’s lines as I let the air out of my wing and disappeared into the gloom!
Gloom wasn’t what I’d come here for.
I wanted to get away from the kelp and, after eventually finding bare rock, felt my way deeper, wondering why I’d brought my camera. The rock gave way to a sandy seabed but the visibility didn’t improve.
I had reached only 15m so decided that this would have to go down as a check-dive. Perhaps we’d have better luck at another site with some depth.
I’m not one for enduring miserable dives, so I counted my losses and escaped to the surface after only 20 minutes down. Other divers stuck it out and did discover an octopus among the rocks, a top-drawer find whether in the UK or abroad.
We discussed our options and put our trust in Brian’s experience. Post free-range egg sandwiches (from Brian’s chickens) we motored over to Skomer and North Haven, a bay at the island’s north-west tip. The topography really does resemble Lundy Island here, Lundy being one of my favourite UK locations, so a measure of excitement returned.
Seals flopped about on nearby rocks, though not in the sort of numbers found at Lundy. We dropped into the water hoping for better vis, and seal action too.
The bottom was again at around 10m but visibility was vastly better. As we finned across the sandy seabed we began to find scallop after scallop, the biggest I’ve seen – some the size of side-plates.
These guys are monsters because Skomer is a marine reserve – you can't touch them. Spider crabs were also numerous, but many were just remnants, the occupants having shed their shells and headed for deeper water.
The area is also home to thousands of hermit crabs of varying sizes.
We spent a good 50 minutes at the site and turned back towards the boat as we reached the outer edge of the bay, where the current had started to pull. The seals stayed out of the water, but there was always tomorrow.
Day one had been a good introduction but I was looking forward to checking out some of the more dramatic wall and pinnacle diving we had heard about.
The sea had flattened out, making for a more comfortable ride back, then it was straight to the marina bar for refuelling.
COME SUNDAY, the sea state had switched to millpond as we headed straight and fast for Skomer’s north side, though Jack Sound was as aggressive as it always is. We were starting on the North Wall, a gnarly-sounding site that begins at the foot of Skomer’s cliffs.
We made our way down to 30m, where the visibility was the best we’d seen that weekend, stretching towards the 8m mark. The wall plunges to 40m if you’re looking to go deeper.
Wall dives are my favourite kind. I like the variety of marine life at the various levels, from the kelp often sitting near the top to the cave-like sections that create a habitat for squat lobsters, prawns and crabs, and the sheer-face sections, often home to swathes of jewel anemones.
I was surprised not to find jewel anemone in abundance here and wondered whether they might appear in greater numbers on the southern side of the island. Several squat lobsters were tucked into cracks, with crayfish living in holes next door. The various wrasse appeared unfazed by divers, but common lobsters we found did appear shy.
Over 50 minutes we made our way back up the wall scanning any cracks and crevices with torches. This was the kind of diving I’d come for.
Surface intervals are always a pleasurable experience in such environments, and as well as taking in the scenery, observing the seabirds present adds to the experience. Puffins live at Skomer alongside guillemots, cormorants, razorbills and more.
I asked Brian whether his operation relied on diving, and he explained that this side of his work merely funded the workshop that serviced his core business – supplying safety-boat solutions to oil-refinery-associated shipping.
OUR LAST DIVE was on one of Skomer’s many submerged pinnacles, its tip 8m down and its base at 40m. This site was only metres from the island's steep cliffs.
We dropped down the first rocky ledge. The sandy seabed began at 10m and then sloped off at a steep angle into the depths.
The pinnacle walls overhung in many places, creating large caves in some sections. One of these was rammed with crabs. The macro enthusiasts identified many nudibranch species, and our octopus specialist managed to find yet another example.
Visibility was better still as we wound our way down the pinnacle towards the 30m mark. The water was 2° colder here than at the southern UK sites we’d dived earlier that month, but the prolific life kept us entertained enough not to feel it.
I took a final glance at some of the super-sized scallops that filled the seabed and another at my dive computer, began the ascent up the pinnacle and sent up my last SMB of the weekend.
We had hoped to encounter seals, but only one individual made a brief appearance during our 5m stop. Perhaps they’re just not used to bubble-blowing divers, unlike their boisterous cousins at Lundy or the Farnes.
The highlight in this area for metal enthusiasts would be a dive on the wreck of the Lucy, the Dutch coaster that lies in 40m just off North Haven Bay (see John Liddiard’s Wreck Tour 3 on Divernet).
We had only scratched the surface, and plan to explore further next summer. Brian and his crew took great care of us, and his enthusiasm and assistance knows no limits. The dive operation’s tagline is “Ceilliau y Cwn” and I agree with that. I’ll leave you to figure out what it means!
Dive In 2 Pembrokeshire charges £40pp per day for boat charter, with packed lunch £5 and air-fills £3, www.divein2 pembrokeshire.com. Accommodation is available at Point Farm Campsite in Dale (limited spaces, book early), www.point farmdale.co.uk and the Heart of Oak Inn in Milford Haven, www.heartofoakinn.com