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Dive Notes from a Small Island: Part 4 – North East England & Scottish Borders

CJ and Mike

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After a week’s break back home to dry our kit off and see the family we headed north to explore what the East coast near the Scottish border had to offer us. I had visited the Farne Islands several years ago and did some great diving with seals, so I was keen to share this fun experience with Mike. I also wanted to explore the diving off St Abbs, which I had heard great things about (both boat and shore diving) from many UK diving friends. Since we were late in the season trying to book we were very fortunate to get two spots on Marine Quest’s boat going out of Eyemouth and with Sovereign diving out of Seahouses, on consecutive days.

We drove up the day before to find a flat calm sea, sun and excellent visibility looking out from the coast at Bamburgh. Of course, by the following day, in Eyemouth, we were greeted with thick fog, a huge tide and deep swell (down from Norway apparently). I was relieved we had booked boat diving, as shore diving was definitely out of the question, but despite the less than ideal conditions, our skipper Iain found us two sites with some shelter to enjoy!

Dive 10: Fast Castle, St Abbs

Site description:

Above the surface this site sits beside some very impressive cliffs round from St Abbs Head, at the base of the cliffs the rocky beach shelves off into the water and this slope continues down to rocky reef below. The dive is on this sloping reef with rock and gullies down to plateau at 20m. Known for the life on the reef and being a sheltered location, this makes for a great and safe dive in trickier conditions.

The Dive:

For us this dive started at 12m, as the swell would have been too dangerous in shallower water. The conditions were pretty awful, it felt rather like being washing machined in green murk, however, as promised, Iain had managed to find us a spot where we weren’t being swept along by the tidal flow as well and this gave us chance to appreciate the fantastic reef life. Over our 50mins at a max depth of 19m we saw more lobster than I could count, squat lobsters in every nook and cranny, crabs and shrimp. The rocks had dead men’s fingers all over them down to where the rock plateaued beneath us at approx. 20m, from about 18m onwards the rocks were carpeted in brittle stars. We had a good explore given the visibility and saw lots of macro life, followed by a big and very grumpy looking scorpionfish, which was our treat at the end of the dive as we deployed the SMB.

Mike’s thoughts:

As we descended into the pea soup it took a while for my eyes to adjust enough to spot the approaching bottom (let alone keep my buddy in sight). We managed to stay together and found that despite the challenging conditions the sea life was abundant, and quite interesting. The variety of crustaceans in particular was amazing with all different sizes and types of squat lobster and shrimp. We also saw an explosion of juvenile brittle stars covering hundreds of square meters of the bottom, so dense in places they were two or three layers deep and covering other species of starfish. Composing a macro photo was difficult with the surge but there was no shortage of subjects on which to try and I got lucky with my camera’s auto-focus for a few shots as I swung back and forth in the surge.

Dive 11: The Horn, St Abbs

Site description:

The Horn Reef got its name as St Abbs Head fog horn can be seen from the boat if you are directly over the reef (and it’s not foggy!). The reef lies directly offshore from St Abbs village and begins at 17m running parallel to shore. There are a series of mounds or high points, with gullies in between at approximately 20-22m. Heading seaward, the reef shelves off to a wall which has an abundance of life.

The Dive:

We had better conditions on the surface and first 3m, unfortunately we then experienced decreasing vis and a big swell as we descended using the shot line. The shot went to the top of the reef at about 17m, and we could see other mounds separated by gullies at about 20m. The rocks were covered in life, mainly dead men’s fingers, interspersed with cup corals. We pottered about, spotting small stuff while circling the approximate location of the shot line, not bothering with the wall, given our decreased bottom time, it being our second dive and the less than stellar conditions. Again we saw huge numbers of shrimp, squat lobsters and lobsters and several nudibranch eggs on the algae keeping us well entertained us on this surgy 40minute dive. I would love to come back to this site on a day with better conditions, as the life on the wall must be fantastic and the topography impressive if you could see to appreciate it. I can definitely see why St Abbs has such a great reputation for diving. I would also highly recommend Marine Quest as they were very accommodating and quick to reply to our diving inquiry and provided excellent and knowledgable service on the boat. We were treated to delicious ginger cake washed down with multiple cups of coffee both in the surface interval and after the second dive. What is possibly more upsetting than the weather conditions, is that I forgot to ask for the cake recipe!

Mike’s Thoughts:

As with our first dive of the day I could sense the potential here in better conditions. As it was I enjoyed seeing glimpses of the small stuff when I wasn’t caught in the swells. I also should have known after ten dives in the UK that I should have brought a good torch with me. Rather than focusing on taking pictures, I’d probably have had a more relaxing dive just exploring the reef with a decent light! It was still interesting to see baby squat lobsters perched on the dead men’s fingers, the usual abundance of larger crustaceans in the crevices, and even a new (to me) pea-sized nudibranch. A return visit in better conditions would be in order!

Arriving in Seahouses the weather hadn’t improved and we were anxious about not being able to dive, when another dive boat cancelled. However all was ok; it turned out the other boat had done the sheltered sites yesterday and with another huge tide and large swell other sites were off limits. For us however, the seals dives were still a go!

Heading out we went to the north side of the Megstones and found a sheltered area with a large number of grey seals (one-year old pups) and a large number of diving seabirds, including over 100 gannets. Then for the second dive, moved round to see some adults on the rocks near Knoxes Reef.

Dive 12: Megstones, Farne Islands

Site description: This 10m dive is just off the north side of the Megstones. The rocks slope down from the island down to 10m where kelp and a gravelly bottom provide a playground for the inquisitive seals. Nice easy dive, with a gully on the north east to explore.

The Dive:

SEALS!!! There were loads! We jumped in under observation from tens of adolescent grey seals and a flotilla of gannets. Descending to about 5m, we were soon sussed out by 8 seals, one or two of which became curious and seemed to enjoy sneaking up on Mike and I to nibble our fins. We had a great 30mins playing with the more curious of the seals, then went for a swim to warm up a bit. Exploring the kelp we found many blue lined limpets and a nudibranch, then returned to the seals. At the end of our dive while putting up the SMB, we were even joined by a shag, which dived down into the kelp beside Mikes head, presumably on the hunt for fish. Our captain Rob was very good at positioning us so we got a great experience with no swell or current and lots of seals. He also took the boat over so we could watch the gannets diving during our surface interval. Brilliant dive all round!

Mike’s Thoughts:

I was pretty excited as our boat approached the dive site because 40 or 50 adolescent grey seals were lounging on the rocks and swimming close to shore. Immediately upon reaching the top of the kelp at 5 meters, we were rewarded with 7 or 8 seals circling us in the water. For the first 30 minutes of the dive we were continually shadowed by the same few seals, tugging gently on our fins and circling us curiously. Unfortunately I missed the shag at the end of the dive, but I did enjoy seeing why the waters were so rich in bird life. Streams of bait fish passed above and around us during the latter half of the dive. All in all, this was a very rewarding experience and highly recommended.

Dive 13: Knoxes Reef, Farne Islands

Site description:

A shallow site, 0-5m, consisting of a kelp bed off shore from a seal colony. Here the main draw is the large colony of mature grey seals that haul out on the nearby rocks. Hundreds can be seen here and although the adults are not usually as playful as the adolescent seals, it is a safe sheltered dive spot where you can be in the water with big seals.

The Dive:

The seals were not as playful on this dive and we caught glimpses of them as they swam off so we kept the dive short and shallow, looking for nudibranchs on the kelp. Finishing off with a surface scuba close to shore to watch the seals popping their heads up at us. Having had such a great first dive we were happy to return to the boat after about 25mins.

Mike’s Thoughts:

Despite entering the water not too many meters from hundreds of seals, they were elusive underwater and we only caught fleeting glimpses of several circling around us 8-10 meters away. It was still nice to see so many seals from the surface though, and as with all wild animal encounters you just never know how it will turn out.

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Western Ecology Tour Expedition Report: Stats & Scotland

Donovan Lewis

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Expedition Overview

During June 2021 a team of us Photographers, Filmmakers, Scientists and Divers took part in the Western Ecology Tour, an expedition that involved diving some of ‘The Best’ of the West Coast of the UK. The Expedition took place between the 17th and 29th of June, and we traveled to 3 key locations throughout the UK. The expedition started out in the Lochs of Scotland and finished along the Pembrokeshire coastline.

The expedition was led by Andy Clark of ATND Services and @fancy_a_brew_podcast. He sought out talent, sponsors, and expertise to aid him in achieving the goals he had planned for the expedition.

The expedition had three main aims; To support scientists who are working to better understand and protect our coastlines, wildlife, and ecosystems, to tell the unseen stories of our hidden coastline, and to promote sustainable adventures.

The expedition had a number of sponsors with all of them supplying equipment to the WET Team, these sponsors included Northern Diver who supplied Cylinders and Dive Lights and a Northern Diver bags for the Crews equipment, Analox who supplied a Nitrox Analyser, Dryrobe who supplied Dry Robes to members of the WET Team, GearAid supplied Cleaning and Repair equipment, Stream2Sea Supplied Alcohol Hand Sanitiser, Neptunic supplied T-Shirts and Rash Vests and Modena Journals supplied Journals to each member of the WET Team to make notes throughout the expedition.

Other sponsors included OThree who donated an array of items for Raffle Prizes and Finisterre who donated a £150 Voucher also for a raffle prize.

A prize raffle was run leading up to the trip, this raised £2,005 with £397 being given to each of the 3 projects that were supported, and the rest going towards supporting the team throughout the expedition. To reduce costs and minimise the teams carbon footprint, we lived life as simply as we could, which we did by staying at campsites.

In total the team collectively covered around 12,500 miles, with travelling taking between 5 – 10 hours to travel between each area of work.

Expedition Stats

  • Collective Miles driven – 12,500
  • Dive Sites Visited – 12
  • Max dive time – 74 Minutes
  • Collective Total Dive Time – 30.7 Hours / 1,847 Minutes
  • Max Depth Reached during Expedition – 34 Metres
  • Camp sites visited – 3
  • Collective Midge Bites (Scotland) – Unknown (Possibly Hundreds)
  • Largest Item of Pollution removed – Oil Drums
  • Projects Supported – 3
  • Total money raised during fundraiser – £2,005
  • Money raised for each charity – £397

Scotland

In Scotland, our team were supporting Shark & Skate Citizen Science Scotland, with Chris Richard and Dr Lauren Smith. Chris and Lauren are working alongside fisherman and the local community to better understand the movements of the Flapper Skate, an animal that was once in abundance, hence why it used to be called the Common Skate, but it is now classed as a Critically Endangered Species. Chris & Lauren have managed to identify an egg laying site of the Flapper Skate but are unsure of how many animals are using the site and with the surrounding area being used for fishing, it puts the site at risk. Thankfully the specific site is closed to fishing and even diving, Chris & Lauren are working to try and better understand the Skates and learn more about their movements as this will help them place better protections on not just the site itself, but also the routes the Skates are using in and out of the site.

The one thing they mentioned is that the local community are an almost untapped source of local knowledge and resources. Due to the rarity of Flapper Skates Chris and Lauren have put together a Facebook page where local divers, walkers and nature enthusiasts can report their sightings of Flapper Skates and other Shark & Ray species.

We left from Andy’s house in Wigan for around 10:30am and it took us around 10 hours to travel up and arrive at The Wee Campsite which is located on the shores of Loch Carron. As soon as we arrived, we were mobbed by thousands of Highland Midges which resulted in some members of the team having between 10 – 100 midge bites on a single arm. We were warned about this before heading up but we weren’t expecting the sheer amount of them.

The campsite was however situated amongst some of the most breath-taking landscapes and vistas that the UK has to offer. Once we had all set up camp and eaten, it was time to set up our cameras and make sure that we were packed and ready to set off for 9am the next morning.

The First day included diving the shores of Loch Duich with the first Dive Site being outside the Ratagan Youth Hostel, this had a gentle sloping seabed with a muddy bottom. Here lies a huge amount of Short-Clawed Squat Lobster, Brittle Stars, Harbour Crabs and Jellyfish. This dive was unbelievable in terms of the sheer amount of life and is a Macro Photographers dream with life that was not only in high abundance but were also confident allowing you to truly take your time in getting the shot.

The second Dive Site is known by the unfortunate name of the Rubbish Dump, this dive site sits below a small lay by that is known for dumping rubbish, and when you go underwater you see why. The wall was covered in rubbish that ranged from plates, fishing line, car tyres, and even more shocking, was the sheer amount of animal remains with skulls and bags of bones littering the seabed. Even with this sheer amount of waste present at the site, there was life clinging to the debris, from crabs who made makeshift homes beneath the rubbish, Lauren even found a Mermaids Purse that had been wrapped around discarded fishing line but after Lauren did a quick check, she concluded that the egg wasn’t hindered and rather than try and move it and damage the egg she decided to leave it to develop.

After the dive at the Rubbish Dump, Chris spotted what was first believed to be an Otter but as a surprise sighting it turned out to be an invasive American Mink who swam past the team with what was believed to be a Rockling in its mouth, only a few shots were able to be taken before it darted under some rocks.

The final Dive site of the first day is known as School Bay, this is once again a dive site with a muddy bottom. The mission on this dive was to find and photograph a Fireworks Anemone and Sea Pens. The dive site is essentially a bowl that drops to around 25 metres. Chris advised us to follow the slope down into the Bowl at a depth of 20-25 Metres and here we found huge amounts of life from Sea Pens, Sea Whips, Long-Spined Sea Scorpion and of course we found Fireworks Anemone. This site was being swept by a gentle current which was shown by how many filter feeding animals that were present here.

The only problems that we ran into on this site, was entry and exit from the water, as it was over a very rocky beach, followed by shallow areas with thick algae, so extra care was taken when walking and swimming with cameras.

After day one the team returned to the campsite and settled down, after eating and preparing cameras for the second day, to dive briefings for day 2 which were delivered by Chris and Lauren.

Day two in Scotland was a day of drift dives which first lead the team up to Conservation Bay a short drive from the campsite and a short walk down a slope to a gentle shore entry. The dive started on shallow kelp bed, but with a short swim out however had us swimming out into a gentle drift dive, the walls here were covered in Dead Man’s Fingers, Kelp and Anemones. Ollie managed to get some incredible footage here of the walls and life that clung in the gentle drift.

The second dive was another short drive to Castle Bay, a beautiful dive site which had Strome Castle overlooking the bay that we were diving in. The current on this dive was much faster, however manageable when we were trying to capture imagery and footage of the site. The walls on this site were once again adorned with Dead Man’s Fingers, Anemones, and Common Urchins, however the drift was fast enough that it lasted for around 20 minutes before slowing in much slower water. The wall at this point flattened out and became a gentle sandy floor with huge amounts of flatfish, decorator Crabs, Moon Jellyfish and Nudibranchs. This area alone would have constituted a dive all on its own due to the abundance of life that was present.

The final dive of day two was a quiet one with only two members of our team going down for this one, as other members of us went off to photograph the site from above water and conduct drone shots for the Expedition film that is currently in production. It was Chris and Ross who decided to get in for the final dive of the Scottish leg and they dived on a huge Maerl bed, Maerl is a hard Seaweed that forms huge carpets on the seabed and creates a diverse habitat for other wildlife, they reported back after the dive after seeing Nudibranchs, Butterfish and Flame Shells amongst the Maerl beds. Scotland was finished off with Chris and Lauren giving their interviews about what they do at Shark & Skate Citizen Science Scotland, along with some time to take images of some of the expedition’s sponsors.

After the final dive we spent an hour or so filming and taking photographs of expedition sponsors, and the general scenery before heading back to the campsite for the evening. The evening was spent with us chatting about the amazing diving we’d had during the Scottish leg and spoke about the next stop on Expedition WET’s itinerary, this was of course beautiful North Wales.

Tune in for the next entry of Expedition WET’s Trip report where I’ll be collaborating with Co-Scubaverse blogger Jake Davies, where we’ll be talking about Project Seagrass and about what the team saw and achieved during this amazing leg of the journey.

Header Image: WET Team in Neptunic gear. Photo Credit – Hannah Rose Milanković

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Wining and Diving – Gozo

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

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The Wining and Diving series sees Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown embark on a tour to tickle the taste buds as well as to discover amazing dive sites in wine-making regions around the world. Some of the best wines are influenced by sea breezes and a coastal climate, allowing two of Nick and Caroline’s passions to be combined into one epic journey.

**Please note, Nick and Caroline are not encouraging drinking before diving! The two activities are kept well apart on each of these trips.


Gozo is one of the most popular diving destinations for British divers, offering stunning underwater scenic dives along with plenty of wreck diving. Add to this the sunshine, professional dive centres and the relatively short flight and it is a perfect short-haul getaway.

We went for a long weekend dive conference and had heard that there was also an excellent vineyard on the island for us to try out on our non-diving day before flying home – perfect! With only two days of diving on the itinerary we wanted to pack in a much as we could, but the weather and the fact that Caroline had fallen down the stairs the week before and was struggling to walk very far – we needed help and the team at Calypso Divers really went out of their way to accommodate us, so rather that the usual shore diving the island has to offer, we started out visiting some of the most popular dives by boat.

Cathedral Rock and the Blue Hole showed off the dramatic seascape that is a feature of Gozo, with cliffs towering up out of the sea, caves and caverns where the power of the waves has created an underwater playground for divers. We visit Crocodile rock to see the schools of barracuda and to hunt for nudibranchs.

Our final dive saw us visit the wreck of the MV Karwela. This wreck is famous for its staircase that divers can descend and makes for an excellent photo opportunity.

Gozo is also well worth exploring top-side, with beautiful beaches, plenty of history and some lovely places to stop, relax and enjoy the food and drink of the region. We visit the family-owned Tal-Massar winery which hosts twice-weekly tours for groups, taking guests through the winery’s private estate and allowing them to enjoy the spectacular, unspoiled surroundings.

Tours also include a wine tasting featuring at least four different wines, plus traditional Gozo bread and cheese, sundried tomatoes and cold pressed olive oil. It was all delicious!


Links

  • For more information about Frogfish Photography click here.
  • For information about visiting Malta and Gozo click here.
  • For details on the dive centre we dived with click here.
  • For more information about the wine we sampled: Tal-Massar Winery
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