Scallops (Pecten maximus) are a national concern on the Isle of Man. We have some of the most protected scallop populations in the British Isles. Licensed boats can only fish during daylight hours in certain areas of the sea and not during the summer months when the scallops are breeding. The catch is landed into harbours around the island; creamy, pink shells in 25kg bags loaded onto pallets for the forklift truck to move them into wagons.
If you glance down into the harbour its usually possible to spot the white inside of a few discarded shells shining on the seabed below. These shells eventually wash across the bay and onto the beaches, but they don’t always arrive in the same colour as when they were discarded. Many of the shells are stained dark brown or black, colours we never see during dive surveys of scallops.
Shells are mostly made of calcium carbonate which is white in colour, mixed in with about 2% of protein. As molluscs develop they absorb minerals from their environment and secrete calcium carbonate from their mantle to create their shell. The protein makes the shell very strong, but lightweight and resistant to dissolving in water. Shells are self-repairing, and the mollusc can secrete more shell material as needed for repair or growth. Naturally occurring colour and patterns in shells is as a result of mineral ions incorporated into the shell structure. But that doesn’t explain the post-mortem colouration of the scallop shells.
Shallow burial of shells causes iron oxides to form in the tiny pits on the surface of the shell and causes brown staining. The black colour is usually due to microscopic crystals of iron sulphide. These crystals form in the absence of free oxygen which can occur if shells become buried deeper in mud or sand.
Although my local harbour is sheltered, it doesn’t provide the deep mud conditions required to blacken shells, but there is a much more common cause. Burial under just a few centimetres of seaweed rotting on the beach will provide suitable anoxic conditions for sulphide formation. Hence blackened shells on the beach is a relatively quick process occurring under mounds of kelp and wrack.
There are some mollusc species that live well buried into deeper sediment. The Ocean Quahog (Arctica islandica) is a subtidal species of clam that is renowned for it’s longevity. Some individuals have been recorded at over 500 years old. The shells of Quahogs have dark black colouration, but they have a long time to absorb the necessary pigment. Whilst the shell is buried in the sediment, a siphon to the water provides for food and oxygen to the creature below.
Naturally acquired pigment probably strengthens the shell. Colour patterns often align with spiral or axial sculpture. Instead of producing and transporting a thicker shell, it might be more energy efficient for molluscs to make pigments. Pigments impede propagation of a crack in the shell. The structural explanation also works for colour inside of shells. A good example is Mercenaria mercenaria (the quahog or cherrystone clam). The purple inside the shell, hidden when the animal is alive, lies along the edges of the shell, just where predator whelks are likely to attack. Strangely young Merceneria don’t make the purple pigment. Their shells are too thin to resist attack anyway, so they concentrate their efforts on growing a thicker shell and surviving to when their pigment strengthened shell is going to ensure a long life.
There are lots of other reasons for shells to have different colours. A favourite project for marine science students is to send them to look for colour variation in Flat Periwinkles (Littorina obtusata). In this case pigment is used for camouflage, allowing the winkles to hide amongst the bladder wrack on the shore. Pigments may serve as a warning to possible predators, or the pigmentation pattern may provide a template for future growth of the shell. But there doesn’t have to be a reason for pigmentation in all cases. Oxygenated mammalian blood is red, not for any evolutionary reason, but because that’s the chemistry of the situation.
Seals are collectively known as pinnipeds, which means from the Latin pinna (fin) and pes (foot). This classification includes the walruses, eared seals and true seals. The Isle of Man and the rest of the British Isles are home to resident populations of Grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) and Common seals (Phoca vitulina). Common seals (also known as Harbour Seals) are found in both the North Atlantic and North Pacific. About 35% of the European population of common seals lives in UK waters. By contrast Grey seals are only found in the North Atlantic, Baltic and Barents Sea. The entire world population of Grey seals is probably no more than 400,000 individuals, with about 40% of them living in UK waters. Although we tend to take seals for granted, we should perhaps appreciate how lucky we are to have them in the waters around us and see them so often.
There’s been a long understanding that the pinnipeds evolved from land based mammals. This concept in itself is a little strange, as the general gist of evolution is that our ancient ancestors left the watery environment for a life on land. But somewhere millions of years ago, some of the mammals returned to the sea to take advantage of the feeding opportunities that existed there. Whales and dolphins have definitely taken their return to the marine environment to the extreme and evolved to the point that they can no longer safely return to the land. When they do, the amazing guys from the British Divers Marine Life Rescue swoop in and work their hardest to throw them back into the briny again. In the pinnipeds we have a group of species who spend their time mostly in the marine environment, returning to land only when necessary. On land seals are ungainly, slow and clumsy, which made them an easy target for hunting. In the water, they are agile hunters, capable of diving to about 200 metres for up to 15 minutes.
The clues to the pinnipeds evolutionary past are clear in a number of ways. Their forelimb has five webbed fingers, with claws that are used for grooming and fighting. This five fingered (pentadactyl) limb structure is a common evolutionary feature, linking many vertebrates including reptiles, birds, mammals and amphibians. Just let that sink in for a moment. You can see the same bone structure in pretty much every group of animals with bones. The humerus at the top, an elbow where the radius and ulna join, a wrist connecting to fingers. It’s there in the bats wing (with elongated fine boned fingers and skin stretched over them), it’s there in frogs (although the ulna and radius have partly fused), and cats and dogs and tigers and crocodiles and in us..
In seals the flipper bones that would be the equivalent of your arm are shortened, so that what appears to be their armpit is in fact their elbow (front flipper) or ankle (hind flipper). Their metatarsals (fingers) are elongated compared to ours and the skin in between gives them something akin to swimming gloves. Close interaction with a seal will reveal that they can still bend their webbed fingers to grip and hold onto objects or, if you are lucky enough, onto you as you are diving. Their flippers are well adapted to propel them through the water. When swimming quickly, the hind flippers are used in a side to side motion, and the front flippers are held against the body. If you have watched seals turn under water, you’ll know that they stick out a front flipper to perform sudden changes of direction. Cruising speed for seals is about 2 to 3 knots, but when hunting seals can move at an astounding 20 knots (that’s probably faster than most club ribs!).
Seals are part of the Caniformia (dog like) sub order of the Carnivora group of Mammals. In fact, most divers that have had encounters with seals will tend to describe them as being like big puppies. Despite this, there have been many studies suggesting that seals are in fact more closely related to bears than they are to dogs. Perhaps the fact that we are more likely to have encountered and interacted with dogs rather than bears gives rise to our misconception? Remember that Grey seals are the largest living carnivore in Britain, can grow up to 2.3 metres and weigh over 300kg and treat these amazing creatures with the respect they deserve. When you get to shake hands with a seal next time, count his fingers and say hello to a very distant cousin.
Sellafield is located across the Irish Sea on the Cumbrian coast and is approximately 32 miles from the Isle of Man, on a clear day you can just about see it. The main activities at the plant include reprocessing of spent fuel from nuclear power reactors and storage of nuclear waste. There are no longer any nuclear power plants in operation at the Sellafield site. It was built in the late 1940s to manufacture plutonium for atomic bombs and Sellafield is one of the most radioactive places on earth. In its prime the plant was releasing eight million litres of contaminated waste into the sea every day. In 1957 the plant became the site of the worst nuclear accident in Great Britain's history, The Windscale Fire. This was a blaze that raged for three days, releasing radioactive gases into the air. The discharge of low level liquid wastes from the Sellafield site in the north west of England is the most significant source of artificial radioactivity in the Irish marine environment.
Now the site is mainly used for nuclear fuel reprocessing, and this and other activities gives rise to the discharge of low level radioactive materials in the form of liquids and gases into the environment. These discharges are regulated by the UK authorities and limits for releases are set by the Environment Agency of England and Wales (EA). Liquid radioactive waste is discharged from the plant into the Irish Sea via a pipeline, about 3 km from land. Gases are released from the plant via a number of chimneys (referred to as ‘stacks’). Discharges into the Irish Sea peaked in the mid-1970s and have dropped significantly in recent years. This is as a result of improved waste treatment facilities at Sellafield, which convert much of this radioactive waste into a solid for long-term storage.
As a result of the discharges from Sellafield, low levels of artificial radioactivity can be detected in sediments, seawater, seaweeds, fish and shellfish taken from the Irish Sea. A wide range of marine samples are collected and analysed on a regular basis by both the EA and the Manx Government. This monitoring can show where the radioactive particles become concentrated. As expected many particles end up in sea bed sediment, so there are sometimes slight increases when the winter storms have been especially ferocious and stirred up the seabed. Generally, levels are falling from their peak in 1998.
There are several radioactive isotopes that are monitored, Technetium-99, Caesium-137 and 134 and Cobalt-60. Of these, Tc-99 is regularly tested for by catching lobsters. Tc-99 concentrations in our local lobsters have declined from a peak of around 400Bqkg-1 in February 1998 to average 10 Bqkg-1 during 2015. These Tc-99 concentrations are lower than the levels found in lobsters caught off the Cumbrian coast. The EC recommended maximum permitted level for Tc-99 in seafood which is 1250 Bqkg-1, so these lobsters are safe to eat and regularly eating seafish will only make a minor contribution to your overall radiation exposure.
Now it’s not true to say that lobsters are immortal, but once they reach adulthood they don’t have many predators except humans. Good lobster fishery management sets minimum landing sizes for lobsters, ensuring that they are at least able to breed once before being caught. Small lobsters can get out of pots through the escape hatch or they are returned to the sea anyway.
Just as lobster pots discriminate against small lobsters, they also prevent very large lobsters from getting in. Consequently, larger lobsters do tend to live a very long time. The lifespan of European lobsters has been estimated at between 30 and 50 years. Large lobsters have lived through the peak discharges from Sellafield, unlike their smaller 3-4 year old counterparts who got caught in lobster pots and tested. Lobsters have a fairly high affinity for Tc99 and they accumulate the radioactive particles in their bodies. But the only real predator for the large lobsters is, you’ve guessed it, divers.
Something to think about the next time you wrestle a monster lobbie from under a rock
Some years ago I craved having a tropical fish tank. I’d had coldwater fish starting with the short-lived goldfish I won at the carnival hoopla stand, but tropical fish seemed like they were more interesting. The big problem is that a fish tank is a bugger of a thing to move and at that time in my life it became a chore and a burden. I relocated 6 times with the fish in bags inside a coolbox, hence it was with some relief that when the last fish died I emptied out the last of the water and put the tank away, promising that when life was a little less hectic I’d get it back out and set it up again. About 6 months later disaster struck when I cracked the glass at one end, but I didn’t get rid of the tank, just planned on repairing it. One of those tasks on my endless to-do list.
And then my goals changed. Stuff the guppies and their frilly tails, why not set up a coldwater marine tank? After all I spend a large amount of my life underwater, why not bring some of the great critters back? Several times a year I visit schools on the Isle of Man and bring a variety of sea creatures in to meet the children and explaining something about their lifecycles. I’ve developed a habit of going and collecting little stuff anyway.
A chance conversation with one of our club members who wanted to rehome one of his tanks, ended up in him loaning me a pump and a chiller unit as well as a fish tank without a crack in the end. At 10am we were having a brew in the dive centre and by 2pm I was stood ankle deep on the slipway filling a cleaned out sofnolime container with seawater. Our marine tank was installed and populated within 24 hours. And if I thought the tropical freshwater tank was hard work, I had another shock coming. Weekly 50 litre seawater changes are just hard work.
I now spend my time thinking about the ecological balance of the tank much more than I ever bothered with guppies. When you keep tropical fish there is loads of info about how many fish per litre of water etc, for British marine life tanks there isn’t the same guidance. A small edible crab was a disaster and massacred poor Kevin the Masked Crab within 24 hours. Kevin had a dodgy past himself, and was often seen amputating limbs from small brittle stars, so he was called Kevin the Killer Crab, but we had grown fond of him and it was sad to see parts of his exoskeleton scattered around the tank.
Our current population includes about 10 hermit crabs, who mainly seem to fight over shells and ignore the rest of the inhabitants. We have two small shore crabs, although one of them is getting a little larger and consequently even hungrier. I’ve a feeling he’ll be heading back to the shore next weekend. We’ve ended up with about 30 North Atlantic Prawns who pounce any food in the tank, and will come to your hand if you put it in. Small Purple Henry starfish, a juvenile scallop, a small common sea urchin, some limpets, Top Shells and Periwinkles complete the scene. We’ve had small fish (they get eaten).
The current star of the show is our Leach’s Spider Crab (Inachis phalangium). Leachy has a small triangular carapace which will reach a maximum of 3cm. I picked him as he ran across a sandy patch between rocks. I’ve seen small spider crabs before, but never really bothered too much about them. Leachy’s small size made him a target for the tank. After a short trip in an old ice-cream container, he was released in the tank. On the same day, another diver brought in 3 small Snakelocks Anemones.
It turns out that Leach’s Crabs have a commensal relationship with Snakelocks Anemones, the crab benefits but not to the detriment of the anemone. Females stay with their anemone and males will rove around looking for a mate and then return home. They are beautifully camouflaged, with legs covered in sponges and algae. This isn’t by chance, Leach’s Spider Crab actively collects sponges and algae and attaches them to specially shaped spines on their legs and carapace. The sponges are unpalatable and stop predators from attacking the spider crab. The algae form a part of the diet, which also includes food debris from the anemone and the mucus from the tentacles. Our intrepid little Leachy has beautifully evolved to fit into his ecological niche. Admittedly, that’s not meant to be in a dive centre tank, but on the plus side, none of his natural predators are there. We’ve so far avoided large fish or octopus. Periwinkles occasionally find their way out past the pipe work so we’d have no chance of keeping a cephalopod and Leachy is safe for now and I’ve learned a lot more about him.
Once upon a time my Editor and I went diving together. It was a few weeks after he had penned an opinion that back entry dry suits were an integral part of the buddy relationship. It was, he opined, important to trust your dive buddy to close the ridiculously expensive brass zip without trapping your undersuit or that annoying flappy bit of neoprene stuck in the back of several suits. Relying on your buddy to ensure the zip was closed all the way, contributed to the mutual support aim of buddy diving. As we stood kitting up for our dive, I happily fastened my front-entry plastic zip with the minimum of fuss and decided to tackle Simon about his ill thought-out piece.
I have a front entry suit because I like being responsible for myself…or more precisely I don’t always trust my buddies, especially if my buddy is a trainee or new to dry suit diving. I lack the ability to rotate my neck like a barn owl to check that everything is OK behind me. It only takes one trainee, who earnestly assures you that the zip is closed when in fact it’s half an inch open, to make you reconsider. When that cold rush of sea water starts running down your shoulder, you know that this is one mistake you won’t be making again!
But how do you get the dive manager or boat crew to double check your zip without offending your buddy? Surreptitiously sidle over to the crew as you leave harbour, keep your voice low so it can barely be heard above the engines (and definitely not by your buddy) and assume some wistful position that doesn’t look like you’re hugging a large imaginary tree? And of course all the while you must try not to offend your buddy and generate “trust issues” because at the very first time you are supposed to rely on their assistance you bailed and found another source of help.
So for me a front entry suit solves all of these problems. If my zip isn’t closed properly, then that’s my fault and my soggy right leg. For anyone thinking of getting a suit with a plastic dry zip, they are fabulous but never ignore the need for silicon greasing the stop end, even between dives if you’ve peeled out of your suit. But it’s my responsibility and I’m good with that.
Front entry suits frequently have two zips, the dry one and a cover zip, and this can cause endless problems too. I took my eye off the ball one day whilst doing a dry suit introduction in the pool. I will accept some of the blame, but we had just done a session at the dive centre trying on suits, and the concept of a dry zip and a cover zip had been discussed as we established that this particular suit was a good fit. I am to blame for thinking that our discussion would be remembered barely an hour later when we kitted up on poolside. When I turned to look at my two eager divers, they had closed their zips and were ready for the stride entry. Yes, the cover zip was closed. No, the dry zip wasn’t. Yes, the suit filled with water (luckily the warm pool version). No, the diver couldn’t climb up the pool ladder unaided. The phrase “I seem to be getting a little wet” was a total understatement on her part. Once dekitted, we laid the unfortunate lady down and rolled her around on the pool surround to empty the water. To give her credit she laughed nearly as much as we did and gamely carried on the orientation session. Five years on she is still diving, in a front entry suit, which she knows has two zips and one of them is very important.
Sadly she’s not the only one who’s been caught out in this way. Even some quite experienced visiting divers have missed the ‘hard to do up’ brass zip and relied on the ‘easy to do up’ cover zip in one of our rental suits. A cold shot of Irish Sea water down the leg is a salutary lesson in the need to familiarise yourself with hired equipment. So for anyone who read, noticed and remembered Simon’s treatise on the importance of back zipped suits for buddy trust and diving, maybe I was wrong to criticise him and perhaps divers with front entry zips could do with their buddy’s assistance, just sometimes.
Summer is a busy time for any dive centre, and it’s almost with a sigh of relief that we watch autumn unfold so that things will quieten down a bit. However, sometimes summer has an unremittingly autumnal feel as misplaced jet streams bring repeated low pressure systems rolling across the British Isles causing havoc and mayhem. Many of our summer dive plans changed at the last minute as gale force winds and torrential rain made sea conditions treacherous and reduced visibility even in the sheltered bays.
When I lived in west London, all my diving trips necessitated organising towing vehicles, booking accommodation and stupidly early starts. I just don’t want to see 5am on a Saturday morning unless I have partied through the night to get there – and I suspect those days are behind me now. Back then my dive trips were organised with almost military precision and planned weeks in advance. Things are a little different now.
When I first arrived on the Isle of Man two things struck me; firstly, how everything I’d been taught about dive planning, tidal flows and tides was completely trumped by local knowledge and secondly, how dives could be organised at 5 o’clock in the afternoon with the minimum of fuss and we’d all be in the water for 6.30. My gung-ho “It’s not too rough really. I’ve planned to go diving so we are” attitude didn’t cut it here. If you live with such fantastic diving on the doorstep, why have a slightly rough dive? Wait 24 hours, let the wind drop away and have a really good dive instead.
The Isle of Man is close enough to the North West coast of England to be visible on a good day. In fact it’s a local story that you can go to the top of Snaefell (our one and only mountain) and see 7 kingdoms in one go. I’ll leave you guessing to name them all, but the location of the Isle of Man at the geographic centre of the British Isles means that every summer we have clubs setting out in their RIBs to travel across to dive in our waters. And we offer visitors copious amounts of help to locate sites, plan around tides, transport cylinders, locate parts for their broken boats etc. One of the visitors this year declared himself both very grateful and surprised that we should help him out so comprehensively and mentioned that other dive centres in the UK had been less than helpful. Although, it’s true that we are pretty nice folks who want the best for our visitors, there are darker reasons at work.
The Isle of Man is a limited community of around 80,000 and pretty much any diving story will end up with some link to our centre, whether it’s commenting about closing areas to dredging, helping out a fishing boat towed into harbour with their own nets around their prop or getting involved with videoing the local swimming club in training. All diving links lead in our direction…..so it’s in our own selfish interests that we help out our visitors. A lifeboat shout for lost divers swept away on an unexpected current or the hyperbaric chamber being mobilised for a recompression all reflects on us. Some timely advice and guidance keeps the visitors out of the incident pit for a bit longer and keeps diving out of the news until we have a good news story to impart.
Of course, managing the exposure of diving in the local press plays a role in how we manage our diving activities too. It’s been suggested that there are only 6 degrees of separation between any two people in the world, but on the Isle of Man that’s around 2 degrees. Word of mouth is incredibly important. We have to be safe and be seen to be safe, or our reputation would disappear overnight. Doing my Advanced Driving test a few years back introduced me to the idea that ‘accidents don’t just happen’. The same applies to diving, accidents are a culmination of a series of steps. The advice that we freely give to visitors is the first point we can intervene to stop that series of events unfolding. If you’re planning a trip across please feel free to get in touch. If you run a dive centre that begrudgingly hands out dive planning information please have a think about how this reflects on the industry as a whole. I promise you that it won’t undermine your charter service….the clubs that brought their own boats this year are booked to come and dive off our boat next year…..and looking forward to a less stressful trip.
And in case you are wondering on a clear day you can see the kingdoms of Mann, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Mann, Heaven and Neptune.
One of the best things about running a dive centre is the diversity of the clients that walk through the door. One of the worst things about running a dive centre is the diversity of the clients that walk through the door. Our centre is multi-agency which means we can honestly offer the most suitable training to each person that comes to us. We’ve become experts at chatting to prospective divers about their interests, travel plans and diving aspirations and offering them considered and justified advice about their training.
But when people walk through the door the first thing they will say is “I want to do my PADI.” The marketing spend and brand awareness for PADI is huge and there’s the common misconception that only a PADI cert will be accepted elsewhere in the world.
Like many experienced divers, I’m entitled to carry a range of cards covering a number of different aspects of diving, but I pick which ones I take on trips with me. Somewhere in one of my filing cabinets is my set of cards but rarely do they see the light of day. I once had the misfortune to be on a Red Sea liveaboard with a guy who when asked to prove his diver grade slapped a huge wallet of cards on the table with the classic line “There’s 50 years of diving experience in there. Take your pick.” It was unnecessarily aggressive and made all the sweeter when, later in the trip, this same guy was the one who surfaced from the night dive to check where the boat was before dropping back to 12m to finish his dive. Obviously the 50 years of experience didn’t include basic navigation.
In truth, BSAC qualifications generally carry a large amount of kudos. We train in some really tidal, very murky conditions and our training includes a huge amount of dive and rescue planning that stands us in good stead wherever we pitch up in the world. On a particularly difficult pick up from the Rosalie Muller in the Red Sea it was our experienced divers who took over recovering the divers from the water, threw out grab lines and carefully timed their assistance with the pitching of the boat. No shouting. No fuss. They just stepped forward and stopped a difficult situation developing into one that would have ended up in the BSAC incident report.
The Isle of Man hosts motorsport events throughout the year, the TT in June, Southern 100 in July and the Manx Grand Prix in August. These events attract large numbers of foreign visitors carrying a variety of dive qualifications, some stating CMAS equivalence and several requiring translation. We’ve met and dived with some fantastic divers from around the globe, and we’ve had some very deluded people walk through the door. My favourite has to be the bloke who walked in and announced in a very heavy Eastern European accent “I vant to dive vith the sharks!” A little gentle questioning established that he had done a try dive, in a hotel swimming pool in Turkey, about 5 years ago. We carefully explained how much legal protection covers the basking sharks that come to pup and breed in Manx waters, that they avoid divers, that he wasn’t qualified and no, we couldn’t just hire him some kit. He left muttering and we breathed a collective sigh of relief.
We run two boats from our dive centre and when necessary have the services of a third boat. The skipper’s first question when I call him to book a group is to ask “Are they BSAC? That’s OK then.” He knows he will get divers who, thanks to the strong club system, will turn up as an organised team and just get on with it. Delayed SMBs aren’t a special course, they’re mainstream. Nitrox isn’t something just for multiple dives on a liveaboard, but for safety in everyday diving. And should anyone have any difficulty there will be someone throwing out a grab line and watching the pitch of the boat as they go to assist.
But of course I’m not claiming BSAC clubs are perfect. We’ve had the divers who got confused when they ran out of dishwasher tablets and put washing up liquid in the machine instead (Don’t try this at home without a mop and bucket handy). We’ve had the clubs that plead for discounts, usually for the ‘poor students’ and their trip turns out to be comprised of university staff and post-docs on sizeable bursaries. And we all look forward to hearing about the club politics as the week goes on.
Anyone who runs a retail business will tell you that they are regularly approached for donations to a variety of charities. It’s a common thing for businesses to choose charities that reflect their employees’ interests or even to have an annual pitch from the employees to pick a charity of the year. In our dive centre we have collecting boxes for the local Hyperbaric Chamber and the RNLI, both close to divers’ hearts and interests.
The reality is that I’ve never been to the chamber for anything more than a planned visit and I’ve never called out the lifeboat. In fact we’ve responded to several emergencies at sea and reduced the times that Port St Mary lifeboat has been scrambled. So although we actively fundraise for both these charities, we definitely count in the low/no user group. But it’s reassuring to know that they are both there if we ever need them.
I have come to the conclusion that the RNLI isn’t always the diver’s best friend. With improved navigation aids and communications, excellent training and really powerful pumps our local lifeboat has been involved in many incidents. We know many of the crew, in fact we taught several of them to dive. The Isle of Man is blessed with numerous wrecks, many still unidentified. These are the product of two World Wars and, in the past, considerable navigation errors. Stick a lump of rock in the middle of the Irish Sea and it seems like a considerable number of vessels will manage to run into it! But all these wrecks are gradually deteriorating, leaving just the boilers and maybe the prop shaft behind amidst a collapsed mess of plates and ribs. As time marches inexorably onwards, the decay takes its toll and within the next few years several of these sites will all but disappear. So my big dilemma is this, where will the next generation of wrecks come from?
I can’t have been the only diver who watched the Riverdance drama unfold in 2008. Once the crew and passengers had been safely lifted off and she was adrift towards the Blackpool coast, I admit I was willing her, telepathically transmitting a “Sink. Sink. Sink” message. The seabed between the Isle of Man and the North West of England is rarely more than 40m. Just imagine a wreck of that size as a dive site. The Zenobia of the North West. But oh no! A conspiracy between the RAF, coastguard, ship owners and RNLI meant that they had manoeuvred her towards the shore until she was abandoned and by then she was so far inshore that she ran aground. She rapidly became a big tourist attraction, but after several failed attempts to refloat her, the owners sliced Riverdance into scrap metal and carted her away to an ignominious end. What an utter waste of a brilliant dive site!
So much as I love the RNLI I have come to the conclusion that they are not really a diver’s best friend. All this pumping out boats and towing them back to harbour malarkey is not good for maintaining a decent number of wrecks to dive. A recent faulty fire alarm panel in a neighbouring building saw the fire brigade arrive at 7am outside the dive centre. The building was locked up, but having established that no-one was in the building and there was no fire, they all accepted a cup of tea (in our DDRC mugs of course) and left with the alarm still ringing. I want the RNLI to take the same approach – if there’s no one in danger then just leave the ship to become a wreck. Don’t worry about where it’s going to end up, we have sounders and towable cameras to find it. A last known position will do and we’ll take it from there.
Sir William Hillary lobbied for the inception of the RNLI after witnessing the destructive power of the Irish Sea around the Isle of Man. He took part in commanding a volunteer crew in the heroic rescue of all the passengers of the St George as she struck Connister Rock outside Douglas harbour in 1830. The Isle of Man is proud of our longstanding association with the RNLI and Douglas boasts the first Life boat station. But in the early days the rescues were aimed at saving lives, the saving vessels part came later. All I’m asking for is the crews to be a little more pragmatic…..the next generation of wrecks lies in their hands!
For a while just before Christmas a couple of years ago, the common description of the Isle of Man as ’80,000 people clinging to a rock in the Irish Sea’ couldn’t have seemed more real. Our only winter capable ferry managed to ingest some lobster pots cunningly set in the entrance to the harbour, destroying one of the bow thrusters essential for manoeuvring into the tight confines of her berths both here and in the UK. A period of windy and stormy conditions meant that several sailings were cancelled, the schedule went to the wall and running the Dive Centre during this time was a challenge. Customer orders couldn’t get through so there were a few ‘I ordered it in plenty of time, but it didn’t arrive yet’ apologies to some of the local divers on Christmas morning. But in general the poor weather meant there wasn’t much diving going on anyway however the security of supplies should actually be a worry for all divers. We see it as a challenge to arrange expeditions to remote locations, carrying with us tonnes of equipment, fuel and supplies to dive in some of the lesser known spots. The planning takes weeks if not months, and part of the satisfaction is diving knowing that you have overcome all the obstacles. But just think what your diving would be like if that was the level of organisation that you had to run to all the time.
It’s no secret that the current economic climate is hitting leisure industries hard, and that includes dive equipment manufacturers, retail operations, dive training schools and charter businesses. The whole sector has seen a contraction in spending, and those who depend on it for their living are working harder and longer than ever to keep going. I spent 2 hours last weekend advising a diver on kit, discussing the relative merits of different options, measuring him for a dry suit and painstakingly working out a competitive price for the choices. As I slaved over the pricelist and a calculator I saw the dreaded smart phone in his hand and watched in horror as he scanned the barcode and searched for an online price. Despite the time that I spent, the various configurations that I’d rigged for him to try and the detailed knowledge I provided, he ordered online whilst standing just outside the shop!
It’s a free market and of course he can choose where to buy from. Some of the big dealers can get much better trade rates than the small guys and rely on high volume of sales to make their money. However, a word of warning; if the kit was supplied by us, we would happily set it up, take him for an orientation to his new kit in the pool followed by a weight-check dive. Any warranty issues would rest squarely with us and if we couldn’t sort it out in our workshop, we would happily lend him replacement kit whilst we dealt with the returns process. These are all little things that we would do as we recognise that the commitment to buying dive kit is a big step, and a little guidance along the way can make a huge difference. How many new divers buy exactly what someone in their club, usually the loudest person in the bar, told them to get? And how many change their kit within two years?
With heavy hearts now we have had to introduce an admin charge to deal with warranty issues for which although we are a dealer but did not supply the item. If we didn’t make even a small amount of profit selling it, we can’t justify paying the postage to send it off to be repaired. And if the owner of new kit wants to try it out, then we will be charging him for the pool or open water sessions. So how much does the odd £20 that he saved really matter? Obviously to him that mattered a lot, but perhaps now he’s seen the value to the service we provide he’ll reconsider? The good news is that no-one has yet invented a way to download air via a USB cable, so we’ll be seeing him back in the store real soon. Have a think about the security of your supply chain for diving. Local Dive Stores have overheads and may cost a little more, but they will be around to supply your air, provide repairs at short notice, hire kit, give advice and support your purchases. Your diving activities would be infinitely more difficult if they disappeared.
The beauty of running a dive centre is that we become the first port of call for the ‘odd projects’ that come along. Over the years this has varied between organising dive conferences, running evening snorkel safaris, recovering plankton data recorders, surveying scallops, razor shells and caves, and every so often some film work. A while ago I worked with a German film presenter whose task was to catch and cook some scallops. Part of the director’s vision was that the poor presenter didn’t know the plan until she arrived on the shoot. This is a European programme so she’s seen Belgian chocolate factories, Swiss cheese makers and now she was headed for the bottom of the Manx sea bed.
In situations like this your Instructor Sense starts tingling as bad as Peter Parker’s Spidersense ever did. How much diving has she done? Has she dived in cold water before? Has she used a dry suit before? Has she ever used a full face mask and comms? The director shrugged the questions off with an air of nonchalance that only a non-diver could maintain. Would it be alright if they flew in on the Saturday morning, did the filming and flew out in the evening? Involuntarily my hand flew up to smack my own forehead as I briefly lost my air of professionalism. Cue a lengthy discussion about sea conditions, weather, familiarisation with new kit and skills, risks of DCI and flights. Oh and the scallops in question being out of season at the time they wanted to film, making us liable to a fine of £50,000!
The Director of Fisheries was duly contacted and issued a special permit for us to collect and retain enough scallops for the filming. The TV director was persuaded that a three or four day filming period was needed to be able to teach his presenter the necessary skills, safety divers were lined up and we started anxiously watching the weather. I read somewhere the other day that many teenagers wake up and check their Facebook profile before getting out of bed, brushing their teeth, using the toilet or anything else. I’d like to think I’d never be that bad, but I’ve realised lately that I can find the weather apps on my iPhone before I’ve really opened my eyes in the morning. I’ve become a compulsive forecast watcher. And as filming days approached the weather was looking less and less favourable.
We took the executive decision to go and catch our scallops early and store them so that we would at least be able to ‘seed’ a sheltered bay if the weather really turned bad. As the scallop season had closed in June we hadn’t bothered going near our favourite scallop spot over the summer. We dropped down in anticipation and were stunned by the state of the seabed. Port St Mary Ledges are a series of limestone gullies running out from the shore. Although the dredgers run up and down the sand at around 30m, they never usually come into the rock ledges – but that must have changed last year. If we’d sunk a tractor and ploughed the seabed it couldn’t have been any worse. The deep gouges through the rock and sandy gullies had cleared every bit of life; the hydroids, dead man’s fingers and sponges had all been ripped away. And there were no scallops at all. Luckily our back up plan for a slightly deeper, more tidal site came through and we collected our scallops for the shoot.
The shooting days were long and repetitive. The weather was as bad as predicted and the visibility was poor. Our safety divers ‘seeded’ the seabed from the bottom of the shot line. Never before has a skipper so confidently said “Head North and you’ll find the scallop bed.” But our presenter wasn’t happy. The overwhelming amount of new skills and new kit, the demands from the director and film crew and challenging surface and underwater conditions tipped her over the edge. For a couple of hours she sulked in the cabin next to the heater, declaring that she had never been so cold and miserable in her life. Never underestimate the power of divers to ‘make things happen’. We dressed our male dive intern in the female presenter’s drysuit, gloves, mask and hood, dropped off the back of the boat and went and did some more filming anyway. The dive brief was short and sweet and mainly consisted of reminding him “Don’t look into the camera” repeatedly!
Michelle has been scuba diving for over 20 years. Drawing on her science background she tackles some bits of marine science. and sometimes has a sideways glance at the people and events that she encounters in the diving world.