LAWSON WOOD, co-founder of the St Abbs & Eyemouth Voluntary Marine Reserve, takes us on a photogenic underwater tour of an unusual oarweed habitat – complete with wreck
Petticowick, or the ‘Wick’ as it is known locally, is a small protected bay north of St Abbs, on the northern side of the massive St Abbs Head cliffs on Scotland’s south-east coast. Petticowick is just one of many impressively photogenic dive-sites within the St Abbs & Eyemouth Marine Reserve.
The Wick was a salmon-fishing outpost in Victorian times, and its old slipway still exists. It is reached by a road from St Abbs village that runs all the way to the lighthouse across Scottish National Trust land.
The bay is ringed by ancient cliffs – some of the oldest on the planet. The 18th-century Scottish geologist James Hutton redefined Earth’s history when he examined the astonishingly contorted stratified rock at Siccar Point, just north of the bay. Known as Hutton’s Unconformity, the weirdly shaped formation reveals a slice of the our planet’s evolution dating back 65 million years.
Arrival at the site
Much of the early scuba-diving at the Wick was from the shore. Entry was down a steep grassy bank to the old lighthouse slipway. Entry and exit is always best at high water, because the seaweed-covered rocky shoreline can be perilous to negotiate at low tide.
Now the lower part of the banking has collapsed and, despite various repairs to the footpath over the years, access to the small pier is very difficult.
Despite this, when dive-boats are unable to leave the protective harbours of Eyemouth and St Abbs, a hardened few will make the trip and dive the Wick from shore, because despite the challenges the result is always worth the effort.
The centre of the bay is a wide, flat sandy space with gravel edges and wave-sculpted drifts. To the north are the remains of WW1 casualty the Ringholm, and to the south lie the rocky reefs that stretch around St Abbs Head.
The 1,756-ton, 60m Ringholm, often referred to as the Odense (after her home port), is referred to locally as the “Peanut Boat” in reference to its lost cargo. Peanuts were washing up along the Berwickshire coast for weeks after the ship’s total loss, and much of this cargo was salvaged and sold at Berwick market.
Ringholm had been attacked on 15 May, 1917 by a U-boat that surfaced beside the vessel. The crew followed orders to abandon ship, and today the wreck is spread over a wide area of kelp-covered shallows off a large wedge-shaped rock called Wick Gaut. The large boilers sit on their own on the sand and most of the larger parts lie below 9m, with the biggest sections piled up against a ridge in 18m.
When approaching the bay from shore, you come across the habitat of a seaweed called oarweed, which is home to small shrimps and snake pipefish (Entelurus aequorus). If you look closely, you might alsofind the very rare stalked jellyfish (Haliclystus auricular).
The beauty of the sandy area is that it is no deeper than 12-15m, allowing divers plenty of bottom-time because it’s fairly well self-contained.
Nowadays, most local dive-boats will try to get divers up to the Wick and, despite what can be a fairly rough passage, they soon reach the safe waters of the bay to get under water.
The rocky reefs surrounding the bay are covered in kelp with sea urchins on the top, and wherever there is more shade or an overhang you’ll find dead man’s fingers and plumose anemones. Small sunstars can also be seen, and soon enough you start to get to carpets of brittlestars.
Petticowick at St Abbs Head is now a well-established dive-site on its own merits rather than a fall-back plan when the weather is bad. Whether by boat or from shore, make sure it’s on your list when you visit the St Abbs & Eyemouth Marine Reserve.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Petticowick, Broadhaven Bay, St Abbs, Berwickshire
Type of dive: This has always been classed as a shore-dive, but with the deterioration of the footpath down to the slipway, it is usually done as a boat-dive (or second dive) because it’s safe, confined and shallow, with plenty of marine life.
Depth: Expect 12-15m in the sandy centre and an average 9m around the Ringholm.
Marine life to look out for: What’s surprising are the number of West Coast species found here. This sandy bay appears to be the perfect habitat for long-clawed squat lobsters, sea mice (Aphrodite aculeate); pale bristleworms (Lepidonotus squamatus), feather starfish; brown swimming crabs and circular crabs. Tiny Atlantic cuttlefish are common, as are queen scallops, which I have never found anywhere else in Berwickshire in such shallow water.
Seabed: Wide central sandy patch surrounded by rocky reef – rock walls with seaweed and kelp.
Hazards: Sand and silt is easily kicked up by careless fin-strokes. When the weather is particularly off there might be a few dive-boats looking out for wandering groups. There is little or no tidal flow or current but be aware that if you exit the bay and continue east towards St Abbs Head the tidal current can become very strong. Divers have been caught out when they surfaced in the wrong area, so use your DSMB before coming up. Shore-divers return to the jetty.
Photographs by Lawson Wood