RICHARD ASPINALL finds a rich assortment of life as he dives a wreck in the North-east of England – and brings back the pictures to make a heartfelt point
SLACK WATER WAS approaching and there was just a mild current to contend with as we followed the shotline down. The water quickly turned forest-green and, as we reached the wreck at a little over 20m, I needed my torch to be able to see my buddy’s hand-signals.
We agreed to explore the ship’s boilers before heading to the bow. The current was minimal now, just as the skipper had promised.
As we finned slowly around the massive bulk of iron, I was glad to be able to hold position with ease.
I focused my macro lens on the life hiding in, crawling over and sheltering in every nook, cranny, rivet-hole, fire-tube and rusted deck-plate of the ss Pandora, a short RIB ride out of North Shields near Newcastle upon Tyne.
The Pandora was launched in 1902 and built in Middlesbrough. Purchased by the Admiralty in 1913, she started a new life out of Harwich as a submarine depot ship, before being converted into accommodation in 1923 to serve the Royal Navy’s Submarine School in Gosport (HMS Dolphin).
Pandora struck a mine when under tow in 1939, but no lives were lost.
I had dived this atmospheric wreck last summer and toured as much of its 50m or so as I could find – not always easy when visibility can be as limited as 2m.
When you reach the bottom, the three boilers are the first obvious signs of the wreck. Nearby lies the whopping crankshaft, as thick as a man’s torso, with the propshaft heads aft.
Turning left leads to the still-impressive bow, though amidships is fairly broken up. At the bow, shoals of bib sheltering in the superstructure part as you swim into the remains of what was once perhaps the chain-locker (I’m no marine-engineering expert).
Everywhere you look, the ghostly white of dead men’s fingers reaches into the current to trap particles of zooplankton and other bits of nutritious organic matter. These are very rich seas, after all, and capable of producing as much life as any tropical coast. I pointed my camera towards a small butterfish I’d spotted, and started clicking away.
I WAS HERE FOR TWO simple reasons: one, to do more UK diving, and two, to try to prove so many of my diving friends wrong in believing that UK diving is cold, miserable and with nothing to see.
Every year since I qualified, almost a decade and a half ago, I’ve declared that I must do more UK diving.
The club of which I’ve been an occasional member, Robin Hood in West Yorkshire, has rarely seen me, and every trip I promise myself that I’ll do more.
Club-diving can be a wonderful mixture of exchanging knowledge, swapping stories, learning new skills and the cause of much laughter as you gently mock the guy who leaves his fins at home or (in my case) has to borrow lead.
Despite the easy access to amazing dive-sites around our history- and wildlife-rich shores, some divers are dead-set against UK diving. I was chatting to one just last week. “Good God, no!” she said. “I’m a warmwater diver, and what on Earth is there to see?”
I showed her some of my photos, and she did admit that they were “surprisingly pretty”, but I’m not sure I had challenged her prejudices.
The previous year, I cajoled my long-suffering buddy to pose against Pandora’s boilers to add scale and a human element to the photo, but this year he was off the hook, using his torch to peer into the complicated structure of the boilers, searching out crabs and other critters.
Every so often, his beam would pick out the bright red eyes of a velvet swimming crab – a handsome and apparently fearless beast with blue lines on its claws and pincers.
As we made our slow way towards the bow, the wreck was far more broken-up.
A mixture of spars and deck-plates, partly covered with sand, offered cover for squat lobsters, defiantly waving their claws at us.
There was a fair smattering of more modern detritus too: a plastic chair, a soggy old leather football and a single welly, half-covered by a roving sunstar.
Keeping a careful eye out for monofilament and hooks, I busied myself by picking up lead sinkers left over from angling trips. By the end of the dive, I had at least a kilo and a half.
There was certainly a lot of life there. A ballan wrasse passed by, perhaps used to divers, and hoping that I’d disturb something edible. In my focus lights, its dull olive flanks were revealed as vivid red, as colourful as any tropical species.
I FOUND A NICE PATCH of the orange form of dead men’s fingers (one of our few species of soft corals) and tried to get some extreme close-up shots. When viewed through a macro lens, the animals’ feeding tentacles are surprisingly beautiful, each with a delicate structure. Under an artificial light, the dull amber flesh takes on a warm sunset glow.
“Nothing to see,” I thought to myself. “Absolute rubbish!” The UK club-diving folks know it’s not true, and any club-trip report will mention “good fish life” or “lots of lobbies”. Yet I’ve lost track of how many people I’ve talked to on liveaboards who had no intention of exploring waters a few miles from their own home.
“There’s more biomass in our seas than there is here,” I might argue to doubtful Brits, as we anchor over a coral reef. “Have you ever swum through a bed of kelp?” They shudder at the thought of it.
OK, the diving is relatively colder, but that’s what drysuits and gloves are for.
I had a 15-litre cylinder and a topped-up pony for this 22m dive, and my buddy and I were keeping a close eye on our no-deco limit as we headed back towards the shot. Our dive profile would be bucket-shaped. I had still not photographed anything really special and as detailed, delicate and marvellous as you’d find in any tropical sea, which was my aim.
The lead in my BC pocket was an OK souvenir and I had shots of a few crabs, some nice plumose anemones and a cup coral, but I wanted more.
Then, out of the slightly more disturbed waters left by another diver also heading towards the shotline, my focus-lights picked out a deck-plate covered in a vivid encrusting sponge, bright red in the light. And there, no doubt grazing away on its thin meal, was my first UK nudibranch – the aptly named violet sea slug.
Flabellina pedata, to be scientifically accurate, is as colourful as its common name implies – pinky-purple with white tips to the cerata projections along its body.
I could easily develop a fascination for these colourful and alien-like little blobs, and now I must have hit Nudibranch City, because there in the murk, roving over a patch of the colonial bryozoan hornwrack, was another nudi, this time the even more delightfully named, Janolus cristatus, the crystal sea-slug.
I positioned myself to get a photograph, making sure not to bump into anything or create a current that would blow the wee critter off into the murk. I slowly approached the 5cm-long animal, using my focus-light to illuminate its almost entirely translucent body.
Crystal is a perfect name for this animal. Each of its swollen-looking cerata is tipped with blueish-white pigment that glows a little in torchlight.
As I took photographs, I kept thinking of phrases such as “jewel in the murk” and “diamond in the rough” but what would those warmwater divers say when shown something this beautiful and delicate?
I bet most wouldn’t believe that nudis are common around UK shores.
Soon enough, my buddy’s computer, a little more conservative than mine, was suggesting that we ascend. We were close to our agreed amount of gas with which to leave the bottom, and started our slow ascent up the shotline.
The green tinge to the water became more apparent as the light level increased and, with a bit of effort, I could make out a wealth of floating lifeforms – small moon jellies, sea gooseberries with their beating cilia creating a rainbow effect, and a huge lion’s mane jelly that was heading straight for the me.
I WAS ON MY SAFETY STOP, with divers above and my buddy below, so I’d have to take this one for the team as its tentacles snagged the rope and my arms, and then brushed delicately over my top lip and exposed chin.
I swore a little as we surfaced, and waited for the boat to head towards us as we hung onto a line from the buoy.
The stings were worth it. Vinegar from a club-mate helped a lot, as did the warm coffee and a packet of biccies – my club has a thing for chocolate Hobnobs!
I was also perfectly warm, comfortable and in possession of a memory-card filled with happy images. I had photographed everything from corals to nudibranchs, colourful wrasse to 12-pointed sunstars.
No one should dive if they don’t feel comfortable, but please don’t ignore the astounding shores and coastlines of the UK just because someone once told you it’s cold and there’s nothing there.
We must dispel this myth – oh, and the biscuits are better as well.
Appeared in DIVER October 2016