The Scilly Isles

May 2006

By Richard Booth

Following the highly successful trip Organised in 2005 by Dave Robson, Tyneside 114 return in 2006 to dive with Jo Alsop on Moonshadow.

In July 2005 the club enjoyed a highly successful expedition to the Scilly Isles when we were fortunate enough to enjoy six days of excellent diving and fantastic weather. On that particular trip we experienced a combination of hot sunny weather, with calm seas and exceptional underwater visibility. The Scillies on that occasion had fully lived up to their reputation as ‘the Isles of tranquillity‘.
Perhaps not surprisingly, those who been on the 2005 trip were eager for a repeat of this experience. The month of May according to all the best guide books promises the best weather to experience the Scillies. Armed with this information and still on a ‘high’ from our last visit to these beautiful islands, we eagerly booked a further trip for this year.
In contrast to last years trip however, in the days leading up to the holiday dates we anxiously watched the unfolding weather fronts building up out in the mid Atlantic Ocean…
After an uneventful over night journey down to Penzance, members of Tyneside 114 branch assembled on the harbour pier, prior to unloading our kit into the hired freight container.
Once safely aboard the MV Scillonian III, we were ominously warned by the crew to prepare for a rough crossing. Also on board were a large party of noisy school children with apparent minimal supervision by their teachers. The noise and boisterous misbehaviour of these children caused considerable irritation for the other passengers horrified at the prospect of a three hour passage subject to this torment.
Once clear of the harbour however, the large Atlantic swell soon sorted out the misbehaviour problem. Within minutes of leaving the shelter of the harbour piers, the noise of over excited children was replaced by the groans and the miserable sounds of the school party retching into the supplied sick bags. This agony was to be prolonged as the Scillonian III was forced to slow down by the size of the oncoming waves turning a three hour passage into a four. Sadly some of the Tyneside party had the misfortune to be afflicted by the misery of sea sickness, so it was with some relief when the ferry eventually docked along side the harbour quay at St Mary’s.
The following morning we awoke to the realisation that the strong winds had not diminished overnight. Down at the harbour quay we met up with Jo Allsop, when she brought her boat across to the quayside. Unfortunately it was also all to clear that the sea conditions were too rough for diving, so we had to make do with unloading the container and transferring our dive kit across to Jo’s boat, Moonshadow, in the hope that conditions would improve for the morrow.

The remainder of that first day was spent exploring around the island of St Mary’s. Richard and Belinda braved the crossing over to the island of Tresco. These efforts were rewarded by bright sunshine and blue skies as they explored the island and its famous botanical gardens. Particularly impressive from a diver’s point of view is the collection of historic ships figureheads on display at the garden. Indeed a number of these artefacts were recovered from local wrecks. These figureheads make a poignant display and have been beautifully restored and repainted. The return trip back to St Mary’s in the open trip boat with howling wind, spray and rain, served as a timely reminder why the days diving had earlier been cancelled.

The following morning however still saw no improvement in the weather with the result that a second days diving had to be cancelled. Furthermore, the weather forecast for the remainder of the week was poor, with predictions of more weather fronts massing in the mid Atlantic with further gale force winds to follow. That evening long faces tried to make good cheer whilst contemplating the dreadful prospect of a week of blown out diving! The contrast with last years trip could not be more marked.

Tuesday arrived and the weather tentatively looked to have improved. With some trepidation we assembled on the quay and boarded the Moonshadow. However, with a brisk breeze still blowing and a big swell outside of the harbour we knew that dive sites would be limited.

Initially, heading out to St Agnes, it soon became clear that diving the site of the wreck of the SS Italia was out of the question, and that the Hathor and Plymton wreck site offered borderline diving conditions because of the strength of the surge. Heading back to St Mary’s we headed around the coastline for the relative shelter offered by the lee of this larger island.

Fortunately, here we found calmer waters. The site chosen for the first dive of the trip was the bow of the MV Cita. This former container vessel is one of the Scillies most recent wrecks, having struck rocks on the shoreline of St Mary’s in the early hours of the 26th March 1997. Its cargo of 147 containers floated free of the stricken vessel and resulted in something of a ‘wrecking bonanza’ as the islanders swarmed to the beach to take advantage of this situation. Today, the remains of the Cita lie in two distinct sections. On this occasion we opted to dive the bow section which has broken away from the stern but is intact and upright, wedged against rocks. Deepest depth on the bow section is around 30 metres to the seabed. It is possible to dive under the bow and explore a narrow swim through, formed where the bow lies against a small underwater cliff. This area of the wreck is covered in a thick carpet of rich marine life. On the deck of the bow a small mast still points dramatically upwards towards the surface.
Second dive of the day was the wreck site of the SS Lady Charlotte, which lies just across the small bay from the wreck of the Cita.

The SS Lady Charlotte was a 3,593 ton British steamship built on the Tyne in 1905 and which was wrecked on the 11th May 1917 whilst on passage from Cardiff to Alexandria with a cargo of coal.

Jo dropped the shot line in 15 metres of water close to the vessels two boilers. Swimming down the remains of the propeller shaft takes you down to the remains of the stern section of the wreck. For me this proved to be the most interesting area of the wreck with a large steering quadrant wedged upright against a rock. Also to be found amongst the wreckage is the ships spare iron propeller. In shallower water much of the wreck is covered in kelp. What was particularly noticeable on this dive was the variety of marine life to be observed, including colourful wrasse and a large spider crab.

The weather forecast was still poor for the following day; nevertheless we still optimistically turned up at the harbour quay. The wind, whilst still quite strong had swung around to the South West, so Jo with the benefit of her local knowledge was fairly sure that we would obtain some good diving in the lee provided by the East side of the Scillies. Moonshadow headed out past St Martin’s and out to the Hard Lewis Rocks some three-quarters of a mile off shore. Sure enough her optimism proved well founded and a shot was quickly droped over the wreck site of the SS King Cadwallon.
The SS King Cadwallon was wrecked on the Hard Lewis Rocks on the 22nd July 1906 whilst on passage to Naples with a cargo of coal.
Today, the Cadwallon is one of the Scillies most beautiful and scenic wreck dives. Her wreckage is scattered down a gentle slope at the base of the Hard Lewis rocks. Whilst the wreck is well broken up and quite dispersed, her boilers are still recognisable andpart of her engine room structure has collapsed onto one of these boilers making a colourful swim through covered in anemones. Swimming further down the slope you come across further wreckage including the remnants of the stern. This part of the wreckage lies in 42 metres, covered in a rich layer of orange and white anemones. The most dramatic feature is perhaps the upright steering quadrant which stands proud amongst the colourful debris of the stern.
Ascending back up the slope you encounter rocky cliffs and gully’s around the 30 metre mark. Shine your torch across these cliff faces and they burst into colour as a result of the rich tapestry of jewelled anemones that colonise these surfaces. It is possible to follow these cliff faces up and complete you decompression stops admiring this marine life.

For the second dive of the day, Jo selected the wreck site of the barque tine Tobasco. This unfortunate French vessel was wrecked on the 24th March 1879 whilst on passage from Greenock to Bordeaux with a cargo of coal and bottled beer. The wreck itself lies in a very sheltered bay. Not much of this former 215 ton ship remains in a recognisable state as much of the wreckage consists of twisted iron work scattered amongst the rocks and gullies of the bay bottom. The remains of the upturned bow section however convey something of the grace of this former elegant vessel. Much marine life was observed on this dive including a lone dogfish. The dive was also quite memorable for the scenic gullies at the back of the bay.

The following morning still brought no real improvement in either the sea state or weather conditions again limiting the available sites to dive. That said the stern section of the Cita was relatively sheltered from the prevailing swell with suitable slack water time for a morning dive. This wreck currently has a permanent buoy on site. Despite the recent poor weather conditions under water visibility proved to be a surprisingly good on this dive, with the hull soon looming into view as we descended down the buoy line. The rear section of the MV Cita is relatively intact and lying on its port side. The buoy line is attached at the point where the forward section of the ship has broken from the bow. Drifting towards the stern you pass over open doorways leading down into the depths of the hull. However, an ominous creaking noise emanating from the hull itself acted as something of a deterrent to those considering a penetration dive. Jo’s briefing had also warned of the hazards of silt and deteriorating superstructure on the wreck, especially in the engine room area. Swimming around the back of the stern at 32 metres we came across the rudder and propeller before returning back to the deck area to swim out across the seabed to explore the accommodation and bridge structure which has fallen away from the deck and now lies detached several metres from the hull. This section of the wreck has now started to deteriorate quite badly over recent years although features such as the bridge guard rails are still recognisable despite a rich covering of marine growth.

With no improvement in sea conditions dive sites again proved limited, so we headed out for the relative shelter of the Eastern Isles to dive the wreck of the SS Gomes V, a Portuguese steamship wrecked on the north east side of Shag Rock. The wreck was subsequently extensively salvaged by the Dundee salvage Company. The efficiency with which they carried out their work can be judged by the fact that today little wreckage of real interest remains for the visiting diver to explore. What little of this former steamship remains is situated in 12 metres of water. Numerous wrasses inhabit the kelp and wreckage and we also came across a very large specimen of a pipefish. It is however, a site only worth exploring if the weather allows no other sites to be explored.
Some of the non diving members of the trip however had more success on a ‘snorkel with seals’ excursion arranged though Jo’s dad, Tim Allsop. Belinda, Adam and Janice travelled by RIB from St Martin’s out to the Eastern Isles, where they thoroughly enjoyed their encounter with the wild but friendly seals.
Friday was to be the last diving day of the trip. The weather however showed little mercy and we were again limited in the range of available dive sites.
Jo however again pulled an ace out of the pack with a site off St Martins called The Higher Ridges. This site consists of an off shore wall dive that drops down to 43 metres at its base. Its location in strong tidal waters ensures that the top 15 metres of this wall is covered in a rich layer of colourful marine growth including a rich tapestry of multi coloured jewelled anemones. There is also apparently the wreckage of a long lost sailing vessel at this site, with old anchor chains hanging down the wall and some old metal pump wheels to be found at the base of the reef. We did not come across this wreckage; such were the distractions of the other marine life along this site.
For the final dive of the trip we visited Menawethan Island. Here Jo dropped us off in a small bay in the centre of which is a dramatic rock pinnacle which rises from 15 metres up to within a few metres of the surface. Within the bay is also a colony of seals, and we ended our dive in the shallow water being ‘buzzed’ by these inquisitive and friendly creatures.

Thanks to Dave Robson for organising the trip, and to Jolene Allsop for using her extensive knowledge of Scilly dive sites to still come up with interesting diving despite the difficult weather and sea conditions.

Jo Allsop can be contacted via the website.
tel. 01720 422848

For travel information to the Scilly Isles:
tel. 0845 7105555

Isles of Scilly tourist information centre
Hugh town
St Mary’s
Isle of Scilly
Tel 01720 422536

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