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Divers off Cornwall Discover Poldark Shipwreck

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Divers have rediscovered a 17th century shipwreck off Gunwalloe Church Cove in Cornwall, at exactly the spot where the shipwreck scene was filmed in 2014 for the TV series Poldark.  First seen by a local diver in 1971 and designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, the wreck of the Schiedam had been buried for many years under the shifting sands of the cove. The site is now managed by Historic England and dived by a keen local team. The two divers who rediscovered the site this year, novelist and archaeologist David Gibbins and Mark Milburn, of Atlantic Scuba in Penryn, describe the moment:

“We’d searched the cove many times for the Schiedam, but only seen sand. Then the breakthrough came one day after a storm.  Snorkelling north over the cove, we saw not just one cannon, but three. It was incredibly exciting. One of the guns was among the longest we’d ever seen on a wreck, standing proud of the seabed on a rocky ledge with the muzzle poking out, almost as if it were on a gun carriage. Exploring the reefs around the guns, we saw other amazing artefacts – concreted musket barrels, cannon balls, lead musket and pistol shot, and even an iron hand-grenade, the wooden plug for the fuse still intact. We knew that most of what we were seeing was cargo carried from the English colony at Tangier, making the wreck a fascinating window into a forgotten corner of history.”

2.Archaeologist David Gibbins photographing musket barrels revealed this year on the wreck of the Schiedam (photo: Mark Milburn)

Archaeologist David Gibbins photographing musket barrels revealed this year on the wreck of the Schiedam (photo: Mark Milburn)

Historic England has management responsibilities for the site but the involvement of divers ensures that the site is monitored. The approach to the historic wreck sites championed by Historic England is that they are a shared resource for all to access and enjoy. Historic England’s Maritime Archaeologist Alison James said: “We are delighted to work with divers like Mark and David to help ensure that England’s protected wreck sites are enjoyed and protected for years to come. They are helping to ensure that the story of the site is not lost and is known to a wider audience.”

The Schiedam has one of the richest backstories of any wreck ever discovered in British waters. At the time of her loss in April 1684 she was part of a fleet carrying ordnance, tools, horses and people back from Tangier, the port in present-day Morocco that had been acquired by the English King Charles II as a dowry with his Portuguese wife, but had been abandoned by the English in the face of Moorish threat. The Schiedam herself was originally Dutch, a merchantman sailing from Holland, but had been captured by Barbary pirates off Spain in 1683 and her crew enslaved.

The site of the wreck of the Schiedam off Gunwalloe, Cornwall, at exactly the same location as the shipwreck scene filmed in the TV series Poldark (photo: David Gibbins)

The site of the wreck of the Schiedam off Gunwalloe, Cornwall, at exactly the same location as the shipwreck scene filmed in the TV series Poldark (photo: David Gibbins)

Soon afterwards she was captured again, this time by a Royal Navy ship commanded by a daring young captain named Cloudesley Shovell – later as an admiral to be lost with his fleet in 1707 in the Scilly Isles through a navigational error, the trigger for the race to find a better way of establishing longitude – who brought his prize to Tangier. As if that were not enough, none other than the diarist Samuel Pepys enters the picture, as he was an Admiralty official sent to Tangier to help oversee the evacuation. Much of his correspondence relating to the wreck of the Schiedam still survives.

The big gun that the divers saw on the wreck was a demi-culverin, one of a number recorded among the ordnance at Tangier but the only one from the colony known to survive.  The hand-grenade is particularly fascinating as one of the earliest known examples to be found archaeologically, and because their use is well-documented at Tangier. Invented in the 16th century, ‘hand-granadoes’ had only been a standard armament for English regiments for a few years by the time of the Tangier colony. Nevertheless, they were among the first list of equipment requested for the colony in 1662 and played a pivotal role in the defence against the Moors. When one of the outlying forts was captured by the Moors after savage fighting in 1680 they seized a large store of hand grenades and other armaments, swinging the siege in the Moors’ favour and helped to precipitate the English decision to abandon the colony a few years later.

A 17th century grenade found on the wreck of the Schiedam, complete with its wooden fuse plug (photo: David Gibbins)

A 17th century grenade found on the wreck of the Schiedam, complete with its wooden fuse plug (photo: David Gibbins)

The wreck dates a century before the setting of Poldark, but the similarities are striking. “You would have seen local people lining the shore just as the film crew were that day in 2014, and flotsam coming ashore at exactly the same place,” Gibbins said. A letter written soon after the wrecking to Lord Dartmouth, Admiral of the Fleet, suggests that the locals availed themselves of what they could but were far from the murderous Cornish wreckers of legend:  “All the guns and mortar pieces may be saved, but palisades, muskets, rigging, are mostly embezzled, though the justices and gentlemen of the country are extremely civil and save what they could; and the country very kind to the poor people.”

Investigations of the Schiedam are carried out under the aegis of Historic England, which administers the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 and issues discretionary licenses for divers to visit protected wreck sites off England. Further exploration of the Schiedam is planned for next year.

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Mamma Mia! Diving Skopelos (Part 2)

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Our second days dive itinerary was to the famous Christoforos wreck! This is arguably the best dive in Skopelos and though only open to divers with deep diving experience, this 83m long wreck is well worth the visit.  

The Christoforos sits in 43 meters of water with the deck at 32 to 35 meters.  A 30m dive can give an impressive view of the wreck, though such a large wreck needs a few dives to truly do it justice.  Given its ideal location just a 2 minute boat ride from the dive centre dock it is an excellent first dive of the day.  The sheltered site is also diveable in all but the absolute worst weather so although deep, the water is usually clear with little to no current making it a very pleasant dive.  The site is superb for technical diving and a great training site for the Tec 40 and 45 programs, offered by Skopelos Dive Center.  

The Christoforos wreck was originally a collier ship built in 1950 at Grangemouth shipyard under the name “Thomas Hardie”.  In 1976 she joined the Greek merchant fleet as “Christoforos”.  On the 2nd of October 1983 the Christoforos was carrying 2600 tonnes of cement from Volos to Piraeus Port. During the voyage the weather turned, resulting in the ship developing a 7 degree list, whereby she changed course for safe anchorage at Panormos, Skopelos.  The ship reached Panormos at 16:00 with a list of 17 degrees and water ingress to No. 1 hull.  Though attempts were made to right the vessel, the crew were ordered to abandon ship at 22:00.  The captain, lieutenant and the quartermaster remained to try and save the ship, but had to abandon the attempt themselves and the Christoforos finally sank at 05:30 on 3rd October 1983.  She now sits upright in 43 meters of water less than 200m from shore in Panormos.

Diving has only been allowed here since 2018, so the wreck is very well preserved and a real treat to dive.  Permission to dive here was granted by the authorities after lots of incredibly hard work by the Skopelos Dive Center staff.  Having a fantastic wreck in such an amazing location and in excellent condition is a real privilege.

Of all the sites in Skopelos this was the site Mike and I were most keen to experience.  Having kitted up and zipped across the bay to the mooring, we left the surface and followed the descent line until the wreck emerged spectacularly from the blue at 15m.  She is a big and beautiful wreck, sitting as though calmly continuing her journey along the seabed.  With most of her original features still intact there were points of interest everywhere, including the anchors, winches, ships telegraphs, the wheel and RDF antenna.  

We found that aquatic life had colonised the ship, with schools of fish, electric blue nudibranchs, a large moray eel and the resident scorpionfish lurking inside the bridge.  The Christoforos was truly a stunning wreck and despite maximising our time at depth we eventually had to say our goodbyes and begin the slow and steady return to the surface. 

After a superb morning dive we had the afternoon to do a little sightseeing of the island, with a trip to the church of Agios Ioannis Kastri made famous by the blockbuster movie “Mamma Mia!”. Mike and I spent a happy afternoon pootling around in our little hire car before meeting up with Lina from Skopelos Dive Center.  An underwater archeologist as well as a dive professional, Lina had offered to show us a rather special attraction, the Christoforos shipwreck Digital Spot public information and awareness centre.

A fantastic initiative made possible from the collaboration of the government and hard work of the staff at Skopelos Dive Center is the “Digital Spot” in Agnontas port.  This information center has a number of displays on the history of the Christoforos wreck, the process by which the wreck was allowed to be opened to the public for diving tourism, other sites of historical interest in the area, a video of the wreck and the best bit, a virtual reality dry dive experience!  The beauty of the VR system is that non diving members of the family can see what you have seen on the wreck, or you can see areas that you may not have explored during the dive due to time or depth limitations.  It was a truly immersive experience and a great addition to the dive itself.

After a wonderful day we celebrated our last evening on the island with an exquisite meal in Skopelos Town with fabulous views over the town and bay, washed down with the excellent local wine.  The lamb with lemon and potatoes was a meal which I could happily eat every day for the rest of my life! 

Skopelos is an island that truly has it all.  The diving is excellent, the landscape is beautiful with plenty of non diving activities, the locals friendly and the food and drink superb.  Given how accessible it is as a holiday destination it has avoided becoming overcrowded and even in peak season offers a fun yet relaxing atmosphere.  We highly recommend giving Skopelos a visit.  We will certainly be back again!

Thanks to:

Municipality of Skopelos (https://skopelos.com/

Skopelos Dive Center  (https://sporadesdiving.gr/)

Ionia Hotel (https://www.ioniahotel.gr/en)

Dolphin of Skopelos (https://dolphinofskopelos.com/)

Ta Kymata restaurant (@takymata)

The Muses restaurant (https://www.facebook.com/TheMussesMousses/)

Aktaiov resturant (https://skopelos.com/listings/aktaion-taverna/)

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Mamma Mia! Diving Skopelos (Part 1)

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If you have a dream of a sunny holiday spot with great diving, take a chance on Skopelos!

A small island in the Sporades of the Northern Aegean Sea, Skopelos is a quintessential Greek island, with warm mediterranean climate, friendly locals, delicious cuisine and clear turquoise blue waters. It is such a stunning location that many of the scenes from the movie “Mamma Mia!” were filmed on and around the island.

The diving here is excellent, with good visibility and warm summer water temperatures making for relaxed diving conditions with plenty to see.  Skopelos has something for everyone and is a perfect location if you are holidaying with non-divers, want a mix of diving and land based activities or simply to spend some time relaxing in the sun.  The island has a wealth of diversions: picture perfect beaches, a thriving and picturesque harbour town, great food, boat trips, and beautiful resorts with well-stocked pool bars and sun loungers for topping up the tan in style.  

Having read about the beautiful diving available Mike and I were excited to experience it for ourselves. During our stay we dived with Skopelos Dive Center at their West coast Panormos base. On arrival we were greeted by Lina and Tasos, who provided our equipment and briefed us on the day’s dive plan.  The first dive was to be at the Gallery and the second at Dasia Lift.  Eager to get in the water, we were soon kitted up and on the boat heading out to our first dive.

The island of Skopelos is blessed with some incredible topography.  We marveled at the views of nearby Dasia Island where the dive sites were located; the bright green pine forests covering white limestone and dolomite rocks along the coastline contrasted nicely with the clear azure waters below.  As we would find on our dives, the many sea caves along the shore made for great swimthroughs and caverns to explore on dives and the bright white rocks reflected the sunlight for beautifully lit and colourful seascapes in the shallows.

Our dive at the Gallery began on a sloping wall with multiple pinnacles, the first of which had a huge and completely beautiful Hypselodoris elegans nudibranch.  Following the wall deeper we came to a cavern filled with sponges, tunicates, corals and cardinal fish.  Working shallower and enjoying the light reflecting off the pale rocks and deep blue of the deeper water we came to the Gallery’s namesake passage at a very shallow 1.5 meters.  A tunnel in the rock created this wonderful feature, while light played through the shallows illuminating the benthic life as our group swam through.

All the dive sites in this area were a very short boat ride from the dock so travel times to and from the dives was a matter of minutes.  After a break back on land with a frappe from the resort bar, we headed out for the second dive at Dasia Lift. The wall here featured a cavern and tunnel swim through rising from 10m to 5m.  Once again my eye was caught by some nudibranchs (Hypseldoris coelestis and Flabellina affinis) as well as several large groupers lurking in the deeper waters.  Having enjoyed the wall at around 20m we worked our way up to 10m and to the entrance to the Lift where we stopped to appreciate a huge sea slug which posed graciously for a few photos. 

The Lift was a fun swim through with windows of light illuminating sponges and a rather grumpy looking scorpionfish.  Emerging at 5m the light in the shallows was nothing short of breathtaking.  The combination of sun streaming down on the white rocks and beautiful blue hue of the sea made the light dance, creating underwater rainbows.  All divers surfaced wishing the safety stop could lasted just a little longer.

That evening, having worked up an appetite diving, we had one of our best meals of the trip, the traditional specialty of giouvetsi; served beside the bobbing boats in the old port it was nothing short of stupendous.  Despite our discovery of a microbrewery taproom, it was an early night as the next day’s dive was to the famous Christoforos wreck!

As a destination, Skopelos really has everything you could ask for both for a diving holiday and a fun summer vacation.  Look for our next blog “Mamma Mia! Diving Skopelos (Part 2)” for details on our trip to the Christoforos wreck!

Thanks to:

Municipality of Skopelos (https://skopelos.com/

Skopelos Dive Center  (https://sporadesdiving.gr/)

Ionia Hotel (https://www.ioniahotel.gr/en)

Dolphin of Skopelos (https://dolphinofskopelos.com/)

Ta Kymata restaurant (@takymata)

The Muses restaurant (https://www.facebook.com/TheMussesMousses/)

Aktaiov resturant (https://skopelos.com/listings/aktaion-taverna/)

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