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Diving Browns Bay

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Shallow crystal clear waters, a scenic wreck site and more marine life than I have had the pleasure to dive with… all in just 8 metres of water. It’s easy to see why Browns Bay is a very popular dive destination in the UK.

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Browns Bay on the east coast of Northumberland has always been a popular holiday and seaside location. So much so that on the 23rd of August 1855 the Duke of Northumberland employed a swimming coach to teach the locals how to swim. And then nearly forty years later planning permission was given at a cost of £180.00 to blast a hole in the rocks that would create Whitley Bay’s very first open air pool. Dynamite was used create a 70 foot long and 30 foot wide swimming pool. It’s approximately five feet deep at one end and 3 feet deep at the other. With a continuous supply of fresh seawater at high tide the pool would need little maintenance. Locals and holiday makers would put on their very fetching full length swim suits (which were as thick as a semi dry in the good old days) and jump in for a dip in the cool northeast water. Although popular when it was first built with swimming clubs, holiday makers and fitness fanatics using it whenever the weather permitted, the pool has for sometime now only really been used by scuba diving instructors when they introduce student divers on the open water section of the course, so that they can adjust to the cooler sea temperatures.

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When you get to the dive site and look at the landscape that you have to clamber across with your kit on just getting to the waters edge, you will probably think that I have written this article with people that are built like Arnold Schwarzenegger in mind. But believe me, this little dive is well worth the short trek down the stone steps and across the rocks. The good news is that there is free parking along the road opposite the beach. The bad news, with no facilities here, changing into or out of your dive kit can pose a problem. The local council has found it necessary to put up signs asking divers to be careful when undressing as groups of little old ladies have been seen lurking ready to pounce on unsuspecting near naked divers.

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On this particular dive make sure you have surface support, not just for safety reasons but they will be able to help you with your kit and look after the car keys. The usual SMB, Torch and dive knife will be required here. Send up the SMB when you get to the 8 metre section of the dive as boats and Jet Ski’s use the area.

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Once kitted up follow the stone steps down to the rocks and carefully make your way to the Victorian swimming pool; it’s a little up and down and can be slippery so take your time. I set my kit down just to the left of the pool and made any last minute adjustments; and then after buddy checks were complete; into the water we went. The maximum depth at this point is no more than 4 metres. My dive guide Michelle Cooper took me towards the small kelp forest which was about 15 metres away from the entry point. Rather than going through it or round it I decided to go over the kelp which rose to about a metre from the surface. Take your time here and as you look down into the kelp you may find the odd pipefish and Nudibranch hiding under the leaves. Moving on, the depth gradually slopes down to around 8 metres. And from here on, it was crustacean city. Squat lobsters, common lobsters, edible crabs and Velvet swimming crabs were here in abundance. Everywhere I looked these big lobbies were looking back at me. And as I got closer to them they arched their back, flexed their muscles and opened their claws ready to defend themselves. In the crevices of the rocks I found squaties hiding along with velvet swimming crabs, and huge edible crabs the size of dinner plates. The visibility here was around 10 metres.

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We made our way to an old wreck called the Butetown. This little steamship was loaded with coal when she was grounded at Browns Bay in December 1917. Although she is nearly 100 years old and well broken up, you can still see the outline of this once proud ocean going vessel. There are five specialties that I think may benefit you on this dive; Wreck, Drysuit, Peak Performance Buoyancy, Underwater photography; and this is an ideal site for the National Geographic specialty because you can research the wreck as part of your project. The amount of marine life here will surprise even the most experienced UK diver. Lumpsuckers can be found nesting around the wreck between February and May, with the males remaining with the eggs for up to two months until they hatch.

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During the summer months Cuttlefish come in close to shore to attach their eggs to the Kelp and seaweed. Every now and then spend a few seconds looking out into the blue; you should catch sight of the many shoals of fish gracefully swimming past. Bib, Pollack and wrasse can be found here; and as this is an area that is popular with anglers care should be taken so as to not become entangled with their lines. The coral encrusted boilers are home to a number of small creatures and its worth taking a torch to look inside as large conger have also been spotted here. My dive guide Michelle and I spent sometime investigating the entire wreck from different angles; from the bow to the boilers we looked under plates and lifted and replaced anything that could be moved. Keep an eye out for flatfish that have camouflaged themselves with sand; and resting dogfish that are lying on the ocean floor against the gentle current. The seabed is also home to a multitude of brightly coloured plants, such as Corallina that densely populates the area and which is then in turn home and protection for smaller creatures such as pipefish, hermit crabs and shrimps. Petalonia can be found growing amongst the ribs of the wreck adding a touch of green to the already colourful scenery, and Dalyell Anemones and sponges decorate the sides of rocks which with the exceptionally good visibility gives an almost tropical feel to the dive. After an hour under the water it was time to end our dive exploring this beautiful site. And although we had gone this way and that, Michelle new exactly where we were, and within no time at all we were back where we started. Now be careful as you exit the water as it will be quite slippery; and be prepared for a slightly longer walk back to the car as it’s an uphill hike with all of your kit on.

Patrick went diving at Browns Bay with Aquanorth Diving Centre. To book a dive at Browns Bay contact the staff at Aquanorth by calling them on +44 (0)191 266 6626 or email them at enquiries@aquanorth.co.uk. You can also visit the Aquanorth website for more information: www.aquanorth.co.uk

Patrick Shier is an experienced diver who is a regular contributor to both UK and international SCUBA diving magazines. He is also the author of the UK Dive Guide, which promotes diving in the UK and encourages newly qualified divers to discover the delights of diving in UK waters. Patrick’s passion for the marine environment is not limited to the UK; he has dived, and photographed, many superb dive sites around the world including Samoa, Grenada, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Malta and the Red Sea.

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Into the Blue – Part Two

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By now, you will have hopefully read the first blog from my recent trip to the Red Sea with The Scuba Place on M/Y Big Blue. If you haven’t, you can find the link to the blog here.

I’ve been diving since 2011, although I didn’t get really serious about diving until 2013. In the November of that year I joined Scuba School on a trip to Sharm El Sheikh to complete my Advanced Open Water course. That was the first time I heard about the famous SS Thistlegorm and its cult status in the wreck diving world. Unfortunately, as I, along with a lot of the group were novice divers, and so we were unable to dive it on that 2013 trip, along with a lot of the other famous wrecks from the North. Little did I know, I wouldn’t return to the Northern Red Sea until this trip in September 2022 with The Scuba Place. The wrecks remained mysterious all those years but I was soon getting the full experience. After the first two and a half days exploring the amazing reefs, it was time to break my Thistlegorm virginity and get the true “lust for rust” experience of the Northern itinerary.

A school of batfish greeted us on our safety stop after an amazing introduction to the SS Thistlegorm.

As we moored up at the SS Thistlegorm for the afternoon dive, I got a strange sense of anticipation run through my body. More so than at any other specific dive site. Strange really, as I don’t normally get excited about wreck diving, but here was a site that I’d heard so much about but was still so mysterious. I’d always thought it was a difficult dive and had a slight fear of it, as I wasn’t allowed to do it all those years back. Then, after watching a 20 minute film explaining the story of the wreck and listening to the stories of survivors,. I knew it was a site that demanded respect. As Mo went through the dive briefing, I quickly realised it seemed a lot more simple than I had in mind. I then became more excited than fearful as me and my dive buddy went through our plan. 

A diver explores one of the decks inside the SS Thistlegorm holding some of the vehicles onboard.

There was an eerie feeling as we submerged below the gentle swell. The visibility was a lot more milky compared to the clear blue I was used to in the Red Sea. However, the wreck soon came into view as we dropped down the shot line. The first thing that struck me and in my opinion just made the wreck extra special, was the life on it.

Instantly, crocodile fish and scorpion fish were spotted resting on the wreck, as we made our way to the anti-aircraft gun on the stern. I made a quick visit to take some photos before we turned back and penetrated the wreck for the first time. A surreal experience but the numerous glassfish and lionfish at the entry point kept me entertained before seeing the remnants of yesteryear. The different vehicles that still keep their place in the decks are the main highlight, but it was the boots that struck a chord with me: signs of the human lives that were present on the fateful day the bomb hit. I got a real buzz from my first time on the Thistlegorm, with a school of batfish greeting us on our safety stop finishing off the adventure. John and I ascended from a great dive with a high five, knowing I’d fulfilled a special memory.

A blue spotted stingray makes a quick turn on top of the SS Thistlegorm, on a memorable night dive.

I enjoyed three more dives on the Thistlegorm, giving me chance to explore a little more and see a little more life. Some cool nudibranch and a cuttlefish making their home inside the wreck added to the array of life I’d already seen. It was the night dive that truly hit the marine life spot. It really came to life at night and I soon lost count of the amount of scorpionfish I saw. The contrast of the dark and wreck against the blue spotted stingrays made their colours really pop as around six or seven were spotted. Eels, lionfish and crocodilefish making up the rest of the weird and wonderful sights on the wreck at night. Amazing memories from my first time exploring the Thistlegorm that will last forever.

After the two morning dives on the Thistlegorm, we headed off to the Barge wreck site for an afternoon and night dive. It’s not much of a wreck when you compare it to the others on the trip. It lies like a flat platform on the seabed with some sides rising out from the reef providing extra space for coral growth and marine life to enjoy. While it doesn’t provide a real wreck fix with penetration, it is a haven for marine life, littered with all types of hard and soft corals. Look closely and the Barge is a great spot for the weird and wonderful. The numerous nudibranch and grey moray eels provided my macro fix on the night dives, while the occasional buzz from huge hunting giant trevally provided the entertainment. A nice contrast of wrecks before moving on to Abu Nuhas.

The stern of the Giannis D remains largely intact and provides a dramatic underwater scene.

Abu Nuhas is a really unique place. Its submerged reef has been bad luck for five passing ships, with five cargo shipwrecks lining its northern slopes. While it was more than unfortunate for some, the wrecks have provided fortune for those looking for a wreck diving haven. Our day consisted of diving three of the wrecks  – The Carnatic, Giannis D and Marcus/Chrisoula K in that order.

Going into the trip, it was the Giannis D that I was most keen to dive. I’d always admired the wide angle stern shots I’d seen over the years, with it staying pretty much intact and creating a dramatic image as it lies on its side. It was a fantastic dive with some interesting and easy penetration; I also took some shots of the stern in all its glory. A huge grouper sitting inside the wreck provided the wildlife fix, as it floated with ease looking out into the blue from an opening on the wreck. I think it was the Carnatic that stole the show personally though. Her open windows out to the blue that are covered in soft coral were unique, and glassfish dancing in formation inside mesmerised into a truly memorable dive. The Marcus provided the adventure as penetration was a little more difficult to work my way through the wreck.

Bottlenose dolphins provided amazing entertainment as they came and played while we snorkelled at the surface.

The day at Abu Nuhas was the best of the trip for me and that wasn’t solely because of the wrecks….. YES!! Once again it was marine life that had me screaming with joy underwater and a buzz through my body like no other. FINALLY!!!!! After 9 years of taking photos underwater, I was able to share the water with dolphins (bottlenose in this instance) and shoot them in all their glory.

Our journey to and from the wrecks on each dive took us through the channel on the ribs, where dolphins were seen on every pass playing in the slight waves. After the second dive, the guides asked if we wanted to try to snorkel with them. It was a resounding yes and as the speedboat whipped up a wave storm, the dolphins headed to the surface to play. I dropped in with no elegance at all, as my excitement took over. I was wondering whether they would stay once we entered, but how they stayed and played was beyond anything I could imagine. Bringing seaweed to us and then, with a flick of their tails, speeding off after teasing with a slow approach. There were nine in total and they even came by to show off the baby of the group. It was definitely up there as one of my greatest moments in the water. 

One of three cuttlefish seen on an amazing night dive, on the house reef of Roots Red Sea.

We finished the liveaboard trip with three more amazing reef dives, with the highlight being a small cave full of glassfish and MANY lionfish. I entered to take photos of the glassfish before the lionfish started to sneak out of every crevice and reveal themselves from their camouflaged rest spots.

It got a little hairy but made for a truly interesting moment to finish the week on Big Blue. The fun wasn’t done though, as John eluded to the fact that I was on the same late flight as them on the Saturday and asked if I’d like to join his group for a night at Roots Red Sea. Sounds like a good plan!! Also, if we got there in time, a night dive on the house reef that’s a haven for the weird and wonderful would be on offer. What an amazing surprise end to the trip at an amazing dive resort: secluded, with a beautiful desert backdrop, sitting just metres from the sea. Thankfully, we made it for a night dive and it was as incredible as John said it would be. Reef squid, numerous cuttlefish, a bouncing stonefish jumping over sea moths AND a dwarf lionfish made this one of the best night dives ever, and a perfect end dive to a perfect trip. A final day of relaxation at Roots pool and enjoying the beautiful food finished it in style. 

For more information about diving on Big Blue:

www.thescubaplace.co.uk

john@thescubaplace.co.uk

Roots Red Sea lies in a secluded area of El Quseir, with a stunning desert backdrop and the Red Sea on their doorstop. It’s a perfect location for a relaxed dive trip.

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Into the Blue

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After a quiet year of no designated dive trips, September saw me return to the Red Sea thanks to The Scuba Place. M/Y Big Blue was my accommodation for the week and Northern Wrecks and Reefs was the itinerary. This was a big change for me, as I’d normally choose a Southern itinerary in search of sharks. Apart from a trip to Sharm El Sheikh back in 2013, while still a novice diver, I hadn’t been to the north and certainly hadn’t dived any of the major wrecks the Northern itinerary is famous for. It was a welcome change to try a different style of diving to what I was used to and YES!! It didn’t disappoint!! 

Big Blue’s spacious dive deck provides ample room and caters for max 24 divers.

The Scuba Place are the exclusive UK travel agent for the liveaboard Big Blue. With Big Blue being directly connected to Roots Red Sea, they can provide bespoke trips combining the two. I was also lucky enough to have a surprise visit to Roots at the end of my trip, but more about that later. Big Blue is a large vessel at 40m long and 8m wide, and it provides plenty of space for guests onboard. Even at full capacity with 24 divers, the spacious dive deck provides ample room for guests to kit up and prepare to dive. With 12 cabins set over 3 decks, I was lucky to get one of the twin cabins on the sundeck. Opening my door to the beautiful sunny blue skies and blue water of the Red Sea was the wake up I needed for a special day.

The whole trip was completed with the accommodating staff who couldn’t do enough for you. The food was delicious and well prepared. A buffet style, with dinner always being my favourite, while sunset snack time before the night dive on the back of the main deck was always a treat. Drinks provided after every dive and always someone on hand to help you kit up and de-kit, it was the finishing touches to what were amazing dives. The diving was facilitated by Pharaoh Dive Club, and with Mohammed in charge everything ran efficiently and safety was paramount. An excellent initial boat and dive briefing was followed by expert leadership throughout the week. Always willing to listen to the guests’ needs and what we’d like to do. Doing what they could to make it work, while keeping safety in mind. Last thing you want is a rigid schedule leaving room for disappointment. An extremely impressive week onboard and here’s how the diving went…

A Hawksbill Turtle comes to greet me on the stunning Jackson Reef.

We sailed north from Hurghada and it was so refreshing to be back in the beautiful clear water of the Red Sea. The first couple of days were more reefs than wrecks, as we hit some of the famous sites the north has to offer. JackFish Alley gave me a bit of déjà vu. I remembered 9 years ago doing my navigation as part of my Advanced Open Water; it was great to be back and spend more time exploring its beauty, a coral pinnacle full of glassfish and big barracuda being cleaned providing the highlights. It was Jackson Reef that was my favourite though as a Hawksbill Turtle added to the incredible life on the reef that is typical of the Red Sea. Close encounters with blue spotted stingrays, a crocodile fish and a huge puffer in one small area make the sandy bottoms as special as the reefs. Night diving provided some fun critters with devil scorpion fish, a bumbling stonefish and numerous pyjama nudibranch keeping me occupied.

My dive buddy John explores a lathe in the tool room of the Million Hope.

While the reefs dominated the first couple of days, we did get an introduction to the wrecks on offer. Our first came on our second dive as we penetrated the Dunraven. A nice easy wreck to penetrate with a lot of life amongst it and on it. I do get why you wreck lovers get so excited getting inside and finding your way through the cracks. It is exciting and this was more evident on our second wreck of the trip – the Million Hope. Not your typical wreck on a typical northern wrecks and reef itinerary but again this shows the bespoke nature of a Big Blue liveaboard with The Scuba Place. More apparent on our visit as we were the only divers diving it. The weather has to be right due to how shallow it is with parts visible above water. This makes it a great recreational dive, and making my way into the engine room was a real treat and then back out up the stairs. A real adventure and one of my favourite wrecks of the trip.

A Blue Spotted Stingray feeds in the sand on the corner of Thomas Reef.

Before the lust for rust really started halfway through the trip we headed to the Straits of Tiran and Ras Mohammed once more for Thomas Reef and the famous Shark and Yolanda Reef. Thomas Reef was another beautiful wall full of stunning coral including huge gorgonian fan coral, while a feeding Blue Spotted Ray and another Hawksbill Turtle completed the dive on the corner of the reef. Shark and Yolanda was a lot more adventurous due to the currents, as a short fight against it and then a quick drift with it had you wondering which way it would go next. It started quite calm with a gentle cruise past Anemone City, then all hell broke loose as we hit the corner. It was certainly full of life though, with schooling jacks and snapper comfortable in the raging current as we flew past. The current took us over the reef and to the Yolanda Wreck. It was good to be back after 9 years and see that it is still a great site full of life. A brilliant start to the week and we were now on our way to the famous wrecks of the North.

Stay tuned for part 2 soon.

For more information about diving on Big Blue:

www.thescubaplace.co.uk

john@thescubaplace.co.uk

Pyjama Nudibranch taken on the first night dive of the trip at Sho’ab Mahmoud.

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