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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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Alonissos: The complete diving destination (Part 1)

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In June we were incredibly fortunate to be invited to dive in Alonissos, a small Greek Island in the Sporades island chain located in the North Aegean Sea.  While I have long been a big fan of the Greek Islands as a great holiday destination, I had not had the opportunity to do any diving on previous visits and Mike and I were extremely excited to see what Alonissos had to offer both above and below the surface!

The Sporades are easily accessible via the airport in Skiathos (the first island in the chain), which is served by Jet2 flights from all major UK airports from May through October.  Numerous ferries and charter boats make island hopping from Skiathos Town a breeze.  After an hour boat ride, the picturesque port of Patitiri was a wonderful introduction to Alonissos, where we were met by our gracious hosts Kostas of Albedo Travel and Dias of Alonissos Triton Dive Center.  Mike and I were delighted to be staying at the Paradise Hotel, aptly named for its stunning views over the sea and great location for walking to the waterfront.

Alonissos is beautifully situated in the National Marine Park of Alonissos and the Northern Sporades, the largest marine protected area in Europe.  The surrounding seas offer fabulous marine life, including incredibly rare species such as the Mediterranean monk seal.  They boast deep walls covered in gorgonians and sponges, stunning topography with caverns, swimthroughs and pinnacles, and the first accessible ancient shipwreck from 500BC!

In locations where historical sites have been reported, the waters are largely restricted, but with collaboration between government, underwater archeologists and dive centres, incredible underwater museums are being created for a truly unique diving experience.  Alonissos is home to the first of these, the Ancient Shipwreck of Peristera Accessible Underwater Archeological Site.  The chance to dive into history (along with reports of healthy reef life and amazing underwater topography) meant Mike and I were keen to get in the water.

Our introduction to the diving around Alonissos was at the Agios Georgios Pinnacles, in the channel between Alonissos and Skopelos.  This fantastic site was named “The Chimney,’ and proved to have a huge amount to see.  We got to a decent depth here (over 25m), and marvelled at a colourful reef wall with a wonderful swim through whose rocky walls were absolutely covered with life.  As well as brilliant topography there was no shortage of macro life here.  We saw numerous nudibranchs, five different species in total.  The second dive at Mourtias reef nearby was a shallower dive along a nice wall with lots of crevices. Several moray eels and grouper called this site home.  We enjoyed looking in the crevices for lobster and smaller benthic life, such as cup corals and tunicates.

Our itinerary allowed us two dives a day with afternoons left to explore the island with our hire car and evenings to enjoy the famous Greek hospitality.  This proved to be a lovely mix of in-water and land based diversions.  

The next days diving to the Gorgonian Gardens and Triton’s Cave was to be even better!  These two stunning sites are nothing short of fabulous.  The Gorgonian Gardens was a deep wall near to the Agios Georgios islands.  The ever-present currents in this deep channel meant that the sea life was amazing … the namesake Gorgonian sea fans dotted the wall at a depth of 30 to 50 meters, getting ever larger the deeper we went.  Above 30m was by no means less beautiful, with sponges, corals, scorpionfish, moray eels and some rare and colourful nudibranchs.

The second shallower dive of the day was to Triton’s Cave or the Cavern of Skopelos, on the east side of that island. The spectacular rock formations had wild striations both above and below the water making a truly epic topography.  The cavern entrance was at 14m, and big enough for a buddy pair, winding up to 6m and passing two beautiful windows out into the blue.  Emerging from the cavern, the light at the shallower depths and the incredible rock formations made for a fantastic gentle swimming safety stop and we all surfaced by the boat with massive grins. 

Check out our next blog :Alonissos: The complete diving destination (Part 2)” to hear about our amazing dive on the 2500 year old Peristera Wreck!

Thanks to:

Alonissos Triton Dive Center https://bestdivingingreece.com/

Albedo Travel https://alonissosholidays.com/activities/

Paradise Hotel https://paradise-hotel.gr/

Alonissos Municipality https://alonissos.gr/en/

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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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