Exercise Southern Craftsman Phase II
It is the 17th of January 1996 and we have packed up the operation on Weddell Island, everything has been loaded on the MV St Brandan and we bid Weddell a fond farewell, not knowing if we will ever return, taking with us memories of dives that will live vivid for the rest of our lives. Now we are bound for New Island and the weather is building in typical Southern Atlantic style, the wind lashing waves up around us and the flat bottom of St Brandan rising and falling, heading into the teeth of a gale like none of us have seen before. I know this because it woke me up….and that is a kind of miracle to be honest. Before I joined up, when I was still living with my parents and my two brothers, my younger brother Mike once asked me with a straight face…..”Col, if a nuclear war does break out….do you want me to wake you?” The packing of the St Brandan had gone well, all our kit was stowed back in the ISO container and the two stalwart little inflatables were securely lashed to the deck, a good job really in the circumstances, we had done well, it was late in the day when we finished and the captain had kindly assigned us bunks and suggested we get our heads down….no arguments from me, sleep, eat and drink when you can….a mantra well respected in the mob!
I had a bunk in a room to myself and quickly drifted off, it seemed little more than ten minutes (but was several hours) later and I was violently awakened as I was spat upwards banging my head on the bunk above me….what the living fcuk…. The St Brandan was dropping from under me and somehow I jammed my arm above my head holding me down against my bunk and the empty bunk above me…..then there was the weight of gravity as the hull rose under me and lifted me up to stare at the bunk above….fcuk this we’re sinking…. we must be….shit get out of bed FFS! Easier said than done as the St Brandan had a roll sideways too, not as violent as the roller-coaster up and down….. but a second level of complication when trying to get out of a bunk….I managed to get out of the bunk and onto the cabin floor, determined to find my way out before the boat turned turtle on me and it was all over, I half crawled, half dragged myself up to deck level and then into the bridge where the captain was sat staring to front with a grin from ear to ear……. “Bit choppy eh!”……. Jesus Christ….a bit choppy…..a fcuking bit choppy……
After what was the worst 3 hours on any boat of my life, we hoved into the strait at Peat Island, which leads to the settlement on New Island where Don Shirley had organised a week or two for us with the resident owner Ian Strange. Now Ian is a local legend, a wild life artist and minor celebrity, Ian having been the driving force behind the declaration of most of the island as a nature conservation area. Ian had pioneered a Mink farming venture on the islands way back in the ‘60’s and, when that had been wrapped up for not being as profitable as the sponsors (The Hudson’s Bay Company, of Canadian origins) would have liked, Ian had taken up the protection of wildlife in the area, writing several books on the local flora and fauna and becoming a crown appointed artist for the post office out there. Ian passed away in September of 2018, his vivid paintings are still sought after by wildlife enthusiasts and art collectors alike
Ian allowed us to set up camp just down the field from his house which was perched on the bluff overlooking Coffin Bay, named for the Coffin family of Nantucket rather than anything macabre….and opposite Coffin Island, named of the same origin, the Coffin family being prominent in the shipping business and presumably something to do with Whaling, that odious period of global cruelty writ large in the Falkland Island’s history! This wasn’t the only connection with America, there is a little more on this site that refers (in the piece on the Falklands) surrounding the wreck of the Isabella and foul deeds, marooning, the museum now on New Island, and eventual salvation. The Resurrection of the Island’s history through the new museum can be traced back to the two Americans in the picture, who, on several stays on New Island, rescued the dilapidated hut that had been constructed to shelter Barnard, and those from the American Sealer Nanina, marooned by the British during the war of independence in 1812. Barnard’s hut eventually became the museum in what can truly be described as a self-fulfilling prophesy in my mind…..
So we set to, tenting up, getting our kit ashore and making a start on the routines needed to ensure we could function over the next couple of weeks. This was a little more “real” than our Weddell Island set-up, we had two man tents for our personal living space, and a central admin and cooking tent, joined up to a stores shed for kit and cataloging the collections for the British Museum along with tables for eating and logging dives etc…….nothing spectacular, but we were used to slumming it and our set-up was cosy enough, and allowed us to socialise or find some personal space as the mood struck
It had taken just 4 days from our last dive off Weddell Island on January 15th, to get packed, transported, ferry our kit, set-up camp, establish a routine and plan the next dive….January 19th 1996 we were back in the ribs and off for our first dive from New Island, my log book marks the event: “Rib Dive – New Island – Coffin Isle S.A. New site, trying on Aquion Membrane Dry-Suit – Great Suit, Lousy deflate valve – Dive was ruined by that and tangles with Chris’s delayed SMB. Shame – Great Site – 20m Kelp and loads of life! W.Temp 9’ Air In 225 Out 150 Viz 15m Buddy Chris”…… An inauspicious start to diving from New Island, I hoped things improved and quickly! Now I was trying the Aquion, (a spare brought by one of the other divers and generously loaned to me), whilst the glue I had used on the over-boots of my own suit dried. It was a vain attempt as trying to dry neoprene on an island in the South Atlantic was ambitious to say the least. It was also it turned out, rather unnecessary, as the rubber boots had effectively just been glued over fully neoprene covered and waterproofed inner bootees, such was the quality of my DMS Bravo dry-suit. Aquion would, in later versions of their under-suits, include an area of mesh between cuff and forearm, the problem I had was due to the under-suit vacuuming up under the base of the sleeve mounted vent valve, preventing it venting sufficiently quickly, even when raised above the head……not a problem you wanted on ascent, especially with decompression stops to take…..still, lesson learned and no harm done!
It would be three more days before we got in the water again, the weather closing in around us again leaving us to entertain ourselves in other ways, and to explore the island a little, in the breaks between howling winds and lashing rain. It was times like these when it would be easy to become demoralised, after all we were here to dive, our first dive had shown us the visibility was excellent, and the look of the island, with its high cliffs to one side and two shipwrecks on the lower shores close to us, gave rise to high hopes for the diving here. Chris saved the day, Chris was an army warrant officer in the catering corps and here to ensure we didn’t starve to death or spend the entire budget on beer. Chris could do amazing things with meager rations, he excelled at his craft and everyone looked forward to scoff time, not least me! Chris would often make fresh bread and sometimes scones, there was always some little treat, and Chris can be solely credited with keeping our morale very much better than it would have been in the circumstances!
The three or so days we had the chance to look around were interesting enough, we walked out to the narrowest part of the island, easy enough to walk to but too far to lug dive kit effectively, the limitations of shore diving, and the lack of safety cover would have been a problem even if we had considered the walk with kit “do-able”….No, we would stick to the inflatables and the trip around the headland, after all, it was a dramatic landscape, it was an even more dramatic seascape! I had made a point of wandering off on my own to explore a bit, the lads weren’t that adventurous and most contented themselves with the camp environs….. I wanted to spend time up close and personal with the Protector III in the bay, I wanted to look through Barnard’s hut, that would lead to learning a little more about our American Conservators, their love of the Falklands and their personal mission to restore Barnard’s hut to some sort of order. They were doing a great job, it was neat and tidy, there was a sense it could have been made reasonably comfortable by the marooned occupiers, until their rescue by Mariners from the British whalers “Asp” and “Indispensable” in November of 1814
I enjoyed talking with the Americans, Carla and John, and it pains me that I cannot recall their surnames whilst writing this, for which I humbly apologise if they are ever unfortunate enough to stumble across it. I spent my time taking Black and White (and colour) photos of the Protector III and then forged on to the Penguin colony over the rise. When I arrived I couldn’t believe how fearless the little birds were, they allowed me right up close and personal, not offended by my presence at all, it was marvellous to be so close to such fascinating birds, it also smelt pretty bad and the noise, Jesus…… the squabbling and calling, the to-ing and fro-ing as they came hopping back to their rightful places and fed chicks or sat on eggs….it was an amazing thing to be a part of even for such a brief sweep of the hands of time……
The 23rd of January, and it was a good enough forecast to get back in the water, this time we would take the little inflatables around the headland and sit under the cliffs, we’d all been dying to see what was there, the cliffs towered above the sea and the formations were truly spectacular. I couldn’t wait to get in the water and the trip couldn’t have been more impressive, we launched from the little quay below Ian’s house and headed out of the little inlet into beautiful blue sky and calm seas, every minute of the RIB ride was superb, the cliffs truly impressive, the sculpted rock towering above us often plateaued at the base, where hundreds of Sea-lions sunned themselves, or splashed into the water at our approach, keen to defend territories, or just curious as to what the hell just spoiled their peace and quiet? I had never dived in waters like this, teeming with life, unspoilt by mankind and near pristine as you can get in a world that is hell-bent on self-destruction wherever “civilization” manifests
23rd January 1996 “RIB Dive – Coffin. I. E. Side S.A. Down to 20m to collect some samples of life, winding back to a cave in the cliff face and along it till buoyancy problems @ 3m. The life was varied & general, Interesting Air In 200 Out 125 W/Temp 9’ Buddy Percy. Viz 10-12m” That bloody valve again….I learned a trick on this dive, if I squeezed the cuff dump mount hard enough, I could break the Vacuum beneath it and get it to work a little better! I would be back in my DMS in no time, the glue hadn’t been successful on the boots but I had figured out the inner neoprene was still completely sealed, and when using the suit it wouldn’t matter about a loose boot top. The next day would see one of the best dives I have ever had, it still lives vividly in my mind and as such will be written up more thoroughly in another section of this blog at a later date, here’s what my log book records: “Rib Dive – Land’s End Bluff – S.A The Cathedral, very marginal sea conditions – heavy swell but a great dive in along sheer walls covered in Krill, millions of the things like a Red carpet everywhere – in through a Blue Green split in the rocks & into a huge open roofed shaft 180’ – 200’ straight up on all sides. Down to the floor at 11m & in and under the giant slab, remains of the roof, then out through 4m swell along the passage. Spent time with Penguins & Seals & Dolphins (Peal’s 3m long) on the return boat ride, a magnificent summer day – viz 10m Air In 200 Out 150 Buddy Percy” Now I don’t generally “wax lyrical” in my dive-log, but that’s one of the longest descriptions to date, it goes to show how much I loved that dive, but check out the “Best Dives” section over the next few weeks and I’ll expand a bit…..
Our next dive on the 24th January couldn’t have been more different, we went back to collecting samples for the British Antarctic Survey Group, this time in the Kelp Forests so prevalent around these islands. I logged the dive with this narrative: “Rib Dive – Coffin Island – S.A. Collection of seaweed samples for Antarctic Survey Group from 20m mark –then a nature bimble, beautiful Gastropods – one 12” (foot) size two really pretty Nudibranchs White and Yellow & translucent – thousands of Starfish & Hermit Crabs & wind through Kelp Forest – Magic Viz 8m Air In 225 Out 175 W/Temp 9’ Buddy Percy” I loved the Kelp Forests, the interplay of light, the stumbling across “glades” and the abundance of life throughout made each dive different and adventurous in equal measure. The next day we were on to a different area, once supporting a whaling station, now bereft of anything we could see that might be associated, other than an obvious beaching area….The dive was a video run that we were making, not Percy and I but others on the dive, so we had a bimble about looking for something of interest: “Rib Dive – The Whaling Station – S.A just a bimble while a video was being made – had a job finding anything of interest – a couple of Starfish & Crab & a fair sized Brachiopod & a pretty Nudibranch. Viz 5-6m Air In 200 Out 175 W/Temp 11’ Buddy Percy” There were few days remaining on New Island and we had amassed quite a catalogue of specimens for the Antarctic Survey Group. After our collection dives Don would have us in the admin tent and we would bag, or bottle the finds and label date, time, dive number and depth, all the information, including the water temperature at point of collection, was important to what was collected, it was a macabre task, one I didn’t enjoy, I far preferred to log the Kelp specimens, long, awkward and often a job to pack, at least I wasn’t watching some poor creature gasp its last in Formaldehyde or whatever alcohol solution it was we had brought with us…….
Our next dive on the 26th of January was off Beaver Island and my dive log records: “Rib Dive – Beaver Island – S.A. Drop into Kelp Fringe & a hunt round the 25m mark. Plenty of life, much of it small, but one huge Gastropod with a 7” shell & 18” “foot” (Gastropod literally means “Stomach foot” a creature that is a sliding intestine for want of a better description), plenty of Brittle-star & Starfish some small Snails & or Nudibranch – all wonderfully coloured. The Kelp another submerged forest – great but really cold (long trip out) W.Temp 9’ Air In 190 Out 100 Viz 10m Buddy Don” This was perhaps one of our longest trips out of New Island and showcases our growing confidence in the area, it was a hell of a trip on the little inflatables and was at the limit of our ability to carry enough fuel for the trip. I remember the feeling of chill on the ride out and again on the return, several times in each direction, down my spine, a euphoria you often get when really cold but rammed tight together on long cold trips in the back of Bedford 4 tonners on long road trips in winter
There was another day of rest before our final dive out of New Island, another opportunity to photograph, to write home, to record dives for those who weren’t too meticulous recording their adventures underwater as perhaps I had become…I tried to record the dives each day, once all the kit was cleaned, stowed and the fills completed (we did this as “volunteers” and by a common sense “it’s your fcuking turn ffs” approach) but even I would need a catch-up every now and again, there was a lot to do to keep the show going! I still found time to photograph and to get the odd hike in, even with the “KP” duties, helping Chris out by peeling spuds, or washing up, it was necessary we all did our bit, before we put ourselves and our ambitions into the frame….
And so we bring Phase 2 of Exercise Southern Craftsman to a close, our final dive from New Island was to Ship Island on the 28th January of 1996. My log book records: “Rib Dive – Ship Island – New. I. S.A. Down to 25m & around till we got bored – predominantly Crayfish and thin weed two 36 legged Starfish – pretty large but the rest of the area was peat coloured sand pretty boring – viz 8m W/Temp 8’ Air In 225 Out 150 Buddy Mick” an inauspicious end to our diving from New Island, Don had been asked by Ian Strange, to dive the bay we ended up in to evaluate the effects of sheep farming and the denudation of local grass-land associated with it, it seems Ian’s neighbor was sheep farming that area and that wasn’t really to Ian’s liking, I don’t think there was much love lost between the two of them, local legend spoke of Ian shooting his neighbor’s dog for worrying wildlife on Ian’s land…..unconfirmed of course, as most local legend around the Falkland Islands often is! And so, with a heavy heart, as the diving had at times been what could only be described as “spectacular” we broke camp, started to load the little inflatables and schlepped out to the St Brandan for Phase 3……..