New Island, Falkland Islands, South Atlantic Ocean
So how has a routine dive become one of the best ever dives of a self-confessed Wreck Addict you might well ask? I would normally not have to answer as the chances are honestly “slim to nothing” and if any of my dive buddies or those who know me through diving would say…..not a chance….in hell! But here we are, on a diving expedition in the South Atlantic Ocean and we have stretched our legs, over some impressive distances, to dive some remoter sites off New Island, and in little more than large rubber dinghy’s to be honest
This trip, on the 24th of January 1996, is a long one, we are going North around the headland, out of our little bay at Coffin’s Harbour, the weather favours the route, the wind, mild on the day, is from the South which means it’s at our backs on the way out, if it turns while we are out we can choose the better direction as it suits, the distance is less returning in a Southerly direction and either way, North or South, will give the shelter of the islands cliffs for the most part of the journey home
This will be near the limit of the little Inflatables ability to carry fuel and take the weight of us and our dive kit, we will head towards Sabina Point and then on to Bold Point, rounding the Northernmost tip of the Island before turning South through Barnard’s Passage, named after the islands own Robinson Crusoe, and pass North Bluff across Albatross Bay towards our final destination and dive site, Landsend Bluff. This was the point I had spied when visiting the Penguin Rookery at Rookery Hill, visible to my Right, shrouded in mist and then rugged cliffs looming against the background of open sea as the mist cleared and the sun broke free of the leaden sky for a while
We passed the seal colony under Precipice Hill on our way, and ran in closer to the shore to take advantage of the easier waters nearer the headland, and to enjoy the company of the inquisitive and playful seals as they dived into the water to indulge their curiosity at the sight and sound of our little craft, and the oddness of the appearance of such weird looking creatures in their pristine, largely unvisited, natural environment, where we must have, quite literally, looked like visitors from another dimension…… I loved seeing the Seals and the odd Sea-lion lazing on the rocky headlands, sunning themselves, I loved the reactions as we passed, the splashes as they dived in, the leaping and flash of those under the surface, powering out to get a closer look at us, and there would be a head popping out at whatever distance the individual animal felt safe at, close enough to see if we were a threat, far enough to effect an exit if that threat became real, a visceral demonstration of predatory behaviour….., essentially, from a Seal’s perspective……. “Are they friend or food?”
As we closed on the Landsend Bluff dive site we approached more spectacular rock formations than we had seen so far, the headlands around New Islands Western side can only be described using superlatives, the imposing rock formations are magnificent carrying local names like Apache Chief, the pillars of Hercules, the Cathedral…..all evoking their own particular expectations, but on approach, and from the vantage point of a small inflatable at sea-level, they became ominous, magnificent edifices, rising from the Southern Ocean to truly dwarf us into universal insignificance
On arrival at Landsend Bluff we spent some time ticking the outboards over and just steering around the cliff bases looking at the dive opportunities….and there were prime sites wherever we looked, it would be a challenge deciding where to make the best entry, everywhere looked amazing, it would have been easy to just run out of time moving from great, to better, to even better and on…..and on…to a point where we just had to say, this is it, we’ve just got to get in and check this out! Everywhere we looked was a Deep and inviting “Blue”, all we could do was select the most impressive looking “best of” and believe me….that was a tough decision!
I don’t know who eventually chose where we went in, I know I favoured the narrow passage at the Pillars of Hercules, I don’t remember why we didn’t do a swim through on that site, but we ended up close, on the Southern side of the narrow, towering cliff sides, where those of you (old, Like me) who spent every Boxing Day watching Jason and the Argonauts, would picture the Symplegades, (The Clashing Rocks, or Cyanean Rocks of Greek legend, supposedly in the Bospherous) held apart by the sea God Triton, as Jason and his Argonauts row their ship Argo through to safety. The Greek legend being slightly enhanced there as the myth has Jason releasing a Dove, taken by the rocks, before the Argo makes the journey, the Goddess Athena allowing Argo through in the Dove’s wake as the rocks rebound from each other
After we had taken the inflatables around the imposing cliff base for half an hour or so, marveling at spectacle and grandeur, the decision had been made and we kitted up, I would buddy with Percy on this dive and we would soon come to know the site as the Cathedral……..my dive log records: “24/01/96 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 (Peale’s – 3m long) on the return boat ride a Magnificent Summer day – Viz 10m Air In 200 Out 150 Buddy Perc.” This is one of the longest entries for a dive in the log, it shows how much I loved this particular site and the dive but it falls way short of the full reality of the dive
On entry the water was deeply Blue Green as the diffused sunlight, bright overhead, lit the shallows and danced off the submerged rock walls to our Right, we had significant swell on the surface but it was diveable and less under the water from 5 or so metres down. Percy and I settled in and started to swim forward through shoals of Krill, they really were like clouds to our front and all around, amazing Red colour out of the water but slightly more transparent, no translucent really when under, although the millions that made up the shoal were very tangible and often right in front of the eyes, you could see through the shoal to navigate and we quickly found our cliff base coming to an end, there was brilliant light behind what was a very short passage in the rock face, wide but very bright and inviting, we didn’t have to ask, Percy and I turning almost synchronously into the 20 or so foot gap into what seemed to be a huge indoor pool, with a bottom strewn with huge rocks and those surrounded by hundreds more smaller rocks piled up, so the back wall rose at a pyramidal angle to the surface, the remainder forming the odd isolated pile or , as in the far side of the space, dropped one, onto several others forming an almost Celtic burial chamber, with side supports and a huge boulder, resting on top acting as a shallow roof…..the perfect swim-through! Neither Percy or I had either of the exped’s cameras, but it would have made no difference, the huge space, with shafts of light dancing everywhere you looked, was like the effect in St Paul’s, a holy place where we were perhaps the only humans ever to have visited, (the selection of the dive having been entirely random, the result of our slow meander, under the imposing cliffs where the swell and rolling tide was slightly less imposing) the likelihood of either of us wasting time on photographs was zero
I lack a single poetic atom in me, but if ever I could have “waxed lyrical”, it would have been in this pristine sanctuary, with its incredible colours and light show and its impressive magnitude. Percy and I swam to the huge boulders and I signaled “up”, I wanted to see the place from the surface, after all, we couldn’t get the rib in here or we’d already have found the entrance and done so. As we surfaced I looked around at the walls of what was an immense shaft, you could hear the gulls and Skua’s calling overhead, hear the swell of the tidal surge rising and falling back, hissing against the walls….. you could see….hundreds of feet above you, the tight circle of light that had once been the rocks strewn on the floor below, where once a roof existed, and now was brilliant shafts of sunlight bouncing around the shaft walls. We were speechless, I can’t remember a single word said, I know I was just awe-struck at the effect, the scale, the simple, natural magnificence of such a place and, after what seemed an age, we just slipped back under to take in the even more impressive drama that was beneath the surface….I dropped to the side of the “burial mound” and took time to swim up and to the back ,so I could swim through the wedged rocks exiting to brilliant White shafts of sunlight, as the gap widened in front of me to become the immense pool, hidden in the cliffs, and its rock filled seascape. Percy and I did several more lazy circles in the cavernous space, checking huge boulders, swimming between and around them and eventually, very reluctantly we headed for the break in the cliff face that formed the exit from our incredible find and swam out, back in time to the real world and the shoals of Krill waiting to greet us outside the Cathedral, like a horde on the steps as you leave a service………
The swim out of the cavernous and sanctified space we had been in scant seconds before brought us through the shoal and we were surrounded by the beautiful little creatures that form the base of the food chain for so many of the species of marine life found in the South Atlantic. It was impossible to avoid the shoaling Krill and as we rose through the water column to surface and hauled ourselves back into the inflatables we were covered in the last of them, unwitting passengers in the water clinging to our Dry-Suits. We brushed them off, back into the sea as carefully as we could, but it was an odd experience to see them all over our suits, something I’ve never seen before, nor since!
Now I don’t know how or why the other divers didn’t find our entry point and the wonder within, but when we did the usual, “how was your dive” courtesy, Percy and I were the only divers who had entered the cliff face, the only ones who had seen the stunning, pristine best of what the South Atlantic and New Island had to offer, I was both elated to be one of the only two divers, perhaps on Earth, to have been there, but also a little disappointed there was no one who could relate to what we had both just seen, no one to discuss the spell-binding sights both under and above these waters hidden within the immense stone cliffs of Landsend Bluff
The trip back to Coffin’s Harbour was another joy, on the odd occasion we were joined by pods of Peale’s Dolphins, bow wave riding just for the joy of it, in what had turned out to be a wonderful sun drenched afternoon. As we passed plateau’s of rock shelf, low to the Ocean covered in Seals, with the odd Sea-lion in amongst the horde, we were joined by some of the smaller Black and White flanked Commerson’s Dolphins as we came back into the mouth of the harbour, as if to welcome us home……..Brilliant!.……. If ever I get the chance to return to New Island it won’t take a second to make the decision to go…….and I know where I will be heading to dive