Mark Evans stayed close to home and ventured to Puffin Island off the North Wales coastline with Duttons Divers/Vivian Dive Centre with an eye to diving with the resident seals, however, things didn’t quite go to plan
The entire water column in front of me – well, the metre or so I could actually see! – was literally pulsating with life. Countless planktonic critters were making the most of the warm, sunny weather, and had ‘bloomed’ into active life, which was great for them, but not so good for our hardy band of divers.
We were off the back end of Puffin Island in Anglesey, North Wales, hoping to explore the craggy, rocky reef beneath the surface, and maybe encounter a friendly seal or two, but at the moment I had all on just keeping track of where my buddy was! Topside conditions could not have been more-perfect – blue skies, warm sunshine and low wind – but underwater ended up being a right-off and we canned the dive after 30 minutes or so of comedic navigation through a primordial soup. Welcome to the world of British diving, where you just don’t know what you are going to get!
Puffin Island, or Ynys Seiriol in Welsh, is an uninhabited island lying off the eastern tip of Anglesey, an island itself off the northwest coast of Wales. When you are driving along the A55 dual-carriageway and look across towards Anglesey and see Puffin Island, it doesn’t look that big, but when you are next to it in a RIB, it is quite impressive, with the highest point being some 59 metres above sea level.
Its Welsh name, Ynys Seiriol, refers to Saint Seiriol, son of Owain Ddantgwyn, a 5th-century ruler of the Kingdom of Gwynedd, who initially founded a clas, or ecclesiastical settlement, at Penmon (the area of Anglesey facing Puffin Island), before in later life establishing a hermitage on the island – his remains are still thought to rest there.
The remains of several buildings are visible on the island, including a 12th-century monastery, which has a Grade I heritage listing, and a 19th-century cottage. There is also a disused telegraph station on the north-eastern tip of the island.
It is now privately owned by the Baron Hill estate, and is a Special Protection Area for wildlife, in particular its great cormorant colony of some 750 birds, which is over ten percent of the national population. Atlantic puffins – after which is gained its English name – were once prolific, with more than 2,000 pairs recorded, but after the brown rat was accidentally introduced to the island in the late-19th century, they were virtually wiped out. A campaign to eradicate the rats through poisoning began in 1988, and seems to have worked – there are now some 300 puffins breeding on the island.
To dive Puffin Island, you need to be in a boat. You can launch from somewhere along the northern coast of Anglesey, or down the Menai Straits. Duttons Divers/Vivian Dive Centre go out in their 7.8-metre Ballistic dive RIB Little Viv from Ty Calch, at the very southern end of the Menai Straits, looking out at the narrow Caernarfon Bar, a treacherous navigation hazard leading out into Caernarfon Bay.
This means that to get to Puffin Island, you are treated to a picturesque run up the extremely scenic Straits, past Caernarfon Castle and National Trust property Plas Newydd, under the Britannia Bridge and Menai Suspension Bridge, and then past Bangor Pier and Beaumaris/Beaumaris Castle, before eventually getting to Puffin Island. When you are finished, you get the reverse journey back.
The weather was amazing when we went out in early May, and the blue skies and warm sunshine made for a comfortable, enjoyable cruise up and down the Straits. There are several companies that do specific RIB cruises in these waters, they are that impressive, so essentially you get a free RIB-ride built into your diving day on Little Viv!
There are numerous sites around Puffin Island, but our plan was to dive with some of the friendly grey seals which call the island and its waters home. They can be encountered all around the island, but the northern side is generally the optimum spot for interactions, so this was our target drop from the RIB. Here the reef can drop to 12m-15m in places, and is liberally covered in thick coatings of dead man’s fingers and healthy kelp.
We rolled in close to the wall, into about 2m-3m of water, and at that point we all realised just how plankton-filled it was! We stuck with the plan, even though we knew the chances of seeing any seals was about nil – we saw them on the surface as we drove by in the RIB, I am sure they were laughing to one another about these daft bubble-blowers coming to see them in lousy vis!
We ventured down to 10m-11m maximum, and by getting very close to the reef, I managed to get nearly a metre or so on some-sort of visibility. The dead man’s fingers which filled every gulley and cut were very impressive, and there were seastars everywhere bigger than my hand. I also found a solitary lobster poking out from under a ledge, and a few large edible crabs going about their business between the kelp stems.
It was a shame that the visibility caused us to abort the dive sooner than the hour planned, but this brief visit was enough to persuade me that a return visit needs to be on the cards, as the reef in decent vis would be absolutely stunning.
Photographs by Mark Evans
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