IN THE RED SEA, YOU'LL SEE BIG CREATURES WITH BIG TEETH and, because the viz is good, you'll see them coming right at you. Does diving in the UK seem less exciting by comparison, or are you stimulated by having to guess what might be swimming unseen just 10m away?
Big fish, whales, dolphins and sharks are present in UK waters but tend not to swim up and pose for your camera. So is there any wild - as opposed to mild - marine life for the average diver to see in UK waters? Where do British fish bare their teeth?
Ballan wrasse are usually associated with reefs and shallow dive sites, and often school around divers in large numbers. They are known for their beautiful coloration, but it's as well that they are placid fish, because they pack teeth that could damage a diver.
Before I started diving, my interest in the sea was channelled through sea-angling. I remember catching a ballan wrasse and, on unhooking it, being surprised to find thick white teeth of the sort you might expect to see in a human mouth. Very different to those other wrasse, such as corkwings and goldsinnys, the teeth of which are small and needle-like.
Ballan wrasse feed on limpets and mussels, so require strong, chisel-like snappers to prise their prey off rocks and deal with the shells. They grow quite large on this diet, males reaching around 60cm and 3.5kg in weight. So next time one is peering into your mask 5cm from your face, take a peek at its gnashers.
Ballan wrasse could never be described as dangerous, and don't look intimidating, which is more than can be said of the wolf-fish, probably the ugliest fish on the planet. The average size of these monsters is around the metre mark, though specimens up to 1.3m long and 12kg in weight have been found.
Their heads are the size of footballs, and the teeth are highly visible yellow canine fangs, with crushing molars behind. The teeth are replaced when worn or damaged. The inside of the wolf-fish's mouth continues in the horror vein, being blood-red. Display of its large pectoral and dorsal fins gives the impression of even greater size.
The body does taper rapidly towards the tail, however. Coloration is blue, with grey bars running down the flanks. If a wolf-fish decides to swim towards you, you will certainly notice it.
A fairly tame specimen used to do just that at Eyemouth, on Scotland's south-east coast. The first time I experienced it, it gave me the fright of my life. Sadly George is no longer with us, but a resident wolf-fish at Great Green Car at St Abbs is now performing the same trick for divers. Novices are frequently scared witless by this playful monster.
Appearances can be deceptive. Wolf-fish are fairly easy-going, unless you aggravate them. However, their bite should be feared. Specimens trawled up in fishing nets have been seen to bite into wooden planking and crush the timber.
Their daily diet includes sea urchins, which they can pick up whole in their mouth and crush, spines and all, thanks to their tough pallet-lining and immensely strong teeth
wolf and chips
Wolf-fish are usually located in deep water and are often seen by commercial divers on the North Sea rigs.
There are, however, shallow-water dive sites, usually in the North, where they can be spotted easily by divers, commonly in caves or crevices at the base of cliffs that open out onto a level sea floor.
Such locations give them the chance to nip out to remove a sea urchin from the wall, or to swim over the seabed in search of crabs or lobsters. Look for an area devoid of urchins, and small cave entrances with urchin and shellfish remains, and you'll know that the wolf-fish is home.
If you want another fright, the wolf-fish is one of several fish sold as rock salmon in your local chip-shop!
I accused the wolf-fish of being the ugliest species, but the anglerfish must run it close. Basically a huge mouth on fins, it grows up to 2m and 40kg in weight, though in UK waters a fish of half that size is considered a good specimen.
Anglers lie on the sea floor, preferring coarse sand or gravel with weed-covered rocks nearby, and often very shallow water. Coloration is said to vary from black to green, though all those I have encountered have run the gamut from grey to brown.
Anglerfish do not bury themselves but rely on camouflage for protection. Their upper side is a patchwork of brown blotches that give them the appearance of having been sewn together in some Frankenstein manner, stitchmarks and all.
Fleshy lobes surround the huge mouth and break up the outline of the fish, making it extremely difficult for a diver to locate. Despite looking in the right areas, it was more than eight years before I found my first angler! A good torch helps, because their eyes, as well as some golden pigmentation around them, are very reflective.
Other means of location tend to be inadvertent, including the “kneeling-on” or “sitting-on” techniques, or placing of your hand carelessly in the fish's mouth. I wouldn't want to sit on an angler, no matter what size it was!
tickle its tail
An anglerfish depends on its prey being fooled by its camouflage and by the fleshy lure into which the first ray of its dorsal fin has been modified. It hopes the prey will come within striking range of its cavernous mouth, which is full of extremely sharp, inward-facing needles. For this trick to work, it relies on a lightning speed which belies its ungainly looks.
I once tickled the tail of an anglerfish, on a deep cliff in the Summer Isles. I was probably slightly narked at the time, but before I knew what had happened the fish had turned through 180° and my gloved fingers were dangling before its smiling end. Kevlar gloves might have a market after all.
Another unpleasant thought: the tail section of this fish is used as mock scampi, while its head and body are disregarded - almost as wasteful as sharkfin soup.
Anglers are wrongly referred to as monkfish by fishmongers, though monkfish are in fact angel sharks. This misidentification probably stems from a Sea Fish Industry Authority poster which was launched some 15 years ago.
Angel sharks are solid creatures, and anything but angelic. They are true sharks but have a flattened appearance, with a broad head and enlarged pectoral fins, so that they look like a cross between a shark and a ray. They do, however, possess pronounced dorsal fins and a mouth at the end of the head, rather than underneath as found in rays, as well as laterally sited gill-slits.
Their skin is rough and sandy-coloured on top and white, soft and smooth underneath (I know, because I tickled one's tummy). Thus camouflaged, angel sharks bury themselves in the seabed to wait for their next meal to swim by.
They don't bother about fleshy lures but rely on pot luck, incredible speed and a huge mouth which draws the victim onto needle-sharp, inward-facing teeth.
I watched in Lanzarote as experienced local divers slowly lifted them out of the sand by their long tails, but these creatures are unpredictable and you don't know when they will explode out of the sand and take flight. One of the team received a jarred finger when the solid mass of this creature erupted from its cover before cruising lazily away.
Angel sharks can grow to around 2m and attain a weight of 33kg. They are frequent northward migrants and can be found all around the UK, though the warmer south and west coasts provide the best chances of spotting one.
They live in shallow water with a muddy or sand-covered bottom - an ideal spot would be close to a reef with a plentiful supply of fish and crustaceans. So if you dive the warmer waters of the UK, don't write off that seemingly lifeless sandy patch beside your favourite reef. It's just a matter of looking hard.
kiss a tiger
Conger eels are probably the biggest creatures commonly encountered by UK divers. Often regarded as vicious hunters of the reef when things get dark, the surprising thing is that they don't have a huge set of snappers, as moray eels do. They depend instead on small teeth and rock-hard jaws.
Generally divers see only the head of this fish, poking from an opening in a wreck or from under a boulder on a rocky reef, but there are locations where you can view these magnificent creatures free-swimming. The Conger Wreck, often visited on trips to Rathlin Island, is a good bet, and if you relish having 20 congers swimming around you, you shouldn't miss the opportunity.
I cringe whenever I remember diving there, with my brother nose-to-snout with a large eel, having since heard reports of the damage these creatures can inflict. Fish-feeding at some marine aquariums has put congers in a bad light, as they have been responsible for injuries to divers, but this probably has much to do with respecting powerful animals in their natural environment. You wouldn't kiss a tiger, would you?
Congers are usually grey on top, with pure white undersides. They have large round eyes which perhaps are none too efficient, because when free-swimming they tend to bump into everything in their path, including divers. And they can grow to monstrous proportions. The female is larger than the male and can grow to more than 3m in length and 65kg in weight!
Conger eels are extremely common in the UK, quick to colonise wrecks, boulder reefs and rough ground. Normally they are no more than inquisitive about divers, but having a powerful dive light beamed at them can make them tetchy, especially if they are unable to retreat. Bear this in mind and you should have many happy conger encounters.
How safe is it to dive with all these wild and dangerous creatures? As safe as ever - these creatures have always been around, it's just that divers are often blissfully unaware of their presence. Look more carefully and you might spot them at your favourite dive sites. Relish their presence - let's face it, in British viz those killer whales and porbeagle sharks are likely to remain forever out of your range of sight!
the ballan wrasse, toothy but hardly intimidating
The anglerfish, a Frankensteinian creation.
Wolf-fish have teeth that can crush timber under provocation
Our motto is to look but don't touch but this diver has an angel by the tail. Not for long.