Cold water diving is not everyone's cup of tea. But, as divers based in Scotland, the north of England and Northern Ireland know, the plusses of cold water diving (clearer water and generally profuse marine life) balance up the fact that it is ... well, cold.
As part of a forthcoming book onorthern waters, my wife Linda's publishers wanted some photographs taken from different parts of northern Europe. We opted for Norway, visiting for a week in early August, at a centre near Kristiansund on the west coast. The Strmsholmen Diving Centre is situated on the westerly end of the small island of Strmsholmen.
We started our diving from the centre's floating jetty. The visibility was limited somewhat by a grey, overcast sky and plankton bloom, which constrained the photography to macro shots.
Despite this there was plenty to see and photograph. We encountered scallops, starfish, mating sea hares and pipefish in a few metres of water on the outward leg of our first dive by a small drop-off which led to a sandy bottom. We had been advised to turn back once we encountered the powerful Vevangstrmmen current, which prevents return to the entry point if you press on into it. Nearer the channel between the island and the mainland it can reach 5-8 knots, running in or out of the fjord, depending on the state of the tide. It makes a brilliant drift dive (as we discovered later in the week), and a fantastic place for underwater photography at slack water.
Day two saw us boarding the dive centre's fast dive boat. We used it to dive within the fjord during the early part of the week, as strong north-westerly winds prevented us going further afield.
One site on the landward side of the fjord was an almost vertical wall leading down to a ledge at 30m, where we were told we should find large sea spiders and basket stars. Indeed, there they were just waiting to be photographed - the largest sea spiders I have ever seen!
As the weather slowly improved later in the week, the boat took us out to some small offshore islands surrounded by kelp gullies littered with starfish. I found an enormous and battle-scarred common lobster, plus large numbers of tiny sea slugs browsing on the sea mats covering the kelp fronds.
We found a young wolf fish at one site, mistaking it for a large unknown blenny because of its bright orange colouration. Flatfish - plaice, top knot and Norwegian haddock - and huge starfish of several species were abundant. Among the starfish we found the familiar sun stars and cushion stars encountered in Scottish waters as well as purple sun stars. Common lobsters, edible crabs, velvet swimming crabs, shore crabs and hermit crabs were common. At another site we encountered rock fish and Norway lobsters, although these were camera shy.
Large squat lobsters, hidden by day, spread themselves on the flat stone slabs forming the foundations of the dive centre by night, posing for several pictures before tiring of our camera flashes. The only problem in trying to photograph them was the lateness of the hour. So far north were we that it hardly started to get dark until nearly midnight and we often found ourselves crawling into bed in the wee hours of the morning.
The most exciting dives we made were at night in the Vevangstrmmen Channel; one from the jetty and the others from the boat. Dropping into the slack water just as the sun was setting at about 11pm, these were perhaps the most vivid dives I have ever made. The clear sky was a startling pink colour, and, as there was not a breath of wind, the glassy surface of the water shone with the same beautiful hue. In the silence following my roll into the water I remember calling out to the boat cover: "I've never dived in pink water before!". It was a magical moment.
As I descended into the mystical waters below I felt mightily pleased to be alive. Around me the water was moving slowly through the channel towards the fjord. On nearing the bottom at about 18m, my torch light picked out a carpet of creamy deadman's fingers which gave way on either side of the 15m-wide channel to walls of pink plumose anemones. Not one piece of the rocky substrate which I knew must lie concealed beneath this deep pile could be seen!
Here we found gobies, blennies and butterfish hiding among the anemones. Larger, yet still immature, wolf fish, and scorpion fish peered curiously at us from crevices in the rock, waiting no doubt for a passing meal or the opportunity to dart out and seize some unsuspecting prey. Poor man's cod hung effortlessly in the water column, facing out to sea. We exposed several frames of film on these creatures before it was time to leave this wonderland.
By the end of the week, the weather had changed dramatically. The sun shone, and the bright blue sky and the clean air made the fjord and surrounding islands appear even more beautiful. Snow-peaked mountains could be seen in the distance. The colourful houses lining the fjord were mirrored in the calm surface. A large shoal of small fish swirled, danced and leapt from the water in the morning light as we set off for a deep wreck dive.
The wreck, called the Borghild, lies upright on the sea bed just offshore from a lighthouse and her decks are at 42m. Once on deck we could still make out the green waters above us, but there was precious little light to take photographs. I tried a couple of long exposures with my Nikonos V, but the results were not good. We saw ling and a few deadman's fingers on the wreck as we made our way towards the bow and the huge winch gear. But, as we were no-stop diving on single 12-litre tanks, we had not gone far before it was time to surface.
Facilities at the Strmsholmen Sjsportsenter include a bar and meeting room in addition to equipment and air. Accommodation is provided either in a two-storey house with dormitories, two large lounges, two kitchens and a sauna facing the fjord; or in a smaller, cosier house with a traditional grass-covered roof to provide thermal insulation.