Friday, July 22, 2005

Shark Tipping

In which the author and Mr. T reach some very unusual spots, and the author has a close encounter with a Notorious Denizen of the Deep

A week on from my last adventure with Mr. T, we returned to The Beach, scene of our previous cave-swimming adventure. This time, we arrived at or very close to high water – our coast has tides of about 8 to 9 feet, on the average – and the reefs below the cliffs looked quite different. On the theory that where conditions exist to create one cave, there must be more, we had come to look for more caves and to swim through a sea arch we had seen a little further along the cliffs. We were very fortunate with the weather: although The Beach is known as a surfing spot, the sea was flat calm.

Walking past the top of the shaft I have described previously, we found the top of the “secret beach” I had glimpsed from the sea on my first swim in the area (and photographed – I may post it here at some point). This tiny beach lies in a very narrow inlet, with almost vertical walls in most places, perhaps 40 to 50 feet in height. I believe it was Mr. T who first spotted that stone steps had been carved into eastern wall of the inlet – these turned out to offer an easy route to sea level, with a turn in the stairs providing plenty of space to change.

I found the first cave of the evening – just around the corner, only a few metres from the mouth of the inlet. It had flooded roof-high, and more – but the roof had a narrow slot, which rose above sea level. Approaching cautiously, I almost swallowed my snorkel when I received a jet of compressed air and sea water right in the face at point-blank range! In effect, this cave had become a reverse blowhole. Moving below the surface, I found a handhold on the rock at the cave mouth and shone my torch up into the blackness within. Below the sea, the entrance was reassuringly broad, about the width of a small car. However, visibility was limited and my torch found only rock walls stretching off into night, with no hint of trapped air pockets that might support an explorer. I surfaced and told Mr. T that this was one to skip – wave action and our own natural buoyancy would tend to force us into the narrow crack at the top, which could become a lethal trap. We moved on.

The next inlet was more welcoming: we swam in clear water, over a rock bottom which millennia of wave action have ploughed into smooth furrows, so that the stone, like many trees on our cost, shows the direction of the prevailing wind and seas. In places, rock debris from the cliffs has been rattled and rolled till it digs deep “pots” in the seabed – at times, we seemed to be swimming over a museum of abstract sculpture, which in a sense, I suppose we were.

This inlet proved to be something of an echo chamber for wave action, with a boxy shape that has cut two facing caves, each running perpendicular to the prevailing sea and wind. Both are narrow, disconcertingly so – the cut being along the plane of the rock, the strata seem better able to constrain and resist the cutting action. Coming to the first, I had already decided that Mr. T should have the honour of “first entry” – since I had taken the first swim into the large cave he had discovered. This honour was accepted rather diffidently, and Mr. T advanced with caution – the extreme narrowness created a very strong surge back in and out – as it had in the cave we had visited previously, but on that occasion he had only to follow my lead. This cave was completely black, very loud, and an unknown quantity so far as hazards were concerned.
Probing with our torched, we eventually advanced to a fork in the cave created by a huge bulge in the roof which descended almost to a floor which was in only a foot or so of water. This divided end chamber was wider than the entry tunnel – nice to see – I had already begun to keep my fins in front as I moved, in case we should be unable to turn. Satisfied that we had reached the limit of possible exploration, we returned to the daylight – and it says something about human perception that we found the outward view from our tunnel very beautiful, glistening black walls forming a narrow frame for restless water and, more distant, daylight – quite different from the impression of menace we took from the darkness and foam as we entered. One aspect I have not mentioned is the sound – the sea is very loud in these tunnels, heavy sloshing, deep booming, a sonorous bass that can feel rather threatening, particularly when a wave is thrusting one deeper into the dark beyond the reach of one’s torch.

Moving on to the facing cave, I took the lead again. In fact, there wasn’t much danger that I would be overtaken: this cave was narrower again, and in several places it would have been very difficult for us to pass each other. The roof narrowed as it rose, and it is terminus we found fishermen’s floats wedged into a thin crack above our heads – which I took as a warning about the mechanics of the place, and further basis for caution in caves of this shape. Apart from the length and narrowness of it, this tunnel was otherwise unremarkable – more of a thrill than a spectacle.

Three newly-discovered caves behind us, we finned on into the next cove, with me making occasional dives but not finding very much. However, facing the sea, we found a classic sea cave – quite broad, but low-roofed. We moved in as far as we could, which was not so deep as we had in the first two. However, this cave was much prettier – the broad entrance and greater depth below us kept the water clear, and it brought the daylight to us – filtered to a luminescent green. The thrill factor here came from the roof level, which was higher than sea level, but not by much, especially when waves came in. In fact, at one point Mr. T came up from a short swim to find his snorkel obstructed. Investigation revealed the blockage: about fifteen metres of solid sandstone between his head and the air – hard to breathe through, and so we moved on.

Our goal was a small headland with a sea-arch – but being low in the water, Mr. T missed it, and was too far around the head to be called back when I found the mistake. As it turned out, he chose a good route: we found two points of interest at the seaward end of this head. The first was in deep water. Below us, rock walls dropped away and became sloping overhangs above a round-walled chamber perhaps twenty feet down. Possible tunnel entrances were visible below – perhaps these, and the overhang, were carved during an ice age, when the sea was lower? Diving down to investigate, I found an extraordinary sight: the open roofed chamber, perhaps fifteen feet across, was alive with spider crabs. I counted sixteen before coming up for air – but there were more. They didn’t seem to be feeding, or even moving. What brought them there? I have never seen such a crab swim, and thought the shape of the rock might have trapped them, but then again no corpses were apparent – all present were upright, and apparently healthy.

Moving in along the head to find the entrance of the arch, I spotted a nicely rounded tunnel with an imperfect roof – several holes. It was a pretty one, so I called Mr. T back, and in we went. This one was nice and wide, not at all claustrophobic, especially after caves 1 and 2, so we were quite comfortable. We came fairly quickly to a blank wall – but I didn’t think the tunnel could end so soon, and submerged to investigate. In the clear water, I found white sands below me, and in front, only a foot or two below, a broad entrance, whose walls were smooth and reddish in my torch. With no sign of a “pinching” roof, and a fairly gentle swell, I was feeling brave – so I told Mr. T that I was going in to check for air pockets, and down I went. Moving cautiously I did not swim in: instead, I crawled upside down, deeper to reach the entrance, where I paused to search ahead by torchlight. At first, I thought that I was seeing a rippled roof where the rock rose up from the entrance – but then I recognized the quicksilver look that is typical of an air-water interface, and moved up smartly to see if there was enough to breathe. There was: and after I short rest, I submerged again and moved back out. Now, Mr. T has had limited experience of snorkeling and free diving to-date – but, assured that only a short dive was necessary, he decided to try it. In case the reader thinks that I was a little careless of his safety, I can tell you that the swim was very short, a single body-length or so, and that I re-entered first, so as to be able to guide him to the air.

This chamber was very pretty – the roof was very close to the water, and jagged in the middle, but the brightness below us made it seem airy and friendly. At the rear of the chamber, I found that the tunnel continued beneath the surface of the air pocket. However, after preliminary checks showed no sign of further pockets of trapped air, we agreed to leave further investigations for another day and a lower tide.

Leaving the 4th (and probably the prettiest) cave, we proceeded as planned through the sea arch. Although a very nice feature when seen from a distance, as a snorkeling venue it under-whelmed me – but perhaps doing 4 cave-swims and visiting a spider-crab den was not the right preliminary.

This had been rather a long swim – the cave sections being done quite slowly and cautiously, and with stops to dive on features of interest – so we decided to exit at a point near the head, climbing sharp rocks. At this point, the reader should be aware that Mr. T was wearing swimming shorts and a socks (to make his fins fit), while I was in a full wetsuit, with hard-soled wetsuit boots. At the top of the cliff, we found the expected path, and began to backtrack. However, we soon came to a stop – the path detoured inland to get around a sharp inlet where we could hear a falling freshet, and became very overgrown with bracken. I was confident of the path – but the less-protected Mr. T decided we should try cutting inland, through a field of cattle, to detour the obstacle. This field turned out to have an electric fence, which the unfortunate Mr. T backed into: still dripping with seawater, he got a most amazing shock – being at the time a very effective conductor indeed.

The cattle turned out to be over-friendly: lonesome or hungry, they would come to look us over, but being over-stimulated by our company, a walk would not do them, and they would run at us, at which point we would turn on them, flippers held in our outstretched arms and shout terrible insults. This rejection would hurt their feeling, and they would turn away. However, they had a nasty habit of forgiving our cruel words as soon as our backs were turned and advancing even closer. We had the uneasy feeling that they were stalking us, and at times it seemed we might have survived the caves only to perish in a stampede.

The field turned out to be bounded by extremely thorny ditches: so we returned to the path, which did also have some briars: after the first few thorns, Mr. T donned flippers and walked backwards, at the top of an unguarded cliff. I thought this was ludicrously dangerous, and simultaneously very funny – we were both slightly high on the scenery and adrenaline.

Collecting our gear, we walked back past our entry point of the previous week – where, tempted by the clearness of the water and the beautiful light of the last of the evening, I decided to do a quick solo snorkel, Mr. T being content to lie back in the grass and doze in the sun, which still had some warmth.

Almost immediately on entering, I had the good luck to find, slinking along beneath a sloping overhang, a good-sized dogfish, which is a very small member of the shark family – about a metre or so in length. Knowing them to be quite approachable, I swam to within touching distance. Diving later, I found what may have been the same fish, and was actually able to touch its tail fin, which it did not like. I have heard of a practice whereby divers can make these fish “sleep” – they are very easy to grab – but I did not try it on this occasion.

Swimming further out, I found a playground of reefs, full of kelp and crevices. Fish seem more numerous later in the evening – I found many an angler would have been very pleased to meet. On one magical occasion, several large fish seemed to be rising up to me in slow circles as I hung stationary and resting – while below them, only I saw a stalking dogfish slipping along behind and much deeper, keeping close to the rocks and weed. I’m almost sure he was up to no good! There were at least two dogfish in the area – I wonder if they hunt together?

The great clarity and stillness encouraged me to deeper dives, and I reached bottom several times in fifteen feet or deeper, tapping spider crabs on their shells and talking pebbles from the bottom as trophies. The deeper dives seemed easy – I could take my time on the bottom, even stop at a handhold, enjoy the view, and then rise motionless and silent to the surface – I love a long ascent from the deep, when the green water is shot through with golden rays of setting sun, and the air above is rippling mercury.

So it ended, my third exploratory swim through the sea caves west of the beach. Further adventures of a similar nature in the same area are already being planned…

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