Washed by the Wild Atlantic

Diving Ireland's western coast

A young gray seal plays near Dalkey Island at the south end of Dublin Bay.

Occasionally a dive refreshes me, surprises and startles me, and reminds me why I dive. Every time that happens to me, I'm diving off the coast of Ireland. The water here still has an amazing capacity to astound me, even though I've been diving in Ireland for 30 years. Sometimes the thrill is an encounter with unusual or unexpected wildlife such as a pair of bobtail squid mating during a night dive off a remote beach or a friendly seal pulling at your fins.

One of the best things about diving this ancient, wild coastline is when you fall through inky black water, clear your mask and see you have landed where the visibility is crystal

A pair of bobtail squid mating during a night dive off the pier at Inishmaan
clear — it feels like you can see forever. On those days, nothing is better than heading deep and feeling insignificant against the drama of a huge drop-off or the wild lunar landscape of a deepwater rocky slope.

I consider myself lucky to have learned to dive in Ireland, although the waters of Dublin gave me low expectations of what passed for clear water. While a good day in Dublin Bay gives you visibility of about 13 feet, the sport had grabbed me from my first moment wearing scuba gear in a swimming pool. My fascination with the amazing profusion of life underwater overshadowed the limited visibility of my home diving.

Although the water is often murky, the variety of life in Dublin Bay is always a revelation. Every bit of rock is covered in invertebrate life, with filter feeders of all shapes and

A young gray seal pup off Dalkey Island
colors. Octopuses are common on night dives, gray seals frequently play and interact with divers, and it's not unusual to lose count of the blue lobsters you see. Diving in Dublin Bay is wonderful, but experienced divers always told me that the best diving is off Ireland's western coast. Washed by the Atlantic Ocean, this wild coast is only a four-hour drive across the country from Dublin.

My first trip to dive the western coast completely changed my perception of Irish diving. There I learned what spectacular locations can show a curious diver, with the drama of the above-water scenery continuing below the waves and the absolute magic of diving in clear water. Now, some 30 years later, I still get a thrill when I am under a cliff, staring into the inky black water below and anticipating the dive to come. Ireland might not be at the top of most divers' lists of global diving destinations, but that's a shame because it has some truly gorgeous diving.

Sitting on the extreme western coast of the European continent, Ireland is the last little bit of land before reaching the open waters of the North Atlantic. The coastline is ancient, rugged and largely underdeveloped. Several dive centers will arrange local diving in many places, and a good network of dive clubs, easily found with an internet search, are open to visiting divers and may even be able to help with gear. The Irish Underwater Council is a great resource for local knowledge. The National Tourism Development Authority recently marked a network of roads that hug the coast, navigating you to the most spectacular drives in this area. The roads are well-marked; just follow the signs for the Wild Atlantic Way.

A diver observes a spider crab at the mouth of a cave in Hook Head, County Wexford.
Western Ireland is the first land that the Gulf Stream touches after sweeping up and out of the Caribbean on its journey across the Atlantic. This warm current, blending with deeper oceanic water off a shallow sunlit coast, creates just the right mix for nutrient-rich water to fuel an extraordinary explosion of biodiversity around the island. On June 15, 1919, John Alcock and Arthur Brown looked down upon this coastline, relieved to have made it across the ocean on the first nonstop transatlantic flight. The landing didn't match the success of that flight, and the two pioneering aviators crashed their biplane into Derrigimlagh Bog, near one of my favorite winter dive sites — a tide-fed saltwater lake in the wilds of Connemara just west of Galway.

The water here is cold, but not as cold as you might expect for the latitude. Never cold enough to freeze over, the water temperature goes down to about 46°F in winter, when

A rainbow-colored male cuckoo wrasse at Inishbofin off the Connemara coast
divers should wear drysuits, and warms to about 61°F in the summer, which allows for wetsuit diving. The weather can be a challenge: The North Atlantic can be a wild and unpredictable place, but diving is always available at sheltered dive sites. The weather is best from June to September, and calmer seas then allow you get to the better dive sites. Plankton can bloom at any stage, but it is more likely from June to August. Although plankton blooms fire up the food chain, they can reduce visibility, especially in the surface water. Visibility is usually 15 to 50 feet but can sometimes be more than 100 feet, depending on conditions.

A lemon sole on the rocky bottom off Inishturk in County Galway

Ireland isn't a big country, but its coastline offers many diverse habitats. The technical diving community has recently found that the deeper waters of the north coast offer some amazing wreck-diving opportunities. These were dangerous waters during World War II, when the German U-boat fleets would lie in wait for the shipping convoys to

A painted goby in the tidal Salt Lake near Clifden in Galway
complete their transatlantic runs and then torpedo them as they got within sight of land. Ships that evaded the U-boats often fell victim to the minefields that littered the area. After the war, the United Kingdom's Royal Navy towed confiscated U-boats to the deep waters offshore north of Lough Foyle to be scuttled as part of Operation Deadlight. The seabed here is littered with history. With most of the best wrecks here deeper than 200 feet, rebreathers are the best way to dive this location. Divers come from all over the world to explore these often-pristine wrecks and find new ones every year in the deep but clear water.

Photographed near Puffin Island off the Kerry Coast, these jewel anemones
come in just about every hue you can imagine and completely cover the rocks
in some loca-tions with a startling display of color.
Closer to the shore of the Donegal coast, deep ocean currents often push colder, clear water to the top of the continental shelf. Diving along this coastline frequently provides some dramatic underwater scenery. When diving here recently, my group was moving along a spectacular drop-off and noticed that every inch of the wall was covered in a bed of multicolored jewel anemones. As we looked out into the open water, we could see a huge shadow moving in from the open ocean. As the shadow approached, we could make out individual fish and were soon engulfed in a dense shoal of mackerel that took a full five minutes to pass by.

Moving further south along the coast from Donegal, it's easy to find great sites on nearly any exposed headland or offshore island. Dropping below thick kelp beds that grow down to about 50 feet, divers can see steep, rocky drop-offs covered in colorful invertebrate life.

Along the border between counties Mayo and Galway runs Killary Harbor, a 9-mile inlet of protected water and Ireland's only fjord. It is a busy site for Irish divers all year round,

This John Dory, photographed in Killary Harbour in Connemara, is one of the
more exotic and rare fish found off the Irish coast.
but the protection it offers from most weather makes it a popular winter dive site. The fjord's shallow water, which allows an easy shore entry, quickly drops away into deeper reef structures where catsharks and conger eels are commonly found. The soft sediment provides homes for burrowing bright-orange Dublin Bay prawns, although the site is a long way from Dublin Bay. The well-equipped dive center here takes visiting divers both in the fjord and to the offshore island sites that are well worth visiting.

Progressing southward, the next stop is Galway and the Burren coastline in County Clare. The Burren is an extraordinary and unique limestone plateau that extends under the ocean just south of Galway Bay. Water easily dissolves limestone, so this area is filled with caves and swim-throughs that are home to an incredible array of marine life. Small white sea fans dot the seabed, and tompot blennies poke their faces from small holes in the yellow sponge-covered reef structures. A resident bottlenose dolphin is a frequent companion to divers and swimmers.

A limestone gully extending from the Burren into Galway Bay
A visit to this area should include a stay on one of the Aran Islands. The three limestone islands at the mouth of Galway Bay are just far enough offshore to feel isolated with a mix of wild Atlantic living, megalithic stone forts and traditional island life. Curragh boats line the piers; locals still use them while hauling in lobster pots or fishing for mackerel.

Across the mouth of the Shannon River are counties Kerry and Cork with their five great peninsulas jutting into the ocean. Visitors can see evidence of some of the earliest human and Christian monastic settlements of ancient Ireland. The most famous of these

A typical reef scene with orange soft corals below the kelp line off Valentia
Island in County Kerry
is at the top of Skellig Michael, one of two isolated offshore rocky islands about 8 miles from the Kerry coast, which visitors may recognize as Ahch-To, where Luke Skywalker was in exile in recent Star Wars movies. At the top of the island is a series of stone beehive-like huts, where monks lived possibly as early as the sixth century. The smaller island, Little Skellig, is home of thousands of gannets and a healthy population of gray seals that frequently play underwater tag with divers.

Diving at the islands depends on the weather, but these rocks offer some of the most wonderful diving in Ireland when the Atlantic allows. Made a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 1996, these islands are a special place to visit. Colorful jewel anemones completely cover steep drop-offs, and bright yellow sponges and the orange soft corals known as "dead man's fingers" cover every patch of rock.

Sometimes wildlife assails this North Atlantic mixing bowl. A couple of years ago I went with a small group of divers beyond the Aran Islands to try to photograph blue sharks, having been successful there before. We returned to the site, dropped a line to the

Blue sharks come up from the southern Atlantic in the summer months.
seabed some 200 feet below, mixed the chum, set the line, hung a bag of freshly mashed mackerel from the buoy and began the wait. After a few minutes a charter fishing boat skippered by a friend recognized our boat and called to tell us about some activity in the water a few miles south of his position. We tied off the line and followed his directions there.

About a half mile away from our destination we saw a humpback whale breaching out of a huge school of herring, surrounded by a large group of common dolphins. We spent the next hour watching a group of about 20 whales lunge feeding through a large but quickly diminishing school of fish. Some divers in our group photographed these amazing animals underwater. It was a remarkable encounter, but eventually the tight group of whales broke up. On the way back to our chum slick we saw a large fin break the surface, so I grabbed my camera and jumped in the water to see a group of 15 to 20

A diver swimming along a wall on Dolus Head just north of Valentia Island
basking sharks just below the surface. They are not unusual off the Irish coast from April through September, when you can frequently but unpredictably spot them, but we had never seen an aggregation this large.

Initially curious, the basking sharks eventually got tired of us and sank into deeper water, so we resumed our journey to find blue sharks. Another disturbance in the water interrupted us as a large bluefin tuna exploded out of the water about 300 feet in front of the boat. A school of bluefin had corralled a school of herring against the surface and were charging through them, bursting out of the ocean in a mass of white water and scattered herring. We maneuvered the boat near the action, and two of us jumped in to try to take photos. Passing by in fleeting flashes, these huge fish proved too fast and wild for us to get decent pictures, but our spirits were high as we got back on board.

In the spring basking sharks arrive at the southwest coast and migrate northward toward Donegal before crossing
to the Outer Hebrides.

Just as we set off again, a minke whale breached beside the boat. Minke whales are common off the coast of Ireland, but the explosive breach was a surprise. Attracted by the flurry of activity, the whales arrived to mop up the herring the tuna left behind.

When we finally got back to our line, it was clear from the shredded bag of mackerel now dangling there that the blue sharks had visited while we were otherwise engaged. We didn't see any blue sharks that day, but nobody really cared.

Between the unbeatable wildlife encounters and the glorious underwater views that scatter this untamed coastline, Ireland holds some of the most precious hidden gems in the dive world.
Explore More
See more of Ireland underwater in the video below, and then read about Stellig Michael's Star Wars connection.

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2019