Kilcar, Co. Donegal, Republic of Ireland

04.25.2002 9:58 PM GMT 0
Kilcar, Co. Donegal, Republic of Ireland

It started off as a gorgeous sunny day with strong winds from the south. I headed to Killybegs to meet Phillip, a young dive instructor starting his own SCUBA training center out of his mum’s house. He was energetic and chocked full of useful dive information about County Donegal.

He rented two tanks, some weights and a compass to me and sent me off to St. John’s Point in Donegal Bay. The spot he recommended is supposed to have some of the best diving in all of Europe.

I found the peninsula without trouble. Identifying the specific point of entry required a few phone calls, though. Once I found the cove, I performed a basic survey of the landscape and tide.

At this point I became a bit concerned. The North Atlantic is a rough ocean and the tides are renowned for their sudden and dramatic changes. Before me lay a narrow and very rocky cove, no more than 100 or so feet wide before it dumped out into the bay perhaps 75 feet away.

My options for entry were jagged rock or slick moss-covered steps directly into the water. Neither are very appealing when you’re carrying 50 lbs of weight on your back, movement is constricted by a tight wetsuit and your boots have little to no traction. Obviously, the steps were the least dangerous, so I went to it.

I began unpacking gear and setting up. I realized that I had forgotten one relatively important piece of equipment: shorts to wear under my wetsuit. Hmmm…. A series of options flashed before my eyes involving wet underwear or no underwear later. A quick scan of the area… no one is around …. Okay, strip naked and throw on the wetsuit.

Now, I’m not sure if many of you have worn a full wetsuit before. The suits are thick and pretty tight. They are also a bit awkward to get into. It takes some matter of pulling and a bit of a contortionist routine to get your legs suited and the whole thing up to your waist. It is actually quite similar, from what I’ve heard, to putting on a very tight pair of support hose. Except a lot more work. It often helps to sit down. Bare ass on sharp wet rock didn’t sound appealing to me so this was quite a challenge to do this standing.

All I needed now was some family of American tourists from Wisconsin to come wandering into the cove and discover me buck naked and bent over with a pile of neoprene around my ankles. The hypothetical conversation ran in my head something along the lines of, “Top o’ th’ mornin’ to yas. Don’t mind me, we all run around naked here. And, yes, I am really damn cold so mind your own business.”

I achieved the suit without unexpected visitors. I geared up, connected and took a couple of hits of compressed air. Check. Check. Check. Now all I needed to do was get in there.

I entered via the slimy steps. There were 2-foot swells all around me. I had been in the water for all of 30 seconds, concerned by the low visibility when I realized that one big gulp of a rip tide had pulled me no less than 50 feet away from the entry. Normally, when caught in a rip tide, it is advisable to swim perpendicular to the rip to find a less aggressive tide. The narrowness of the cove prevented any such action. I was soon learning that I would be very much at the mercy of the ocean and my own ability to kick like hell.

Then it got interesting. The surface chop suddenly began to increase and I realized it was time to drop below the surface where it should be somewhat calmer.

It wasn’t. In fact, visibility was less than 5 feet due to a mess of kelp and debris. The rip tide was also deeper than I expected.

I surfaced to reorient myself with my exit point (the stairs) and I was smacked by a group of 4 and 5 foot swells pounding over my head.

Okay, situation analysis time: I am currently in messy dark water with vicious rip tides with no room to swim perpendicular to in a cove and an ocean I am not familiar with. The tide is rising quickly.

Did I mention that I was alone? That’s right, no one there to witness the encounter, provide any form of assistance or call in the coast guard/ambulance in the event that things became critical.

Sure does suck right here.

Abort! Abort! Abort!

My primary objective at this moment became locating and reaching my exit point. An important aspect of this objective was ensuring that I didn’t get smashed up against the walls of rock beside and beneath me.

It took a bit of struggle but I arrived at the steps safely. I sat, frustrated, with my feet and fins in the water.

“Damnit!” I thought, “You chicken!” I’ve had to abort dives due to poor conditions in the past. This certainly qualified. But I still wanted in, still wanted to dive. I wasn’t ready to call it quits.

About this time a strong swell rolled in and lifted me off of my seat and pushed me ten feet back along the slime covered concrete platform. Fins flailed and hands reached for anything to grab onto before I was dumped over the side of the platform onto rock or sucked back into the ocean. Fortunately, my tank struck the next step up and stopped me.

This is what I call a “bitch slap from nature.” You see, for those unfamiliar with the crude terminology, a “bitch slap” is a slap served not to cause physical pain but to remind someone that they are inferior, subordinate and not entirely in command of the current situation. It’s a serious blow to the ego.

Donegal Bay and the Atlantic served me up a healthy portion of bitch slap. I decided that I would not wait around for seconds.

It was also around this time that I realized that I was officially not having fun. In fact, I was pretty pissed off. I sat, safely out of range of new swells, watching the tide shift from calm to violent in a matter of a few minutes, then back to calm again. I cleared my sinuses of salt water and considered another attempt at it.


I wanted to dive. It takes forever to gear up and breaking down takes just as long. Besides, one dip in the water and now I’ve got to pack it in because I’m nervous and a bit bruised from the first attempt???

Damn skippy.

So, with great reluctance and a volley of foulness that would make a sailor blush, I stripped down all my gear and hiked back to the car, tail between my legs like a beaten puppy.

I don’t do defeat very well.

Fortunately, I still had a full tank of air and a couple of spots that I wanted to dive. I didn’t have to travel very far either. I found another cove on my way out of the peninsula. It was wide and sandy (YES! Beach access!) and went out a solid 150 yards before opening into Donegal Bay. And the water was amazingly clear! The cove also lacked any swell whatsoever because (I assume) it is an east-facing beach sheltered from the strong Atlantic winds that happened to be picking up considerably. SCORE!

I sat and watched absolutely nothing happen at the surface for 5 minutes. No waves, no swell and no visible signs of rip currents. Time to lug out the gear and suit up. I’m going diving!

What a great dive it turned out to be! The cove was very shallow (less than 30 feet deep) and relatively flat along the bottom. These features normally indicate a dull dive but the marine life and other features of the cove made up for it. Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize any of the fish I encountered. There were quite a few different species. White and orange starfish, some larger than my head, were everywhere.

Beautiful anemone line the floor and tall towers of kelp and strands reached to the surface. It is very much like being in a forest, with narrow trees climbing 20 feet or more into the sky, light scattering about you. Except that you are under water and the ground beneath you (more kelp) flows and sways with the tide. It is an incredible feeling, not easily portrayed in words.

Outside of the kelp forests, the cove floor was covered in brilliant purple, red, orange and yellow coral. And they were small bits, too, layer upon layer, inches deep. It was an amazing spectrum of color — absolutely brilliant! My first thought, strangely enough, was that it looked like a giant bowl of children’s cereal!

Since coral is a living organism, I was unable to take any samples with me. But, I will never forget the mosaic of the ocean floor as it lay before me, the way the small pieces felt in my gloved hands, lifting and swirling in the mild current. Spectacular!

Moving along, I enjoyed more coral, starfish, anemone columns and wave upon wave of kelp beds shifting in the tide, blowing in an unseen wind of current.

I noticed a large shell off in the distance that I wanted to inspect. Then I saw HIM… the shells’ guardian. I stopped in my tracks (as well as one can do 25 feet under water) and began to analyze this creature before me. He was 4 feet long or more, narrow body, gray with black vertical markings. His mouth hidden deep beneath a pointed nose. He had two dorsal fins and a sharp angled tail. His body is designed to move quickly and efficiently through the shallow waters and his massive, solid black eyes on each side of his head to identify his prey wherever it may swim.

This is the first shark I’ve ever encountered while diving. How exhilarating! He was also guarding the shell I wanted to see. Time to move in. I was hoping to get closer to him, so see more of the spectacular creature. Unfortunately, he was skittish and took off far faster than I could chase. I was a bit larger than he and probably a bit ominous, exuding bubbles and limbs and all.

Wow! My first shark!

I noticed then a few lobster traps. They are small wooden frames wrapped in rope and baited with Pollock. Lobsters climb in and can’t climb out. One of the traps had a massive (what I assume to be) 7 or 8 pound catch. He looked tasty! He had massive claws, unlike the ones found along the coast of the Pacific. It’s illegal – an horribly unethical – to steal from a trap. Plenty of divers have been known to do it but I just couldn’t bring myself to it. Besides, I had nothing large enough to carry him (or anything else) back to the shore.

Nope, no lobster for Aidan tonight. Bummer.

I spent a solid hour in the 50-degree water. What an amazing hour it was, too! When I surfaced, the clear skies had turned stormy and the wind was pushing hard. The air was just as cold as the water and I could see that some serious weather was on its way. I broke down my gear quickly and dressed. Unfortunately, my second tank of air would go unused today as it was now raining and my toes were frozen. This was so worth it!

Now its time to grab a hot meal and get the gear cleaned. I need a shower, too. I feel like my skin is covered in salt-water taffy. I can rest tonight (which I know is coming soon) knowing that I took a beating, fought back and achieved at least one phenomenal dive in Ireland.

What a grand day.

Take care. Miss you all.

Your salty sea dog-