If the Falklands are reputed for their wild life and their great virgin spaces, they are much less known for the practice of diving. A number of reasons would seem to deter people from this activity and especially tourists. Firstly the equipment aspect, mainly the transport of material, poses a practical problem because the Royal Air Force, the only airline offering a direct flight, officially allows baggage weight of 27 kilos per person. For every extra kilo a tax, which is quite dissuasive, of £25 (return) is imposed. Fortunately it seems that the RAF staff are not as strict as the flight documents lead us to believe. For two of us, it was possible to take almost 100 kilos of baggage even if it had to be well dispersed in our hand luggage, our cases and our pockets!
On the site, if one wants to practice our favourite activity, without being totally dependant on a third party, it is indispensable to have a rented vehicle available.
When these first obstacles are surmounted, one must find on the islands the material missing (cylinders and lead weights). We take this opportunity to thank Mick and his friends at the Zaps’ diving association without whom diving in the Falklands would have been limited to one or two immersions. Mick very kindly lent us lead weights and two tanks which he proposed to fill for us at the right time. Once the equipment problems were resolved the main uncertainly was the weather. If one can put up with the rain, the wind is often a reason for cancelling dives. It is often impossible to dive on parts of coasts exposed to violent winds. A strong swell often makes introduction into the water difficult and indeed dangerous.
Even though we are used to diving in cold water, this region brought up for us several unexpected problems: the lack of depth near the coast and the difficulty to find access to the sea near communication lines. The archipelago is situated on an ocean plateau of little depth, itself linked to the point of South America. Diving near the coast it was not possible for us to find depths of more than 15 metres! This lack of depth is especially inconvenient in the sense that it is not possible to find a zone sheltered from the turbulence of the swell. This incessant undertow makes dives hard and diminishes the visibility making it very mediocre. In the inlets, which are better protected, the swell is not felt but the colour of the water and the visibility are influenced by river water, strongly coloured by the peat and choked with sediment. Moreover the tides, though not of great amplitude generate quite strong currents carrying sand and algae in great quantities, strongly reducing the visibility.
The most special feature of the Falklands waters is the kelp, a kind of algae of diverse size and form which is thick and robust. It can sometimes be 30 metres high. Tangled up, it forms forests which may spread over several square kilometres. As for the marine life, if we except the sea mammals and the penguins which one sees on rare occasions if one is very lucky, the animals most often met are small fish, a lot of crabs, lobster krill (Munida gregaria), jellyfish, isopods, marine snails and strange unidentified insects which we named underwater cockroaches (probably belonging to the order of isopods)!
All dives took place on the East Falkland island, most of them from the coast. A boat remains often indispensable and enlarges the range of sites with, among others, a large number of wrecks, often very old and completely dislocated, which are scattered around the coast of the Falklands. But there also, if the Stanley region (capital and only starting point for the rare diving boats) and the Port William region are easily accessible, moving greater distances soon becomes very costly and complicated.
The aim of our journey was to bring back a great number of land and underwater photographs and without this objective we would probably have given up the diving, meeting up with all the difficulties we have mentioned. After getting our equipment to the Falklands, the first thing to do was to get in touch with Mick, a member of Zapsaod (Zaps Association Of Divers) with whom we had communicated by e-mail when preparing the journey. A meeting was arranged in the Roses Bar, just near our Bed and Breakfast. After presentations and discussions which are usual in this kind of meeting, we partook of a not negligible amount of beer, visited several other pubs and finished the evening in the only night show place in Stanley, a kind of theatre where some musicians were playing in a very intoxicated atmosphere. Groups came with their own cartons of beer, often bought at the last pub visited, as alcohol cannot be sold after midnight because of licensing laws. It was a good evening, perfect for making acquaintance and reducing the activity of the following day! Two days after, we met Mick at the club situated at the end of the port at Stanley, a kind of portable cabin, where dry suits and material were drying in front of the entrance. Evidently, theft is not the main preoccupation of the islanders! When the material was loaded on our little Suzuki jeep, after taking apart the back seat, we were at last ready for our first dive, or at least almost ready as we still had to determine where to make this first dive. Near Stanley, access to the sea is limited as all the ideal beaches and places for an easy entry to the water were systematically mined during the conflict of 1982. Without much hesitation we chose Surf Bay, the only sand beach accessible. The weather was not with us as there was quite a strong wind blowing and the sea was rough and out to sea we could see big waves hitting the rocks. We were also not very sure either about the currents and tides and looking into the distance we could see it would not be pleasant to be pulled out to sea. This dive was our first to be done in the sea with a dry suit. The necessary lead weight was another unknown but we decided to take 15 kilos, an enormous weight on land but which proved to be insufficient in the water because of the small depth and because of our acute need of stability to be able to take photos. The entry into the water was not too difficult in spite of the fairly large waves and we swam out at a depth of two metres and, with difficulty, managed to reach a maximum depth of 6 metres. The undertow made this exercise very hard as the water around us was moving here and there constantly. It was difficult to know if we were moving forwards or backwards and it always seemed that the current was against us no matter what direction we swam in. Moving with a big camera case did not make things any easier. The visibility was mediocre due to sand brewing in the sea. The only discovery from this dive was the kelp, which was entwined and formed great balls about 2 metres wide and 1,5 metre high. These masses of algae swung with the waves which was a very lugubrious sensation, a bit like a haunted forest in Walt Disney films! We didn't need anything else to be impressed. The swim back was a lot more difficult than going, as well as the exit from the water mainly because of the accumulated fatigue. The walk to the vehicle was even worse: the lead belt finished us off. It was an unsatisfying feeling due to the lack of depth and few things to see. Being a bit worried about the following dives, we were, however, pleased to have been able to get into the water and go into an adventure where very few divers have had a chance to go.
Two days later, we explored the southern part of the island in the direction of Darwin and Goose Green. Our destination was Body Creek Bridge, the most southerly suspension bridge on earth. As far as Goose Green the road was not bad but further on it was almost non-existant and after 4 km of this, we found this ruined bridge with its structure of metal. Several signs forbid its use. It was no more than a vestige of the inhabitants efforts to improve means of communication. In a few years some storm will certainly blow it down into the inlet which it goes over. At that moment it was very useful as it allowed us to sound, using a cord and lead weight, the depth in the middle of the water and we found it to be 11 metres. 100 metres from the bridge getting into the water was made easier by a stoney beach. Again, as in most places, the visibility was only 3 to 5 metres. It was very dark and kelp did not help to make the atmosphere brighter. A weak current, due to the tide, pushed us in the direction of the bridge but it was not specially difficult. Fauna was composed of spider crabs, hermit crabs, big shell-fish and starfish but no fish. In the mediocre visibility, one had to be watchful because just one moment's inattention and it would not be possible to find one's partner which reminded us of our Swiss lakes! The only stressful moment of the dive was when Fabrice started to scratch around a long object. I know that several combats took place in the region and I also know that he is not an enthusiast of weapons of war and rather careful. After several seconds (long seconds!) I realised that it was not a rocket or a shell but a simple bottle of a rather unusual shape. Perhaps it was an old bottle belonging to a Spanish galleon, who knows, but it was empty and we left it in its shroud of slime. We came out of the water later, reassured about diving but not about the photos!
We next went to Fitzroy, a small settlement between Stanley and Mount Pleasant airport. The place was chosen for its easy entrance into the water: a calm inlet, well protected from the swell. The evening before we asked for permission to dive from the farm director who gave it without any problem. The weather was rainy with a slight icy wind, just the thing to deter the most enthusiastic diver (in the world). Fortunately we could use a little barn where we got changed. In the water the visibility was catastrophic and the depth at high tide was only 5 metres! We swam towards the sea but the depth did not increase. After twenty minutes we approached the exit from the inlet and the current became strong, principally at the bottom where it became quite violent. This current carried with it slime, algae and sedimentscreating an underwater river of mud. We saw once again our underwater cockroaches, a kind of insect, one to three centimetres in size, which move on the sand. We met them in hundreds at every dive. Going back at two metres depth we found a 7.65 gun bullet and this time it was easy to guess that it was a vestige of the 1982 conflict. On the 8th June, during the landing operation at Fitzroy, two English vessels were attacked by the Argentinian aviation. This attack killed 50 men with 60 seriously injured and it was without doubt the darkest day for the British forces.
We decided to explore the north western part of the isle and our goal was to visit Port San Carlos, about 100 km from Stanley. The weather was fine and the region very pleasant. Arriving at our destination, we crossed the grass landing strip at the aerodrome, with sheep and geese on it, to get to the beach where we wanted to dive. Everything began well, the visibility was good for once, about 12 to 15 metres. The bottom was sandy, with no current, no swell, not too many particles in suspension and also the slope was quite steep and we went down to 15 metres thinking that this was a dream and real diving for once. During the descent we met several small jellyfish in the shape of fluorescent blue flowers. Lower down, in the sand, there were hundreds of lobster krill (Munida gregaria) and as we approached they fled with lightening rapidity. There were also all kinds of crabs but still no fish. We decided to go up to take shots in a small kelp forest. The results of this dive made us full happier with our activity, having had at least almost normal conditions.
After several misunderstandings and discussions we went to dive with David, owner of the only official commercial club in the Falklands, the S.A.M.S. (South Atlantic Marine Services). He proposed to take us, in his dinghy with two outboard motors of 75 Horse Power, near Tussac Island, situated at the exit from Port William. We were at last able to find out whether diving far from the coast offered dives of better quality. During the 20 minutes journey the sonic depth finder did not find any depth of more than 20 metres. At the bow of our boat we were accompanied for a few moments by some Commerson's Dolphins, a quite rare species observed only near the South American coast, in the Kerguelen and Falkland isles. We got into the water quickly hoping to see the dolphins reappear. David, who stayed in the boat, warned us that we might observe also some female sea lions but in fact we didn't see either. The visibility was quite good, about 10-15 metres, and we discovered a kelp forest of very high density easily 10 metres high. Several times we got caught in the multiple kelp branches, the main problem being our knife, fixed to our tibia which persisted in hooking into the branches of algae. Fauna was unfortunately almost absent; in such a decor, shoals of fish or the appearance of a sea lion would have been fabulous. Going back we were obliged to go round some trunks which were totally impenetrable. It was no longer a forest but a real jungle which confronted us. At some moments we lost sight of each other, so dense was the vegetation. We came out of this unique experience happy as for once we did not have difficulty finishing our film. The dive with the SAMS club was interesting and even if David is an experienced merchant he is, nevertheless, very pleasant. The only problem was the cost of dives. For two people, with tanks and lead weights supplied, the bill was £60 (about 90$) for a journey near to Stanley and for a dive further away the price increased alarmingly! At that price you are limited in the number of dives you can make, especially when they offered, to our great surprise, not much more than dives from the coast apart from a slightly greater depth and facility entering the water. Perhaps it would be necessary to make a much longer journey and go far from the coasts which is difficult to do because of changes in the weather and exorbitant costs.
This feeling would be confirmed a few hours later when we met Zac, Jeff and Mick (from the Zapsaod Club) for a second dive. On their dinghy we went in practically the same direction as in the morning, our diving destination being the wreck of the John R.Kelly, a cargo sailing ship which sank more than 100 years ago. On the site Zac, the pilot, took his seamarks with great precision. The mooring was a bit fastidious but finally Mick decided to attach the anchor of our craft to some kelp which gives some idea of the robustness of these plants. The wreck lay, dislocated, 12 metres down, overgrown with kelp. Only the anchor remained intact and recognisable and it was being used as a refuge for some grey-blue fish about 30 cm long. Further on, some light yellow nudibranchs were moving slowly on the kelp leaves. These were the first animals met which had any colour at all. At the end of the afternoon, the light intensity having considerably decreased the visibility was once more bad. A pleasant dive but no more because we discovered more a mass of bits of wood than a real wreck. The main interest of this dive was the opportunity to spend a moment with some inhabitants of the Falklands and to share our passion.
Some days later, we went to Salvador, the property of Nick who welcomed us very kindly in his domain and he recommended to us a beach from where we could observe the penguins and dive. We tried to take photos of the penguins in the water but it was a complete failure because these birds of unbelievable ease underwater perceive the diver and consider his dark mass to be a predator like a sea lion. It is difficult to imagine this agility and rapidity in water especially when one sees their clumsiness on land! We perceived some at the surface who disappeared in a fraction of a second. The rest of the dive was a stroll at 9 metres depth in the kelp which hid numerous crabs and starfish. The current at the entry to the pass became so violent (from 5 to 8 knots) that we were forced to surface. A female sea lion was there to greet us. Very curious she hesitated to approach, came and went a bit and finished by going away. We really didn't have much luck!
The last dive before our departure for Sealion Island - a real sanctuary of sea elephants where we would take advantage of swimming in their company at nightfall - was dedicated to macro photography. In effect, not being very reassured concerning the results of our wide angle photos, we decided to dive at Port Louis in not very deep water to get some shots of the small underwater fauna. Moreover, Michel, not convinced of the necessity to use a dry suit decided to test diving in a 3mm wet suit! To his great surprise he held out 15 minutes in the water without really suffering from the cold. Coming out of the water and changing was another story, the Falklands wind, even in summer, being not one of the most comforting!
In conclusion it is not possible for us to give a clearly defined opinion on diving in the Falklands which is mixed for us, with the disappointment of not being able to observe much underwater life and with a visibility often mediocre. And on the other hand the excitement of discovering places where nobody has ever dived. One thing is certain, every time we dived there was a feeling of adventure, never knowing exactly what we were going to discover. Some moments, like preparing our material in the company of penguins or being lost in a real underwater jungle will remain unforgettable. With a bit more luck we could have been swimming with dolphins or playing with sea lions, which would have completely changed the interest of our dives.
Text: © M.Chabod / F. Bettex • Photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra