I’d been scuba-diving with Bill for ten years, photographing all manner of marine life, without any incidents. Then, last August, we were just off the Manacles in our boat, with a couple of divers from our club, over the wreck of the ‘Mary Maud’.
‘I don’t like this wreck,’ said Bill. ‘Whenever I’ve dived it, I’ve felt something bad about it, dunno why.’
‘What do you mean, something bad? Like bad luck?’ I said. I looked to the west, where a dark line of cloud grew on the horizon and wavelets started to irritate the previously calm sea. Bill pushed a salt-wet hank of hair back off his forehead.
‘A nervous feeling. You never know what’s out there in that water – I saw a shark once.’
‘No way!’ said Gary. ‘In UK waters? I mean, I know you can get basking sharks, but -’
‘Yeah it was a mako, I’m sure of it,’ said Bill. ‘Still, as soon as it saw me – whoosh, it was gone. They’re more scared of us than we are of them.’
‘I’ve never photographed a shark in temperate waters,’ I said, ‘that would be something.’
‘Don’t talk like that,’ said Dave. ‘What time’s slack, Susie?’
I looked at my watch. ‘3.16. You’ve got 35 minutes yet. Jump in with the tide still running, and let it turn while you’re on the wreck. You won’t get much slack water now, we’re nearly on springs. Let’s get the shot line ready.’
Bill pushed the throttle forward, nudging the boat forward a little, watching the sounder until a couple of red blocks appeared on the display. The boilers of the ‘Mary Maud’.
‘OK’ he called, and then Gary threw out the shot line. The big iron weight slipped down into the depths, rope snaking behind it to a large white buoy.
‘I think we’re actually on the stern now,’ said Bill, looking at the sounder. ‘Twenty three, twenty four metres.’
‘Good viz,’ said Gary, watching the line go down in clear water. ‘You up for it Dave?’
Bill switched off the outboard and we drifted gently, it was nearly high water. I helped the pair to kit up. They had been in the dive club for years, and each had their own time-perfected way of arranging their scuba kit, with an assortment of brass clips, bungees and straps holding everything together.
‘Buddy check?’ said Gary, even though Dave was obviously still fiddling with his kit. They grumbled at each other for a bit before completing the routine checks.
‘Now you can take your glasses off,’ said Dave. Gary always had to take his glasses off to wear his diving mask, which would earn him comments of ‘don’t know why you bother to go diving when you can’t bloody see anything..’
Bill took the boat across, dropping the pair close to the shot buoy.
’40 minutes max, watch out for sharks!’ I called, checking my watch. A quick OK signal, and they started to descend.
Watching the time, I poured out tea from a flask and opened the biscuit box as Bill radioed the Coastguard to inform them of the dive.
‘Fancy the second dive?’ Bill asked, munching.
‘No, the tide’ll be running by the time they’re back in and we’re kitted up,’ I said, ‘besides – we’ve got to get back through that. ’
I glanced back towards Penzance where the black line of cloud was thickening. My mind turned back to the wreck.
‘Anyway’ I said, ‘what actually happened when you dived here before? Did you see anything?’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘it was really dark, I don’t know why it’s so dark down there, it isn’t particularly deep, and the water was clear, but I felt as if something was watching me, following me, you know? Have you ever felt that on a dive?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘normally on a dive, I’m so busy trying to keep up with you that I don’t notice anything else. You’re a really crap dive buddy, you know. If I didn’t stick with you, you wouldn’t notice.’
‘Oh, that’s because you’re a pho-to-gra-pher, and your idea of a dive is spending half an hour trying to get a sea slug into focus,’ he said, grinning. Then his expression changed. ‘It is a creepy dive though, other people have said the same.’
‘It’s a World War Two wreck, isn’t it?’ I said. ‘Torpedoed cargo ship?’
‘Yeah,’ said Bill, ‘Twenty men drowned when it sank. They’re buried at Sennen. But who knows, their ghosts might still wander their ship.’
I looked at my watch.
‘They’ve been down fifteen minutes,’ I said. ‘So, did you think it was haunted?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Bill, ‘But I thought I heard strange noises down there. You know how quiet it is on a dive?’
‘Yeah, no phones ringing, no one talking, bliss really,’ I said, ‘Apart from the regulator.’
‘Sure,’ said Bill, ‘you’ve got that hiss when you breathe in. But that’s about it, it’s peaceful, isn’t it? But down there, it was like, I thought I could hear someone yelling.’
‘Yelling?’ I said doubtfully.
‘Yeah, like if you put your head under the water in the bath and make a noise, it sounded like that.’
I looked down at the grey water lapping the orange rubber sides of the RIB, and wondered what was beneath us.
‘Are you sure it wasn’t you yelling?’ I asked. ‘Nitrogen narcosis?’
Bill looked west, towards the dark line. A breeze sprang up across Mount’s Bay, raising white-caps in the distance.
‘That’s nearly at Mousehole,’ he said. ‘We ought to get those two back up before the weather breaks.’ He revved the engine three times, the signal for the divers to return. It would take them a few minutes to surface, needing a safety stop on the way up.
‘We didn’t agree a signal,’ I said, scanning the water.
‘They know that one,’ said Bill, ‘they’ve been divers long enough. Look, they’re back on the shot line.’ Clouds of small bubbles rose at intervals close to the white buoy, the bubbles getting gradually bigger.
Then Gary’s head broke the surface, close to the shot buoy. He was waving frantically. Bill took the boat across.
‘Where’s Dave?’ shouted Bill.
‘Dunno!’ yelled Gary, ‘He fell away from the shot. I’ve just lost him at 5 metres. I don’t think he was with it. I’ve lost him!’
‘Oh Jeez!’ groaned Bill. ‘I’ll put out a Mayday. Get kitted, Susie, I’ll get Gary in to the boat. Get your tank off, Gary.’
This was not good. A diver lost on the ascent, maybe having lost consciousness, might never be found.
As Bill hauled Gary’s scuba unit in, and Gary heaved himself in over the tubes, I unclipped our gear from the cylinder rack with shaking hands, and turned on the pillar valves. At the same time I scanned the water for bubbles, a marker buoy -nothing.
Bill radioed Falmouth Coastguard and I plied Gary with questions.
‘Dave was alright on the wreck for a bit,’ said Gary, lifting my cylinder for me, ‘seemed his usual self, then something freaked him out. When we got the signal to return, that was it, he really started to panic, he froze. I actually helped him back to the shot line, and as we went up I kept signalling, are you OK? He was answering me until about 10 metres, then at 5 metres he suddenly slipped away from the shot and started sinking fast, I couldn’t get down quick enough to save him. Oh, God.’ Gary wiped his hands over his face in a gesture of despair.
Bill and I were both kitted and ready to dive.
‘We’ll make this a quick one,’ said Bill, ‘if we can’t find him in 15 minutes we’ll surface. The weather and tide’ll be against us. Drop us by the shot, Gary.’
The sky darkened as we jumped in, but I gave Bill an OK sign and we started to travel down the line through the dim water, switching on our torches. There wasn’t much tide, so Dave couldn’t have drifted far. The flat, shaly seabed around the stern looked empty, so we started to search the wreck.
I heard the distant throb of our boat’s outboard, the hiss and bubble of our regulators, the pounding of my pulse. Then I heard it – a strange groaning sound. I couldn’t locate it, but it got louder as we finned along the port side of the wreck, towards the bow. I waved my torch to attract Bill’s attention, but he gave me an ‘OK’ sign, and swam on. It was dark in the wreck’s shadow. Out in mid-water my torch beam flashed off a silvery shoal of bib, but there was nothing else, no bubbles, no sign of Dave. Then I shone my torch through an opening in the hull and stopped.
I was looking at the side of a huge sea creature. I had the impression of a long curved body like a giant conger, but maybe four or five times the diameter. And where congers are a satiny blue-grey, this thing was covered with lumpy greenish scales and bristles of matted dark hair. Beside me, a sharp-edged fin clawed at the water. The groaning sound was really loud. Bill was slightly ahead of me, and turned round as I flashed my torch beam across the side of his mask. He looked in the hole and then he looked at me. No signals were needed now, not after ten years as dive buddies, I knew what he was thinking.
Bill decided fast. We had to stop looking for Dave. Bill’s finger circled in a U-turn and then pointed back to the shot line. As we started our ascent, I heard the outboard rev three times. The tide had turned now, and holding on to the line I felt the current pushing against me like a strong wind.
Then I heard the groaning sound again, and felt a current swish past my legs. Instinct made me switch off my torch, and keep very, very still, holding hard to the shot line. Bill did the same, and with his free hand gripped the straps of my scuba unit. We huddled together, breathing as quietly as we could, inching up the line.
I felt the water surge past us again in the semi-darkness. And this time I glimpsed, passing a few feet away, with its terrible groaning cry, a massive, long-necked humpbacked creature with a tail that flailed it through the water. I cried out in pain as the tail caught my side, and would have lost the shot line had Bill not steadied me.
‘Up,’ he signalled, as soon as the monster had passed. I paused at the three metre safety stop, but Bill signalled me again to go up, and then we surfaced. The weather had come in, rain was pocking the sea, and waves broke around our heads.
Dave was in the boat with Gary, talking at the top of his voice.
‘What are you doing there?’ yelled Bill. ‘I thought we’d lost you!’
‘He’s OK,’ said Gary, ‘I’ve told the Coastguard.’
‘You won’t believe what I saw,’ shouted Dave, laughing crazily. ‘It was like a gigantic hairy dinosaur thing. I was bloody terrified! And then the thing knocked me right off the shot line, dragged me a bloody long way. I had to do a free ascent. I was shaking, I can tell you. And Gary – Gary never even saw it! But then what do you expect?’
‘That was the Morgawr,’ I said, as I pulled myself up over the tubes. They looked at me blankly. ‘A mythical Cornish sea monster. People have spotted them over the years around Falmouth. ’
‘I never saw it,’ objected Gary.
‘You dived without your glasses, Gary?’ said Bill, strapping the cylinders to the rack. ‘Right, you and Dave can pull up the shot. Let’s get this lot back to Penzance, before it really starts raining, I don’t want my dive kit to get wet. What’s the matter, Susie?’
‘I wish I’d taken my camera in with me,’ I said.
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