Shipwrecks, caves, whales, dolphins and forests of kelp… the Yorkshire Coast hides secrets few of us ever hear about. A wetsuited Dominic Bliss is let in on some of them.
Somewhere off the Yorkshire Coast, near Flamborough Head, there’s a very famous shipwreck lying at the bottom of the sea. So famous, in fact, that the American thriller writer Clive Cussler has spent the last few decades scouring the ocean floor for it – just like a character from one of his novels. The US Navy got involved, too, procuring one of their nuclear-powered submarines to help in the search. The elusive ship in question is the Bonhomme Richard, captained by American War of Independence hero John Paul Jones. It sank off Flamborough Head in 1779 after a bitter battle against the British navy… and its whereabouts have been a mystery ever since.
Not that I’m likely to find it. I’ve been invited on a snorkel safari off Flamborough Head by Kat Sanders, fisheries and wildlife officer for the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. But I’ll be far too close to shore to spot any shipwrecks. What I should spot, however, are scorpionfish, cuckoo wrasse, sea urchins, forests of enormous kelp; even grey seals, from a distance, and dolphins if I’m extremely lucky.
Although today of all days, a summer storm has churned up the seabed obscuring fauna and flora. Fully kitted out in wetsuit, fins, goggles and snorkel, I submerge into the cold water and wiggle through the swaying tentacles of kelp. This is what it must feel like to be a seal. Minus the snorkel, of course.
Kat, her colleague and I swim around the corner of the bay until we reach Smugglers’ Cave. (Yes, really, that’s what it’s called.) Dragging ourselves out of the surf we clamber deep inside the cave, slipping and sliding over the rock that has been smoothed by millennia of waves. It’s dark at the back of the cave but there’s daylight poking through a tiny gap high up.
Through the gap, I’m told, is a massive bird breeding and nesting colony belonging to Flamborough headland. We can’t go any further as it’s illegal to disturb the birds while nesting. But budding ornithologists can always take a trip around Flamborough Cliffs Nature Reserve and, with the help of binoculars, spot the kittiwakes, gannets, razorbills, guillemots and puffins which return to the coast to raise their young between June and August. Beyond them, out to sea, you might spot dolphins, whales, even basking sharks on a good day. And lurking somewhere beneath them is the Bonhomme Richard.
This section of the Yorkshire coastline is dotted with shipwrecks, many of which have been visited by divers. Later I speak to Carl Racey, a veteran member of Scarborough Sub-Aqua Club, who spends much of his spare time exploring these wrecks, and has documented around 1,200 in all. There are merchant ships, warships, iron steamers, fishing vessels, even a German U-boat – and some of them have given up amazing hauls of treasure and ship’s brass that now adorn Carl’s clubhouse in Scarborough.
Later that day we join Helen Ranson, a volunteer at Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Living Seas Centre. She takes us down to South Landing beach to try our hand at rock-pooling. It immediately brings back childhood memories of hours spent leaving no stone unturned in search of elusive aquatic beasties. Helen obviously knows where to look since, within seconds, she has found a huge shore crab which she holds up in the air, its claws bristling. It turns out it had been in the throes of merging with a second crab so we quickly reunite the couple and let them continue what they were doing. I fear the moment may have been lost, however.
Our next seaside task is litter picking. Ingeniously, the Living Seas Centre has managed to persuade kids that picking up rubbish from the beach can be a fun leisure activity. While I join in, Helen regales me with tales of the most unusual items she has found along the coastline including the fossilised tusk of a mammoth. How that got there one can only imagine. It ended up in a local museum.
We’re trying to raise awareness of marine life and conservation, and to get people passionate for what lives under the sea,”
Enthusing local children is all part of the Living Seas Centre’s raison d’etre. “We’re trying to raise awareness of marine life and conservation, and to get people passionate for what lives under the sea,” Kat explains later. “It’s not only the next generation we work with. My work specifically is to engage with everyone who uses Yorkshire’s shoreline. Anglers, hikers, paragliders, jet-skiers and, of course, fishermen.”
Bridlington, the main town on Flamborough Head, is an important UK seafood port, with a large fleet of registered fishing vessels, so Kat invests a lot of time into understanding the needs of the fishermen to help solve some of the issues they face. Her efforts are paying off. Her new fishing for litter project works with fishermen to recover litter from the sea, preventing it from causing damage to their valuable fishing gear and harming wildlife. “Marine litter can damage marine habitats so it’s vital we remove it wherever possible.
“We also help a family of fishermen here at Flamborough to run wildlife watching boat trips,” Kat adds. “They are as passionate about ensuring that wildlife is protected from the litter as we are so it’s a win-win situation.”
Dominic Bliss was a guest of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust which launched guided snorkel safaris around Flamborough in 2015.
Dominic stayed at Field House Farm which runs luxury self-catering cottages.