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'It's another world' - Exploring sea life and shipwrecks off the north Norfolk coast

PUBLISHED: 11:15 30 August 2019 | UPDATED: 11:21 30 August 2019

A diver explores the wreck of the SS Rosalie off the north Norfolk Coast. Picture: Supplied by Cristal Seas Scuba

A diver explores the wreck of the SS Rosalie off the north Norfolk Coast. Picture: Supplied by Cristal Seas Scuba

Archant

Norfolk's sea views are spectacular in themselves, but what lies beneath the surface can even more impressive, as Polly Wake knows.

The 46-year-old dive instructor is used to people's surprise when they discover the range of sea life just off the coast, from shoals of fish to crabs, anemones and playful seals.

And that's not to mention the scores of shipwrecks that are lying on the seabed, many of which went down in the first and Second World Wars.

Mrs Wake said: "Norfolk has got one of the highest concentrations of shipwrecks around the UK, but the conditions here are more challenging, so they're not dived as often.

"You can only dive at 'slack water', between high and low tide, so you have to plan around that."

Polly and Chris Wake, who run Christal Seas Scuba in Norwich, often visit shipwrecks off the north Norfolk coast. Picture: Stuart AndersonPolly and Chris Wake, who run Christal Seas Scuba in Norwich, often visit shipwrecks off the north Norfolk coast. Picture: Stuart Anderson

Mrs Wake has run Christal Seas Scuba with husband Chris in Whiffler Road, Norwich for around 10 years. They also organise trips where groups swim out in their scuba gear directly from the shore at spots including Cley and Weybourne to see nearby wrecks.

Mrs Wake said: "It's becoming more popular. A lot of people are learning to dive every year and there's more shows about diving on television, so people are more aware of it than ever.

"We've got the chalk reef, from west of Weybourne to east of Sheringham, where you can see marine life. The wrecks are on a sandy bed but they're more full of life, with a lot of fish and crabs and lobsters making it their home.

"People occasionally get seals come and dive with them - they're really playful and can come quite close and interact with you."

Polly Wake, fourth from left, with a group of divers kitted out in dry suits for a dive off the north Norfolk Coast. Picture: Supplied by Cristal Seas ScubaPolly Wake, fourth from left, with a group of divers kitted out in dry suits for a dive off the north Norfolk Coast. Picture: Supplied by Cristal Seas Scuba

Mr and Mrs Wake took up diving after fist going snorkelling in the Caribbean 20 years ago, and they tuned what became a passion into their job.

"We couldn't believe the colours and the marine life, it's just beautiful," she said. "As soon as you put your face into the water it's another world. We wanted to get closer and spend more time out there, so diving was the next step."

-Christal Seas Scuba organises dives directly from the beach. Also operating in Norfolk is Anglian Divers EAB11, which does boat trips out to wrecks further offshore, and Seasearch East, which carries out marine surveys and training. There is also the North Norfolk Divers club, which was founded in 1980 and offers courses.

Some popular wrecks: The SS Rosalie

A spider crab on the wreck of the SS Vera off the north Norfolk coast. Picture: Archant LibraryA spider crab on the wreck of the SS Vera off the north Norfolk coast. Picture: Archant Library

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This freighter was struck by a torpedo from a German submarine in August, 1915 and sank off Weybourne beach. Her mast post still pokes out of the water at low tide.

Mrs Wake said it was one of the most popular dive sites that could be reached by wading into the water directly from the shore.

She said: "It's been there over 100 years and now completely colonised with life."

Divers emerge from a 'beach dive' off the north Norfolk Coast. Picture: Supplied by Cristal Seas ScubaDivers emerge from a 'beach dive' off the north Norfolk Coast. Picture: Supplied by Cristal Seas Scuba

The SS Vera

This is another wreck that can be reached by wading out from the beach in diving gear. The SS Vera was a coal freighter, on her way from the Tyne to Livorno in Italy when she was beached off the coast of Cley next the Sea in November 1914 after colliding with a Royal Navy minesweeper, the Parthian.

Her engines, a boiler and a mass of collapsed ribs and plates can still be seen.

The New Leeds

The mast of the wreck of the SS Vera. Picture: Archant LibraryThe mast of the wreck of the SS Vera. Picture: Archant Library

This wreck lies north of Wells-next-the-Sea at a depth of 14 metres. The New Leeds was a wooden sailing ship that sank in February 1852. She was on a voyage from Sunderland to London with a cargo of empty glass bottles when fire broke out in the straw used to pack them. She burned down to the water line and sank. Her crew was rescued by a Dutch vessel, the Lydia. At the wreck site divers can find bits of burned wood, glass, scent bottles, salt cellars and more.

HMS Umpire

A Royal Navy U-Class submarine built at Chatham Dockyard, the Umpire sank in July, 1941, just nine days after she was commissioned.

She was on her way to join a flotilla when she suffered engine failure and fell behind her convoy.

A long spine scorpion fish on the wreck of the Vera
. Picture: Archant LibraryA long spine scorpion fish on the wreck of the Vera . Picture: Archant Library

Another convoy passed, with no ships showing any lights due to the risk from German E-boats, and the Umpire was accidentally struck by an armed escort trawler.

Twenty-two crew members died, but 16 survived thanks to the heroic actions of a couple of them, including one who locked himself in a flooding torpedo room, ensuring his own death while giving the others more time to get out.

The wreck of the Umpire is about 22kms north of Blakeney. Divers can swim through the torpedo room and see crabs eating away at the explosive of the old torpedoes. The outer casing is crumbing fast but the pressure hull is still intact.

-Read The Ship-Wrecks off North Norfolk by Ayer Tikus for more.

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