Green Water and Guinness: Diving Ireland's West Coast

The month of September yielded many exciting things. To be more specific, DSAT Productions, PADI’s in-house video production company, invited me to join them as on-screen talent on their upcoming video and stills shoot to Ireland and England. This being my first trip to Europe, it was highly anticipated. The prospect of diving in such places as the West Coast of Ireland and the English Channel with the PADI crew was both exhilarating and intimidating. Also on the agenda was England’s famous Stoney Cove, which would be my first fresh water diving as well. With cameras following my every move, I explored new dive sites and new cultures. The first stop? Dublin, Ireland!

Driving on the Left side to the West side…

After a one-week whirlwind tour of France with friend and fellow DeeperBlue journalist Nico Danan, I ventured up to Ireland to meet the PADI/ DSAT production crew at the Dublin International Airport. After a 10 hour, non-stop flight from Los Angeles, the crew arrived with big smiles and heavy eyelids. Introductions were made and hugs were exchanged. Rental cars appeared, and our superfluous amounts of luggage, video and dive gear were loaded up into two minivans and a truck. Shortly thereafter, the group of weary travelers headed westbound, caravan style, for the County Galway. For the drivers, the challenge was mastering the difficult art of stick shifting as a southpaw, while driving on the left side of the road simultaneously. The most amusing part of being a passenger was watching the windshield wipers turn on spontaneously on the highway, although it was sunny. Turns out the levers for turn signals are also on the opposite side in Irish cars. Then there were all of the roundabouts… The whole commuting process was very educational and amusing.


The beautiful hotel where we stayed in Leenene, Galway, Ireland

Several hours and many sheep pastures later, we landed in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen: The Village of Leenane. Our hotel was nestled in the lush hills of Galway, overlooking a breathtaking view of the pebble-fringed waters of Killary Fjord, the unbelievably green mountains, and pure blue skies. I could hardly wait to see what was under that water! The evening consisted of recovery from jetlag. Naturally, many of us ordered that highly anticipated "first Irish Guinness," which would serve not only as a serious life landmark, but a delicious and much deserved nightcap. I savored every sip.

The Divin’ Irish: Gray is the new Green

The following morning, the crew scoped out the dive shop that would be hosting us for the next several days. Owned by the Gray family, Scuba Dive West is not your average dive shop. The facility is lovely. A large stone and wood structure, it sits on the rocky coastline surrounded by green hills spotted with sheep and cows. To look at it, you would never guess it is a dive shop. It appears more likely to be a bed and breakfast or quaint furniture store. Downstairs there is an area dedicated to equipment rental, but be sure to convert your lead from pounds to kilograms! Through the doorway is the purchasing area, where you can find the regular dive shop what-have-you’s. Included are really cool Scuba Dive West t-shirts, which are grounds for serious bragging rights. Upstairs are the changing rooms and indoor showering area. My favorite part was the lounge, which is a room walled mostly by large windows. It’s the perfect place for divers to warm up at the end of a great day with a mug of hot chocolate while enjoying the breathtaking view.


The Gray family pride: Scuba Dive West

The diving heritage involved with Scuba Dive West runs thickly through the veins of the brothers who own it. Brothers Cillian and Breffni Gray run a tight (and very effective) ship, and have been diving nearly as long as they could walk. Their father, Shane Gray, is given credit for introducing PADI to Ireland in 1988, and now spearheads the Golden Oldies Dive Society (GODS) for diving seniors in Ireland.


Irish diving heritage: From left to right, Cillian, Shane and Breffni Gray

The Grays are the most friendly, knowledgeable and accommodating shop owners and Divemasters I’ve encountered. They will transport you and your equipment to some of the west coast’s most beautiful dive sites with speed and care. Dive briefs are not only informative and thorough, but come equipped with skillful drawings and safety regulations. They are also great with on-the-spot equipment repairs, and overall good cheer. These are divers who love their jobs, so much so that it is clear they don’t consider it "work" at all.

When Irish Dives are Smiling…

Our first dive in Irish waters was a "check out dive," to familiarize ourselves with the dive conditions and see what kinds of images could be captured by the video and still photographers. Aboard a large inflatable raft, we embarked on what turned out to be a brief five-minute journey to our first dive site, called Inish Barna Reef which is a wall dive. Around forty meters deep, this site had a gentle slope perfect for a gradual descent to the base. The water, like the landscape, had a beautiful green cast to it. Palm kelp swayed in the surge waving at me as I hovered above. A scallop magically danced before my eyes, causing my mask to leak from the severe smile lines it gave me. It reminded me of a cartoon. I half expected to see a mermaid with red hair and a purple seashell top swim by. The water was blurry with that look you sometimes get at the thermocline where the water temperature differs so greatly.

At first I thought my mask was playing tricks on me, but then I realized this might have been a result of upwelling. Since the Gulf Stream runs across the Atlantic to the west coast of Ireland, the water temperatures are comparable to those of Southern California. It also apparently isn’t unusual to have a runaway tropical species hitch a ride from the Gulf of Mexico (probably by accident). I surfaced from my first dive quite pleased, except for the fact that I was significantly underweighted. My necessary weight got lost in translation somewhere from pounds to kilos. As it was a rather shallow dive, I found it especially difficult to stay down toward the end of the dive after sucking some air out of my cylinder. Apparently I wasn’t the only one having that problem. Several other members of the team faced a similar dilemma, but Cillian and Breffni were on-hand with extra weights to save the day.

Several minutes after unloading my gear and letting my drysuit take a nice deep breath, I realized my nose had completely closed with congestion. Uh oh…..time for Airborne and Emer-gen-C’s!

The following morning, we found ourselves aboard the seaworthy vessel the Brazen Hussy. Our fabulous Captain, also named Shane (but not Gray), sallied forth through wind and rain to take us into sheltered territory behind an island off the coast. As we approached the site, the wind calmed, the rain ceased, and the sun broke through the clouds. Despite the rather horrid conditions upon our departure, it was going to be a lovely day for diving! As one diver stated in a rather jovial fashion, "If you don’t like the weather in Ireland, wait five minutes!"

We had arrived at a site called The Pinnacle at Dun Ha Hinnine. I was nervous about the dive, since my congestion had not ceased. I decided to take it super slow. After gearing up, I did my giant stride into the green water. We began our decent, and suddenly it felt like someone was stabbing my cheeks, eyes and forehead with a very sharp machete. The pain was intolerable. I regretfully aborted the dive, knowing I was probably out of the water for at least a day or two with this one. I spent the remainder of the afternoon on the boat with Captain Shane, his old Black Lab named Ollie, and our topside videographer. I may have missed out on some great diving, but instead I listened to some very entertaining stories and life lessons from the Captain while sipping instant powdered chicken soup from a travel mug. This experience was as special in itself.


I stand alone on the Brazen Hussy after discovering my sinuses weren’t in the mood to go diving. Photo by Breffni Gray

When the going gets green, the sick get quarantined.

That’s right. I was assigned to my hotel room the next day to get over my sinus debacle. Much to my dismay, I was not going along on the boat ride out to the islands with the rest of the crew. However, I managed to take about 15 naps, drink some 8-10 glasses of vitamin-C infused beverages, and take a really nice walk through Leenane with my camera in hand. It was a recovery day. Let me tell you, the walk I took deep into the hills of Galway proved to be the best medicine of all. The day was surprisingly warm, the sun shining through the fluffy clouds moving swiftly on the breeze. I took many photographs, simply to remind myself that this was in fact real. I had actually been to this place. Since all the photographs looked like postcards, I realized it would be wise to leave my fingerprint…or footprints…in one of the pictures to show it really was me in this Shangri-la of greenery. NOTE: If you ever find yourself on the west coast of Ireland, bring plenty of memory cards for your digital camera, or rolls of film for your 35mm photographic needs. You’ll need it. Trust me.


My trusty All-Stars enjoying the view in the Village Leenane and Killary Fjord on my sick day

Doing the Conga with a Conger

The following day, I felt abundantly better. I was back aboard the Brazen Hussy, and very ready to splash. Captain Shane and other members of the crew reminded me that there was no pressure to dive if I felt any pain at all. The last thing I wanted to do was exacerbate my sinuses into a full-fledged infection, which would possibly expel me from the water for the remainder of the two weeks. No way I was risking that. Back at the dive site Inish Barna, we were in pursuit of Conger Eels. Unique to the area, Congers are large, silvery-gray eels whose faces more closely resemble a fish than the more traditionally creepy eels. If they become curious enough, these personable eels will make their way out of their rocky abode and swim with the divers around them. We were hoping for just that.

After a very cautious descent, extreme patience of my dive buddies and lots of "okay" signals, I successfully achieved depth! HOORAY! I was so thrilled, I had to consciously slow down my breathing. Visibility was greatly improved from my first dive two days prior, I felt great, my weighting was perfect, and the conger eels graced us with their presence! Peeking from a jagged hole along the wall, a female conger’s round plate-like eyes stared at us. The still photographer managed to get some great shots of us right next to it as it danced in and out of the rocks. It was a Conger Conga! Guarding the eel’s den were some beautiful cleaner shrimp with bright colors and spots adorning their delicate bodies. It was a pretty impressive sight. After playing for quite some time with the eel, we ventured closer to the surface for some more stills in the colorful plumage of the sea wall. We began our safety stop, and surfaced from what turned out to be a really fun and productive dive!

Our video team also had great success with the Conger Eels, capturing some remarkable footage. Back up on the surface I took note once again of our unusual surroundings. Where else in the world can you dive and say that the sheep outnumbered the divers at your dive site? Baaaaaaaaaahhhhh…….


Sheep, sheep…everywhere sheep!

A Good Post-Dive Pint at the Pub

In the evening, we found our way down the street to a small pub. The air was warmed by a fireplace which burned traditional Irish peat turf harvested from nearby pasture. The smell of the turf was distinct and earthy, and reminded me of incense. Guinness, the obvious beverage of choice at a pub in Ireland, flowed as freely as the rain from the clouds. The locals were truly some of the friendliest strangers I’d ever met. Ready to help you out like an old loyal friend would, they’d lend advice freely about weather, explain local lore, and happily share a pint with you. Fellow divers all knew the Gray family, and bestowed stories of a great dive they had at Scuba Dive West, or a prank they pulled on the brothers one time. Laughter filled the room.


Breffni and Cillian Gray toasting with a perfect pint!

After a short time, the bartender was happy to instruct and permit several members of our crew to pour their own Guinness from the tap. Before long, the science behind pouring the perfect pint had been dispensed and absorbed carefully. Guinness being my favorite beer, I was thrilled at this rare opportunity. Those of you out there who are Guinness fans, it truly does taste better in Ireland. Whether it’s the way they pour it, the special secret ingredient that is omitted in the kegs imported to the US, or perhaps just the festive surroundings; it is noticeably smoother, creamier, and much less bitter in taste. I am now spoiled, Guinness will never be the same again in the states. It’s a pity.

This sums up the Irish leg of my trip. As I suspected, Ireland would turn out to be my favorite of all the regions (topside) we would visit on the PADI documentary shoot. Sure, I had missed out on 5 of the 7 dives, but it was spectacular nevertheless. With our next stop being Bristol, England new adventures were soon to follow. Stay tuned for more. For heaven’s sake, go down to your local watering hole and enjoy a pint yourself. Please…always dive responsibly. Until next time….Slainte (That’s Irish for cheers!)