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Diving wrecks, finding octopuses, and freedom: Irish scuba divers on the unique scenery and sights of the ocean

This summer, scuba divers have become an increasingly common sight in Irish waters. That's because we have some of the best underwater seascapes in the world, the experts tell Kathy Donaghy

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Aoife Mooney says the dive spots in Ireland are superb. PHOTO: FRANK McGRATH

Aoife Mooney says the dive spots in Ireland are superb. PHOTO: FRANK McGRATH

Divers can explore the SS Laurentic in Donegal

Divers can explore the SS Laurentic in Donegal

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Aoife Mooney says the dive spots in Ireland are superb. PHOTO: FRANK McGRATH

Who hasn't looked at the ocean and wondered what lies beneath the waves? A small but growing community of Irish scuba divers say we have some of the most amazing marine life, wrecks and reefs on our doorstep which are ripe for exploring.

In this summer of the great staycation, the sight of divers braving our coastal waters has become all the more common. And perhaps it's no surprise; legendary French ocean explorer and diver Jacques Cousteau ranked Ireland as being a place apart for diving. "Some of the best diving in the world is at the northern side of the Dingle Peninsula where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Brandon Mountains in a landscape of exceptional beauty," he said.

It's a landscape that Anne Boyle (55), a mother of three from Keadue near Burtonport in Donegal, knows better than most - she's been exploring the deep for decades. And every Sunday, she leaves the house early to join colleagues from her diving club to go and seek out the world underneath the waves.

Having developed a love of the water as a small child, Anne first discovered diving when she went to college in Galway in 1985. She did her first dive at Blackrock in the city the following year.

When she married her childhood sweetheart Ben Boyle, she got caught up in the busyness of motherhood and diving took a back seat for a few years. But in October 2003, she heard a radio advertisement that Sheephaven Sub Aqua Club was taking on trainees and was drawn back to the underwater world. In April 2004, Anne did her first dive at Port na Blagh in Donegal. Since then, she has qualified as an instructor.

"When I joined the club, I threw myself into it. I started again from scratch as it had been so long. I worked my way up from trainee diver to club diver and then to lead diver and now instructor. There are four different levels of instructor and I'm at the third level," says Anne, who is mum to April, Aran and Breena, all in their 20s.

So what's down there and what keeps her coming back for more? "It's just fantastic. I took a trainee on his first dive last Sunday and we saw shoals of small fish in just 10 metres of water. We saw lobsters and prawns, as well as spider crabs and a pipe fish which is very elegant with almost sea-through fins," says Anne.

It's not uncommon to see pollack, wrasse and conger eels on a dive, she says. "There's nothing that freaks me out down there. We're looking for life. My biggest search would be for octopus - they're very difficult to see as they're very well camouflaged."

She has dived wrecks off the Irish coast, including the SS Laurentic, which lies at 40 metres in Lough Swilly, off Fanad Lighthouse in Donegal. The British ocean liner sank at the onset of World War I after striking two mines, with the loss of 354 lives. The Laurentic's lure for divers is still strong, with 22 gold bars of its bullion cargo still unclaimed.

Anne had heard so much about the Laurentic, but found it a bit eerie when the two giant steam boilers loomed out of the shadows. Her favourite dive came when she was invited to work with the National Monuments Service, which was trying to establish whether a wreck located off Burtonport was from the Spanish Armada dating back to 1588.

"As I was diving around it, careful not to touch anything, I found a strange-shaped rock in the sand outside the wreck. We were given instructions that if we found anything of interest, to note the location. So I made a mental note of where it was relative to the wreck.

"When it was brought to the surface, it turned out to be a pulley, part of the rigging of the ship that had concreted over the centuries. I was told it was a 'significant find'. The ship turned out not to be from the Spanish Armada but from the late 16th or early 17th century. It's still there waiting for the archaeologists to come back and do some more investigating," she says.

Anne explains that safety comes first in all of the dives, which is why trainees undertake so much theory and practice in the pool before getting into the ocean. "We have a motto, 'you plan your dive and you dive the plan'," says Anne. As well as the camaraderie that comes from the sport, where trust between divers is crucial, Anne says the sense of freedom and weightlessness that comes from being underwater is like nothing else.

"This world is literally on our doorsteps. We're an island and there's so much potential. Once you get the training and the equipment - there is an initial outlay with equipment - you're set. You don't even have to be a massively strong swimmer," says Anne, who is delighted that one of the club's newest trainees is her 20-year-old daughter Breena.

At Dalkey Scuba Divers in Dublin, Aoife Mooney is getting out under water as much as she can due to the particularly good visibility of the water in Dublin Bay at the minute. Aoife, from Leopardstown, met divers on a holiday in Kerry as a twentysomething in 1991. They invited her to go snorkelling and she was immediately hooked.

She joined Dalkey Scuba Divers, which has 35 members, that same year and did her diving course in 1992. She's been an active member since, qualified as an instructor in 2007 and now works full time with Diving Ireland.

As well as learning a whole set of new skills, Aoife (49) says the sense of camaraderie and friendship that develops between divers is wonderful. "You are putting your trust in each other when you go diving. It creates a fabulous connection with people in the club."

While diving has brought her to exotic places like the Galapagos Islands and the international diver's mecca of Truk Lagoon in the South Pacific, the Irish coast has provided her with her favourite dive experience.

Off the coast of south west Donegal in a secluded cove called Malinbeg, she found herself literally surrounded by thousands of mackerel. "It was like something you'd see in National Geographic. It was a blackout of mackerel swimming all around me and it was a real privilege to experience," says Aoife.

Even though Irish waters are chillier than those in other parts of the world where diving is popular, Aoife says she'd choose to dive here because it's a bit wilder and cold water brings that sense of adventure closer.

"A lot of people don't realise what we've got in Ireland in terms of the superb diving. One of the main dive sites in Dublin is called the Muglands. We had a group the other night who saw an octopus. Most people think you'd have to go to the Bahamas to see something like that," she says.

In terms of other creatures of the deep, Aoife says you could do the same dive every week and see different things. "There's lots of shellfish. As well as the fish, there's beautiful scenery like anemone on the walls of dive sites. The currents refresh things around the site and it looks different all the time.

"We have lots of big animals like orca and dolphins - you just have to be in the right place at the right time."

With 64 clubs dotted around the country with 1,500 divers, Aoife says diving clubs are always looking for new recruits. "One of the beautiful things about diving is that anyone can do it," she says.

See diving.ie for more information on clubs around the country and how to get involved

Irish Independent