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20 May 2020

Through the eyes of: a diver, photographer and volunteer

Written by Jack Laws, Volunteer, St Abb’s Head NNR
A black and white photo of a man in a diving suit with flippers, standing on a pebbly beach. A steep rock face can be seen in the background.
Jack about to go shore diving off Pettico Wick
Jack first came to St Abb’s Head as a young man in pursuit of world-class diving. He soon found out that the amazing underwater life was just part of the place’s amazing attributes.

I first became aware of St Abb’s Head in the mid-1950s when I came up from Newcastle with the Hypothalassian Diving Club. We were told about the good diving by the Royal Marines, who used the clear waters around the Head as a training ground, and that was the start of what I can only describe as a love affair with this fantastic area.

A black and white photo of a group of people sitting in front of a tent, eating and drinking. Clothes are stretched over the guy ropes to dry.
The Hypothalassian Diving Club camping next to the Mire Loch in the 1950s

For the last six decades I have walked the land, sailed in my various boats or swam underwater in this magic place, taking photographs as I went. I soon learned to bring a pair of walking boots as, if the water was not suitable for diving, we would go and explore the land and see the beauty of the seabirds on the cliffs. Eventually, like a lot of other divers, I bought a boat so that I could take my wife and two daughters around to Pettico Wick, tie up at the slip and then explore and have a cup of coffee from our flask. In those days there were no dedicated dive boats at St Abbs, so the best we could do was to be taken out to retrieve lost lobster pots and enjoy the rest of the dive exploring the wonderful underwater landscape. These fantastic but barren cliff faces don’t stop when they reach the water but carry on and are immediately covered in the most amazing sea life.

I got involved with the National Trust for Scotland ranger Kevin in the early 1980s, when one of my friends was lost in a diving accident on the west coast and his wife got permission to plant trees in his memory around the Mire Loch. Members of my diving club and I met the ranger and got to work planting. After that connection had been made, I came and helped when I could find time.

A man stands in a doorway next to an information board about St Abb’s Head NNR Nature Centre. He is smiling.
Jack ready, willing and able to welcome visitors to the reserve

When retired, I volunteered in a more formal position but the digging holes and lifting things soon had to stop as I had developed a back problem which eventually put a stop to my diving, and then old age put a stop to my boating! This did not dampen my enthusiasm for telling visitors about the beauty of the area. I still try to get into the Nature Centre as often as I can.

I have a big collection of underwater photographs that I have taken but I now concentrate on taking photos of our wonderful landscapes and seascapes as well as the animals, birds and flowers with whom we share this incredible place.

A black and white photo of a diver underwater, holding up a camera to his mask.
Underwater paparazzi!

Here are my top tips for photographers coming to St Abb’s Head:

  • Where to go: A good starting point is the Nature Centre, which is situated just beside the car park. Here you’ll find a big 3D map of the Head with timings and distances for the various walks around the nature reserve. But at this point, a warning! If you have a camera or a phone that takes photos, you’ll have to add at least half an hour to any walk you choose!
  • Equipment: A camera with a telephoto lens or a good zoom is great but don’t worry if you only have your phone – it will take fantastic landscapes or seascapes. The nice thing about our birds is that there are points on the walk where you can get quite close to kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots without disturbing them. Try and get as close as you can to take photos of the wildflowers; if the photo is out of focus, it really doesn’t matter as you can take another one – it’s digital after all. Have you tried putting your camera phone lens against the eyepiece of your binoculars? Give it a try – it does work! It may not perhaps be the best photo you have ever taken, but it will be interesting. If you come across one of the rangers with a telescope on a stand, I’m sure they’ll let you try the same thing with that, as long as they’re not in the middle of a complicated bird count.
  • The best time of day: For landscapes and seascapes, the golden hour is the hour just after sunrise and just before sunset, when the shadows are longer and show up the contours of the land. The light is very yellow, which enhances the green of the grass, especially winter wheat.
  • The best time of year: Any time – there’s always something of interest! In spring, from the end of May onwards, the birds are on the cliffs, and from the end of October the grey seals will be having their pups in the bays. If you have children with you in spring, walk to the lighthouse by turning right out of the car park and follow the road – here the fields will be full of lambs looked after by our neighbours on Northfield Farm (please keep dogs on a lead). Our wildflowers will also be starting to bloom, including orchids, and you can’t miss the thrift; in a good year, this little plant turns the Head into a sea of pink.

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