SHETLANDS : BREI NESS
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Anchoring the dive boat in a sheltered gully surrounded on three sides by towering cliffs, which are cut into by numerous caverns and ravines, I always have mixed feelings of adrenalin and excitement, not knowing what I'll come across. Before my first of many dives at this gully on the northern edge of the island of Muckle Roe (known as 'Big Red', after the colour of its stone), I'd simply heard that it was 'pretty damn good': it has always lived up to its reputation.

There are three deep caves at the base of the cliff wall. The caves travel quite far into the cliff and always have schools of sand eels at the entrance, similar to the silversides you encounter in the Caribbean or even the glassfish in the Red Sea. At the entrance to the bay, a fault of softer stone has been eroded away to create a vertical canyon that runs parallel to the shore.

To do the Brei Ness dive, you start off anchored, as we were, in the gully. You look towards the open sea and enter the cleft to your left. Passing over the kelp forest in the gully, you see the Brei Ness canyon floor bottoming out to gravel, sand and rounded pebbles. Bell-shaped at first, the canyon narrows as you progress, and drops down deeper, gradually - from 10m to more than 30m.

The visibility is always clear in this canyon, due to the complete lack of sedimentation, which is carried away by a gentle current. Approach the first cliff wall, and you simply gaze in wonder at the incredible range of colours and variety of animals there. In some instances, the canyon walls are very close together, less than 1.5m, and halfway along you'll come across a tumble of boulders, some more than 3m across, which have to be negotiated. The near-vertical and, in some cases, underhanging walls are carpeted in jewel anemones (Corynactis viridis) and it is here that you'll find the largest aggregation of dahlia anemones (Urticina felina) that I have ever seen - there are thousands of these large, psychedelic-coloured anemones everywhere you look.

Interspaced along the walls, you can also find sea squirts, squat lobsters, spider crabs and edible crabs. Large pelagic lions' mane jellyfish (Cyanea lamarkii) move slowly through the canyon, with a host of juvenile herrings flitting among their tentacles, seemingly immune to the stinging cells. On the sandy floor, look hard and you'll spot sand eels, flounders and anglerfish.

I've dived at quite a few other, equally spectacular sites along the eastern cliffs of Muckle Roe and Papa Stour, but I keep returning to these gullies: they're the most picturesque I've dived in for a long time and, visually, they're everything an underwater photographer could ask for.

Gordon Ridley's Volume 111 of the Dive Scotland series lists the Shetland archipelago as having a coastline of 1,450 km, with 405 rocky inlets, 351 caves, 246 bays and fjords, 205 skerries, 190 stacks, 158 natural arches and seven subterranean passageways - certainly plenty to keep any diver occupied! These islands are truly astonishing, with the most marine life I have ever seen in any area of the British Isles.

 
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