Dress up, drop in and hit the secret trail

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The Independent Online
If it works off the Florida Keys why not at Whitley Bay? From next spring divers will be able to follow Britain's first underwater nature trail, through the wrecks and marine life around St Mary's Island on the north-east coast.

Free spirits might regret this undersea extension of the conservationists' mania for directing visitors, but local divers seem as enthusiastic about the project as the World Wide Fund for Nature and English Nature.

The two conservation bodies and North Tyneside Council, which owns St Mary's, off Whitley Bay, are each putting pounds 5,000 into a voluntary marine nature reserve around the island. At low tides, some 80,000 people a year cross the causeway from the mainland to visit the disused lighthouse, peer into the rock pools or study the bird life.

But the island is also popular with divers. It is only 11 miles from the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne and conservationists are concerned that the undersea reserve might be damaged. On any storm-free weekend day from the April to October St Mary's attracts up to 30 divers.

"Some divers obviously pick up a few bits and pieces and take them home as souvenirs," said Helen Ashworth, WWF's regional organiser. "We are trying to encourage that not to happen. So it's an educational project rather than tourist promotion."

Divers will be able to take a waterproof laminated card explaining what can be seen along the trail. The water around St Mary's is ideal for novices - up to 10m deep at high tide - with plenty to see.

The main attractions are two wrecks, those of the Janet Clark, which sank on Christmas Eve in 1984, and the Gothenburg City, a tramp steamer which hit the rocks and went down with 460 cattle in 1891, prompting the building of the lighthouse in 1898.

Divers will be guided over the kelp forest and the sandstone formations. "It is spectacular. It is like being on a mountain cliff side only you are underwater," said Karl Holford, co-owner of The Diving Centre in Newcastle and a firm believer that trails on the north-east coast can be as good as those off the Florida Keys. "The sea life is prolific. Everything you have seen in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean, this is as good at the height of the season."

Some of the fish names are certainly exotic. According to WWF, divers might see leopard-spotted goby, fatherlasher fish and butterfish as well as shoals of mackerel. There are also lobsters, sea urchins and sponges.

Stephen Gregory, who manages the lighthouse, said some of the money would be spent on information points on land about the marine reserve and other educational material. "There are no statutory powers for marine nature reserves," Mr Gregory said. "You cannot assume everyone going diving is aware of the sensitivity of the environment. We are trying gently to direct them - to get across a seashore code."