3rd September: Cronk y Bing to the Point of Ayre / the finishing line (almost) and laying an ancestral ghost to rest

A quick reminder that via this swim, I’m raising money to support the excellent marine conservation work of the Manx Wildlife Trust and Blue Marine Foundation via this Justgiving page

Tweeting from @michaelpmdavis

A series of rough but colourful final swims, courtesy of Eden

I’ve had a break from writing as well as swimming but wanted to post a final blog about my swim on Tuesday that took me around 10km up to the Point of Ayre and just round the corner to (almost) the spot where I started.

This last leg was tough but in some ways fantastic too, mostly because it appealed to my rather lowbrow taste in clichéd plot twists.

For a start, it was much harder than it was supposed to be. After being flushed 12km up the coast on Monday – in tidal conditions in which I could have been floating on my back and still covered the distance – I was expecting more of the same.

A semi-submerged view of the not wildly featureful northern tip of the Island

Initially things went to plan. The sea was rolling up behind me and filling my face with water when I turned to breathe but pushing me along quite nicely. I was able to get up to Blue Point and then Rue Point in about an hour. These are the beaches where my mum learned to swim under the tutelage of my grandfather, Guy. The process involved floating her offshore for a bit in a rubber ring… and then taking the ring away. Given the ferocious riptides I can hardly think of a more dangerous place for anyone to swim. Perhaps Guy just hadn’t done his homework. Or maybe he had. 

Beyond Blue Point and Rue Point was a landmark – a concrete water tower-type structure – of baffling obstinacy. It just wouldn’t get smaller. “We’re in an eddy. Not going anywhere!” explained Steve, before urging me in to the shallows to try and sneak round the edge of this unwelcome counter-current.

This eddy isn’t marked on the tidal flow charts I’ve been referring to. But I realised I was at the roughly the same point that Mercedes Gleitze, the first person to swim around the Isle of Man, back in 1930, ran into difficulties as she made her way anti-clockwise around the Island. She encountered here what the Isle of Man Examiner described as “various eddies and currents [that] seemed to be superior to human strength and endurance”, with the result that “hour after hour slipped by with no progress to show.”

Excerpt from the account of Mercedes Gleitze’s battles between the Point of Ayre and Rue Point by a reporter from the Isle of Man Examiner, June 1930 – copyright: Manx National Heritage

As I mentioned in my 25th August post that says just a little about Mercedes’ amazing exploits, she used music – either from musicians on her support boat or records on a gramophone – to energise her. When she got pegged back by the currents in this same stretch between the Point of Ayre and Rue Point, she was fortified by her supporters on the shore repeatedly singing the Manx National Anthem and ‘Ellan Vannin’ (a song sometimes termed the alternative Manx national anthem) to her. I didn’t get that but I got something that – for me – was even better.

Right on cue, around six slicked heads poked out of the water and surveyed me with what I took to be a blend of inquiry and mild concern. Some of these seals were probably from the same group that accompanied me on day 1 when I swam from just the other side of the Point of Ayre down to Dog Mills. In seal terms the distance between the two places is probably equivalent to shuffling from one end of the sofa to the other. (You can read about the huggy seal in my blog below or see this visual treatment from Josh Stokes of ITV: https://www.itv.com/news/granada/2019-08-14/rare-seal-encounter-sets-swimmer-on-his-way-for-isle-of-man-challenge/)

A helping hand / flipper from some of my friends from day 1, with the Point of Ayre Lighthouse in the background

Anyway, at the risk of squeezing too much from the seal assistance/doping analogy, their appearance gave me a major shot in the arm. After another 15 minutes or so I found myself able to inch forward once more, putting the unlovely water tower in my rear view mirror (or at least into a framed-by-armpit-whilst-breathing-to-the-right perspective) and able to concentrate on the Point of Ayre lighthouse.

The lighthouse is one of those classic red and white designs that looks like it has been ripped off from a mid-range tableware set. At first I could see just the black beacon house and cream rampart surrounding it poking above the sand and marram grass. Then a white stripe. Then I could glimpse a red band and then part of the next white one down.

I don’t know how long it was before I could see the whole pepper pot and became aware that I was hauling myself towards the tip of the Point of Ayre. Certainly well beyond the stage when near-total disorientation had set in. I could barely see my hand in the bisque-like shallows, the low moraine ledge of the land offered no features to latch on to and once the lighthouse became a hub to my orbital particle, it gave me no further sense of how far I was from the end.

credit: Steve Watt

Steve – worried about me being whisked off in towards Belfast, or perhaps the Isle of Whithorn, shouted to me to get as close in to the stony drop-off as I could and I was suddenly aware that I was almost under the feet of a group of onlookers, who might as well have been watching an infant thrashing about in the bath. 

I could hear the soothing hiss of the fish tank pebble beds rearranging themselves in a series of lateral avalanches. Then, suddenly the noise was my own fingers scrabbling against the stones as I was hit head-on by the tidal flow charging up the east side of the Island. Had I not been fighting to stop myself being swept away I could have put a hand on the precise point where the two currents smashed into each other.

Reaching the scrabbling stage, but in good company

I got only a few metres down the east side of the Point before it became clear that even with the most manic windmilling I was still being pushed backwards. I was about twenty metres short of the spot I started 22 days before. Should I walk the rest, get out and come back in a few days’ time to swim a distance equivalent to one lap of my local pool, or just hope that no one noticed? The third option in that befuddling moment was the most appealing (and still is) so I staggered out to meet my Mum and her by now tepid champagne bottle, my kayaker friend Lee and members of the Manx Wildlife Trust whom Mum had persuaded or coerced into forming a reception committee.

About to trade in my neoprene helmet for a plastic cup of champagne. My Mum appears to be considering legal action against Manx Radio for describing her bottle of Moet et Chandon as ‘prosecco’

Laying a neurosis to rest

A sub-plot to all of the above was overcoming the mild neurosis that I’d been cultivating about swimming around the northern tip of the Island, ever since discovering an ominous entry in family trees about a ‘John Christian of Cranstal’, or ‘John Christian of Ballamoar, Bride’, ‘who was drowned off Point of Ayre’ in the early 1720s. John Christian is recorded as being the first husband of Isabel Curghey, sister of my great x6 grandfather but the family trees don’t offer a whole lot more.

I’m not a great believer in portents but with that disconcerting factoid rattling around my brain I felt I needed to know a bit more about John Christian and what happened to him.

Who was John Christian of Cranstal?

I figured the only person who might know John Christian’s story would be Frances Wilkins, a historian who has written several books based on in-depth investigation into the Isle of Man’s role in the smuggling business and associated topics. I previously attempted to distil some of her quite startling findings in my 15th August blog about my smuggling and slave trade-supplying ancestor John Murray.

A portentous entry in the family tree

A first port of call, Frances’ book ‘2,000 and more Manx Mariners’ is filled with references to John Christian. But John Christian is about the most common Manx name it’s possible to have and even if you narrow it down to records of mariners of the 18th Century there are many to choose from and no obvious reference to Cranstal, a tiny hamlet in the parish of Bride, just south of the Point of Ayre, which I passed on day 1 of my swim.

So I contacted Frances – who has been a massive help and support throughout my efforts to throw a bit of light on my shady ancestors. She dug through her extensive datasets and pulled out notes she had made over twenty years ago on records from the parish of Bride at the northern tip of the Island and found this entry (highlight added by me):

‘Burials Anno 1722

Ewan Christian of Cranstol John Quark William Corkish & Pattrick Cotter ye boat crew, perished & were left at sea November 2th: 1722

So likewise John Christian of Cranstol & his boat crew viz Charles Christian, Daniel Christian & Daniel Christian were lost & perished by sea ye 3d day’

Parish of Bride burial records for 1722 – copyright: Manx National Heritage

Wendy Thirkettle and Kim Holden at the Manx National Heritage Archive then very kindly pulled out a photo of the original record.

This at least suggests that John Christian wasn’t trying to swim round the Point of Ayre when he succumbed. But what were he and his ill-fated crew doing?

A smuggling run too far?

Frances sifted her records of ingates and outgates (imports and exports) and herring fishing customs records in the Isle of Man in the years running up to 1722. There are 21 recorded voyages by John Christian of Cranstal or John Christian of Bride in customs outgates, in association with six different boats from Bride or neighbouring Ramsey, between 1711 and 1721. Five of what seem be the same boats also crop up, separately, in conjunction with entries concerning another boat master, Ewan Christian. Ewan Christian is the (admittedly common) name of the master of the other crew recorded as having drowned in November 1722 by the parish of Bride records.

Most of the entries relating to what appears to be our John Christian of Cranstal/Bride concern shipments of brandy and tobacco. Many give the stated destination as Derry in Northern Ireland. As Frances points out, the destinations recorded were frequently part of a cover story for a smuggling run, so a cargo stated as bound for Derry might well be destined for the southwest of Scotland.

Frances has found that what looks to be the same John Christian was hired to smuggle brandy, nominally to Whitehaven, in his own boat on two occasions – one in 1717 and one in 1718 – by a John Parr, who may or may not be the Parson John Parr who features in herrings customs records. In the context of the Isle of Man’s role as a smuggling hub, Whitehaven may well be a cover for any number of places on the English or Welsh coasts.

Another entry that has the ring of a classic smuggling cover story concerns a 1719 voyage from Douglas to Peel, i.e. one side of the Island to the other, with John Christian apparently carrying 24 kegs containing 200 gallons of brandy.

So, while there are few certainties in all of this, it seems very likely that John Christian of Cranstal was a locally prominent boat master who, like many of his peers, was involved in both herring fishing and smuggling. What was he doing when he drowned? This really hinges on the date – was it during the smuggling season or the herring fishing season?

The parish of Bride record states that he and his crew were ‘lost & perished by sea ye 3d day’. This is a little cryptic – ‘3d day’ of what? November, as with the previous entry about Ewan Christian and his crew? If it was 3rd November then John Christian was almost certainly smuggling, as the herring season ran from July to October. Moreover 3rd November 1722 would have coincided with a period known as the ‘dark of the moon’, favoured by smugglers because this is when the moon is at its dimmest.


John and Isabel

One more thing that intrigues me about John Christian is how he got together with my great x6 grandfather’s sister. At first blush it appears an unlikely match: Isabel the daughter of a powerful and wealthy landowner and John the fishing and smuggling boat master.

Frances Wilkins has unearthed another nugget which sheds a bit of light here: records of a legal case from 1721, the year before John Christian of Cranstal/Bride drowned off the Point of Ayre. It describes a John Christian – referred to as a son of Ewan Christian, a boat master from the parish of Bride – ‘carrying off’ from the Island Isabel Curghey, daughter of Mr Curghey of Ballakillingan, without governor’s pass and licence. As a penalty, John Christian’s boat was forfeited. With no further details, all I can do is speculate: had John and Isabel eloped? Either way, their marriage sadly appears to have been a very short one.

Some thank yous

Lists of thank yous take on an increasingly self-reverential flavour the longer they get. But it will be obvious to anyone who has looked at this blog that I wouldn’t have got very far with this venture without help from an awful lot of people. I do want to express particular gratitude to:

Krisna, Sean and Eden, for unwarranted levels of love and patience as I’ve pursued my pet project to the exclusion of other more important things (and Eden for her artwork!)

Mum and Dad for much love, support and encouragement

Steve and Lee for keeping me safe and for incredible generosity with their time and expertise

Wendy Thirkettle and Sarah Christian at the Manx National Heritage Archive for helping me locate some of the most interesting skeletons in the ancestral closet

Frances Wilkins for sharing her wealth of insights and data on the Island’s smuggling history and the lives and times of my inglorious forebears

Dan and Keeley at Swimfortri for teaching me how to swim better

Doloranda Pember for generously allowing me to use photographic and other records of the extraordinary achievements of her mother, Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim the English Channel and first person to swim around the Isle of Man.

I have had lots of kind messages from people over the past 48 hours. Thank you to any of you who are reading this!

I’ll sign off by quoting a particularly lovely one from Doloranda Pember:

Mercedes Gleitze around 1927, so about three years before her swim around the Isle of Man –
credit: unknown photographer/Gleitze Archives; with thanks to Doloranda Pember

Hello Mike,

Huge congratulations on becoming the first man to swim around the Isle of Man.  A tremendous achievement.   If my mother, Mercedes Gleitze, were still alive today, she would be the first to salute not only your battle with wind and waves, but also your dedicated support of the Manx Wildlife Trust and Blue Marine Foundation.

Could I add to this message some words written by Mercedes, who was able to express herself much more eloquently than I ever could:

Sea swimming is a beautiful thing, in fact an art – an art whose mistress should be not the few, but the many, for does not the sea and its dangers cross the paths of thousands?  Nay, millions!  What could possibly speak more for man’s prowess as an athlete than the ability to master earth’s most abundant, most powerful element – water, no matter what its mood.

                                              Mercedes Gleitze

                                                   Diary of New Zealand Tour (1930-31)

Thank you, Mike, for paying tribute to my mother in your blogs, and good luck with any future swims you may undertake.  I’m told wild swimming is addictive!  

All good wishes,

Doloranda

2nd September: Orrisdale Head to Cronk y Bing / Shells of the Isle of Man

Credit: Colin Waite / Shutterstock

A quick reminder that via this swim, I’m raising money to support the excellent marine conservation work of the Manx Wildlife Trust and Blue Marine Foundation via this Justgiving page

Tweeting from @michaelpmdavis

Yesterday started really well with the discovery of Steve’s missing kayak tow line as I walked along the beach to start my swim at Orrisdale Head. It then got better as I found the spring tide sending me flying northwards along the coast.

Not that I was fully conscious of this. The water above was choppy and below it was a dull blue suspension garnished with sprigs of orangey-pink seaweed and lion’s mane jellyfish of a similar colour scheme. I couldn’t see the bottom and couldn’t see over the wave tops either. If I had, it probably wouldn’t have helped as the land up here – the ‘gift of the glaciers’ – is a low-lying and fairly uniform set of sandy stripes with few trees, hills or buildings to pick out. It was only when we got towards Jurby Head, with its prominent white church, that I realised how fast I was being pushed along.

During a five minute tea break of energy bar, gel, water and gannet and fulmar watching, Steve’s GPS recorded us moving some hundreds of metres further north. After two and a half hours and around 12km we had to battle to get in to the shore to avoid overshooting our objective – the Cronk y Bing nature reserve which is managed by the Manx Wildlife Trust, for whom I am fundraising, and is home to pyramid orchids and labyrinth spiders.

360 degree view between Orrisdale Head and The Lhen

Today

Yesterday’s tide-propelled swim leaves me just about 10km short of the Point of Ayre. Getting there should be doable, but swimming around it to get back to my starting point on the east side might not be. The Point is where competing tidal flows converge and make mischief. At the time of tide I get there, it may be unswim-able. Predicted bad weather for Wednesday through to the end of the week could then force me to hold off from completing until the Saturday! I’m heading out shortly to give it a go.

In my last blog I wrote about a case involving an Isle of Man company, oil giant Exxon and a corruptly-allocated oil block in Liberia.

I wanted to write some more about whether this case should be seen as an aberration or reflecting a wider set of reputational risks for the Isle of Man. I had thought I’d be able to have a couple of bites at this quite complicated theme. But with the possibility of this journey around the Island wrapping up today, I’ve tried to boil down the remaining things I was itching to say into a single post.

The boiling down hasn’t been entirely successful – apologies – and what’s left is quite long. But if you’ve got a few more minutes, please do read on!

A bad apple?

In my last post I talked about a situation involving an Isle of Man anonymous company implicated in a corruption case. But is this just a case of one particularly bad apple? Unfortunately, the answer may well be “no”. There are, in fact, a range of other indications that the Isle of Man could be at risk of being implicated in corruption and money laundering cases.

The Isle of Man’s property portfolio ‘across’

Last month, Isle of Man shell companies were once again the subject of uncomplimentary reporting in the UK press. The Times and the Mail online both ran stories based on the discovery by Finance Uncovered and Angola’s leading investigative reporter, Rafael Marques that Isabel dos Santos, daughter of the former president of Angola, had used an Isle of Man firm to quietly acquire a £13 million mansion in Kensington.

Isabel dos Santos is often described as being Africa’s richest woman, and estimated to be worth around $2.1 billion. But when Rafael Marques and Forbes Magazine investigated the source of her wealth a few years ago, they concluded that “As best as we can trace, every major Angolan investment held by [Isabel] dos Santos stems either from taking a chunk of a company that wants to do business in the country or from the stroke of the president’s pen that cut her into the action. Her story is a rare window into the same, tragic kleptocratic narrative that grips resource-rich countries around the world.”

The regime of Isabel’s father, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, which ruled Angola from 1979 to 2017, achieved international notoriety for staggering levels of corruption, much of it centred on the country’s oil and diamonds, as well as numerous credible allegations of extrajudicial killings and suppression of dissent.

Much of the corruption of the Jose Eduardo dos Santos regime in Angola was associated with its oil sector. In 2016, not long before he left office, President dos Santos appointed his daughter, Isabel, as head of the state oil company, Sonangol. However she was removed from this post by his successor in November 2017. Isabel dos Santos was recently revealed to have bought a £13 million Kensington mansion via an Isle of Man shell company. Credit: Martin Lueke / Shutterstock

As my Global Witness colleague Ava Lee recently explained on Manx Radio, Isabel dos Santos is one of many owners of UK property to control her asset through an Isle of Man company. Indeed, there are 10,704 unique freeholds and leaseholds owned by at least one Isle of Man firm. Over a third of the Isle of Man company-owned properties in England and Wales are in Greater London, with the highest concentrations in the City of Westminster and Chelsea and Kensington, where Isabel dos Santos has her mansion.

Who are the owners of all this property? The answer is that we don’t know because the Isle of Man does not yet allow public access to its register of company beneficial (real) owners (more on this below). It seems possible though, that Manx companies are being used as a vehicle by people like Isabel dos Santos who don’t live anywhere near the Island. Why would they go to the trouble? Perhaps to avoid paying taxes. Maybe because they don’t want people to know who they are and the source of their money. Either possibility should give the Isle of Man authorities cause for concern about the Island’s reputation.

The jet set

Then there’s the Isle of Man’s Aircraft Register. The Aircraft Register came under scrutiny in the aftermath of the publication of extracts from the ‘Paradise Papers’. Most media coverage focused on Lewis Hamilton and whether the way he avoided paying VAT by registering his private jet in the Isle of Man was legal. Some of the less well-known names raised a different question, though: should the Island’s authorities have been concerned not just about VAT avoidance but also the risk of registering planes obtained using illicit funds?

One of those named as controlling a jet registered in the Isle of Man was Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, often described in the press as an ally of Vladimir Putin. In 2018, he found himself subject to U.S. sanctions, with U.S. Treasury observing that he “has been investigated for money laundering, and has been accused of threatening the lives of business rivals, illegally wiretapping a government official, and taking part in extortion and racketeering.  There are also allegations that Deripaska bribed a government official, ordered the murder of a businessman, and had links to a Russian organized crime group.” In April, Mr Deripaska denounced these claims as “filthy lies” and launched a lawsuit aimed at overturning the sanctions.

According to the Guardian newspaper, Paradise Papers leaks suggest Isle of Man customs authorities processed VAT refunds for aluminium magnate Oleg Deripaska, who in 2018 was subject to targeted sanctions by the U.S. government, which cited his alleged role in money laundering. Credit: ID1974 / Shutterstock

Nigerian Central Bank chief Godwin Emefiele co-owned a company that imported planes into the Isle of Man in 2013 and 2015 and which operated a bank account in London. Nigeria’s code of conduct for public officials says that they “shall not maintain or operate a bank account in any country outside Nigeria”. A lawyer acting for Mr Emefiele told the Guardian newspaper that he did not have a “personal bank account” offshore nor did he derive “personal financial benefit” from shares in the companies involved.

If you delve a little into the Isle of Man Aircraft Register you soon find a fair number of business jets that are owned by companies incorporated in secrecy jurisdictions. As of last month, 75 were owned by firms registered in The British Virgin Islands, 13 Bermuda and 8 in the Cayman Islands, for example. How does the Isle of Man Aircraft Register check on who the real owners are and assess the provenance of the funds used to buy the planes?

I tried to meet the Aircraft Register staff earlier this year, without success, and then asked them some questions by e-mail that initially didn’t meet with a response. Last month, however, I got an e-mail from a ‘reputation management’ firm called Lansons. According to its website, Lansons is “Enhancing the Isle of Man’s reputation as a transparent, well-regulated jurisdiction through a wide-ranging public affairs and media engagement programme”.

Lansons’ e-mail answered my questions to the Aircraft Register as follows:

Question 1 – What due diligence checks do you perform on the beneficial owners of aircraft – particularly aircraft owned by private individuals and companies – that are proposed for registration in the Isle of Man?

– The Isle of Man Aircraft Registry complies with all International Standards and Recommended Practices with regards to the registration and safety oversight of business jets and twin turbine helicopters. The Isle of Man will continue to monitor and proactively comply with these standards as they evolve. The role of the Isle of Man Aircraft Registry is one of Registrar and Aviation Safety & Security Regulator. Its purpose is to ensure that aircraft registered on the Island comply with ICAO standards.

Question 2 – In this context, what steps do you take when the aircraft are owned by companies incorporated in secrecy jurisdictions such as the British Virgin Islands, which do not allow access to data on companies’ beneficial owners?

 A – There are currently no requirements under international standards to monitor this information. However, the Isle of Man Aircraft Registry operates a register of the highest possible standards and works very closely with local and international agencies to undertake relevant checks and respond accordingly in a timely fashion.

The yacht club

In fairness to the Aircraft Registry, it does at least allow limited public access to some of the data it holds. Not so the Isle of Man Ship Registry. Again I was not able to meet any of the staff managing the register during my visits to the Island and got no answers to my written questions about how they established who were the beneficial owners of vessels on their books. One member of staff did, however, direct me to the Ship Register’s annual report, which shows that 354 of the vessels registered in the Isle of Man – over a third of the total – are ‘pleasure yachts’.

So what? You might say.

The thing is that private jets and yachts, along with ample property portfolios, are well-established as essential accessories of any self-respecting kleptocrat or oligarch. That’s why, in June, a UN Office on Drugs and Crime Expert Group Meeting included in its Oslo Statement on Corruption involving Vast Quantities of Assets that

“The ultimate beneficial ownership information of high-value real estate, yachts, aircraft, and other vehicles, and art works should be maintained, so it can be accessible to the appropriate public authorities, including law enforcement.”

When it comes to yachts there almost seems to be a competition between oligarchs and kleptocrats to see who’s got the biggest. Notable recent sightings (and seizures by law enforcement agencies) have included ‘Equanimity’ (not owned by an Isle of Man company, it should be stressed), the plaything of Jho Low, key protagonist in the 1MDB money laundering scandal that has deprived Malaysia of several billion dollars. Credit: Adam AmrHmzh / Shutterstock

I asked both the Aircraft Register and the Ship Register whether they maintained information on beneficial owners of the aircraft/vessels registered in the Isle of Man database in line with this recommendation and whether they would be making this information public.

In response to my query to the Aircraft Register, Lansons responded with the following:

The Isle of Man has a longstanding, and independently verified, track record of meeting international standards and will continue to comply with the unified regulations of the international community. We are proud of our global leadership in tax cooperation, transparency and in combatting money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism.”

Credit: Global Witness

The beneficial ownership question

If the Isle of Man is at risk of being implicated in corruption and money laundering, what can be done about it?

John Christensen, the Tax Justice Network founder and Manx Grand Prix fan, argues that a critical next step the Isle of Man government needs to take, is the introduction of a full, comprehensive, verified, publicly searchable register of companies’ beneficial ownership.

This arcane-sounding issue of public registers of beneficial owners of companies matters because paper-based companies with secret ownership – often known as anonymous companies or shell companies – are widely recognised as the getaway vehicles of choice for criminals and corrupt politicians the world over.

Anonymous companies hide the identities of their real – ‘beneficial’ – owners who can then use them as a veil from behind which they can acquire and dispose of assets obtained through corruption or some other form of criminality, and then launder the proceeds through the international financial system undetected. Anonymous companies are also very popular with people trying to dodge taxes.

Anonymous companies are the getaway vehicle of choice for corrupt politicians and other criminals the world over. Credit: Global Witness

The case for a public beneficial ownership register on the Isle of Man

Over 40 jurisdictions have now committed putting in place public registers of companies’ beneficial ownership. These include Britain’s Overseas Territories – encompassing secrecy jurisdictions like the British Virgin Islands and Cayman Islands – which have been forced to get on board by a House of Commons vote in May last year.

The MPs leading the vote on the Overseas Territories, Dame Margaret Hodge (Labour) and Andrew Mitchell (Conservative) visited the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey to try to persuade them to introduce public beneficial ownership registers as well. Margaret Hodge described to me how, in Douglas, they were met with “absolute denial and outrage, from the government and the financial services industries, at the idea that they were anything other than squeaky clean”. The Isle of Man government stuck to the line – which I have heard a few times in meetings with officials – that they would move to public registers of companies’ beneficial owners when this became a global standard.

This line of argument didn’t much convince the MPs. In March this year they sought to attach to a bill providing for the impacts of a ‘no deal’ Brexit on the UK’s financial services industries, a provision requiring the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey to publish registers of companies’ beneficial owners. Theresa May’s government, which had unsuccessfully opposed the vote on the Overseas Territories in 2018, saw it was facing defeat once again and withdrew its financial services bill.

Anonymous companies or shell companies are often structured like a set of Russian dolls, with one company being owned by another in a separate jurisdiction that in turn is owned by a third in yet another part of the world and so on. This makes it very difficult for law enforcement authorities, journalists or anyone else to find out who the real owners are. Credit: Global Witness

A constitutional crisis?

I happened to be on the Island just a few days after all this happened. The mood among some in the political firmament and financial services industries was indignation at the Island being pushed around by Westminster. There was talk of a “constitutional crisis”, stemming from the perception that the right of the Island’s parliament, Tynwald, to set the Island’s domestic laws was being violated.

The Isle of Man’s constitutional relationship with the UK is pretty murky terrain, however. It’s bounded more by what a 1973 Royal Commission report termed ‘convention’, together with rather equivocal precedent, rather than anything written down. While it might be the height of bad manners for Westminster MPs to legislate for the Island over the heads of Tynwald, if they choose to do so, there’s probably not a whole lot the Isle of Man authorities can do about it.

There’s another consideration too. Were the Isle of Man government to embark on a showdown with the UK over the constitutional relationship, it would be taking a massive gamble on the Island’s future. It’s one thing to do that on a matter of high principle about the fundamental freedoms and wellbeing of the Island’s citizens. Quite another to do so to preserve the secrecy of thousands of foreign shell company owners who probably couldn’t even place the Isle of Man on a map.

Grasping the nettle or kicking into the long grass?

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and The Isle of Man government, together with its counterparts in Jersey and Guernsey, announced in June that by the end of 2023 they will have tabled legislation to make their registers of beneficial ownership public, aligning themselves with European standards.

As my Global Witness colleague Naomi Hirst pointed out, however, “The timeframe is long – much longer than European Member States will have to play with – and the national action plans the Crown Dependencies have drafted are replete with get-out clauses. There is no detail yet on how the registers will be made public. Moreover, they have given themselves plenty of room to manoeuvre by setting out how they will continue to abide by ‘global best practice’ and pay heed to international standards.”

It’s a bit hard to believe that the Isle of Man authorities really need four plus years. I’ve heard a few times the view that the existing – closed access – register of beneficial owners of companies on the Island is of a high quality, with some saying that it is better, in fact, than the public register in the UK. Taking these assertions at face value, it would seem a relatively small step to make such a register available not just to a handful of officials but the wider public.

John Christensen’s take is fairly withering:

“I looked at [the announcement] and thought, there’s something wrong with this, it’s kind of lacking in ambition. [The Crown Dependencies] are talking about starting discussions in four years’ time. What concerns me is that it’s a clear signal to their clients: start moving into offshore trusts – we won’t be covering trusts, this will give you enough time to rearrange your affairs so that you’re covered.”

Scepticism at home

It’s also only fair to note that some in the financial services industries on the Isle of Man also appear to see flaws in the approach being proposed.

One criticism that has been voiced is that only beneficial owners of 25% or more of a company would be identified. That means that if you had five criminals each owning 20% of a shell company, they could happily go about their nefarious business undetected. This is a very good point which the UK, in its own beneficial ownership registry has failed to address, but which the Isle of Man authorities could. They could lower the threshold on ownership share or dispense with it altogether so that more or all beneficial owners are declared.

Points of reference past and present

On this question of a beneficial ownership threshold but on broader efforts to prevent money laundering too, the Isle of Man could play a leadership role, globally, by doing better than the UK and other jurisdictions. There is an opportunity to avoid being cast as a foot-dragger and instead become a standard-setter. The question is whether the Island’s leaders can look beyond the short-term and embrace it, just as some argue they already have in the realm of marine conservation.

Is marine conservation a legitimate point of comparison? Maybe it’s a stretch. But it’s striking how, when it comes to the creation of marine nature reserves (as described in my 18th August post, below), the Isle of Man government has used its autonomy and agility to go beyond what bigger jurisdictions with more political baggage have done. It has won quite a few fans along the way and is seen, in some quarters, as a standard-setter, internationally.

Another, more provocative, point of comparison, that highlights the risks of being seen as a foot-dragger, is the demise of the Eighteenth Century ‘running trade’ in which some of my ancestors were instrumental, when the Isle of Man was the biggest smuggling hub in the world (my 15th August post has more details on this). There are, of course, many differences with the situation today, starting with the scale of the smuggling back then as compared with the scale of the money laundering risks now. But one can argue, nonetheless, that the circumstances in which Britain curtailed the Island’s autonomy in 1765 in an effort to stamp out the smuggling, and devastated its economy in the process, still have some resonance:

  • The Isle of Man was overly dependent on a single business sector that was facing increasing criticism from influential policy-makers beyond its shores.
  • It was suffering from ‘state capture’ – the leaders of the smuggling business had excessive influence over policy-making. They reinforced this influence through threats to relocate to more conducive offshore jurisdictions if their activities were restricted.
  • The Isle of Man’s leaders were over-reliant, politically, on an argument that all was legitimate because the Isle of Man’s laws made it so.
  • They failed to see the writing on the wall and develop any kind of plan B.

There are grounds for confidence that lessons, historical and contemporary, negative and positive, will be applied and the Isle of Man’s leaders can protect the Island’s reputation and long term prospects by addressing the risks of an association with corruption and money laundering. But it may require – now – some bold short-term steps, alongside the development of a long term vision, to make sure that happens.

1st September: Glen Moar to Orrisdale Head / from Monrovia to Douglas

A quick reminder that via this swim, I’m raising money to support the excellent marine conservation work of the Manx Wildlife Trust and Blue Marine Foundation via this Justgiving page

Tweeting from @michaelpmdavis

A rough welcome to Glen Moar this morning. Orrisdale Head in the background

Today’s swim from Glen Moar up to Orrisdale Head was perhaps the shortest so far. After two days’ break for bad weather, some familial comings and goings and another house move, it was mostly about, as Steve put it, “making sure the arms keep spinning”. It was a bad day to go for a swim – a west/north westerly wind of around Force 6 blowing maybe not into my face but certainly the hollow where my neck meets my left shoulder.

Getting out over the boulders and through the waves was an undignified, falling on arse, ankle twisting affair but on this rather desolate stretch of coast mercifully few witnesses (other than my Mum). Beyond the breakers, though, it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. With the swell moving from left to right there was a lot of falling into troughs and, in one case, being flipped onto my back by a wave, but less of that sense of being flooded by rollers coming from ahead or behind.

The sensation, swimming in these conditions, is very different. You can’t see anything, and there is a certain violence in the sea throwing you about. But it’s still possible to find a certain stillness in that undulating, but otherwise blank, turquoise space that, intermittently, at least, I can find and quite enjoy.

We didn’t try and get beyond Orrisdale Head, though. From Peel up to here there’s a sort of lull in the tidal flows that course around the Island but beyond the headland they get into a gallop once more and tide vs west/north westerly wind seemed like a recipe for standing waves and some seriously sticky swimming conditions. The wind will still be there tomorrow, but the direction should have shifted so that it’s more likely to push me forwards than backwards.

The surf at Orrisdale Head that claimed Steve’s tam o’ shanter and tow line

Such was the strength of the waves that, coming in to the beach at Orrisdale Head, Steve got turned upside down in the surf. But, 2018 British Surf Kayak bronze medallist that he is, he managed to roll upright and gracefully exit his boat to have a cup of tea before paddling back down to Kirk Michael. I staggered along the shoreline to meet him, encountering, en route, an apparently intact bottle of tomato ketchup belched up onto the beach. It occurred to me that, in line with my adoption of the Asda bag for life sailing off the coast of Port Erin, I ought to take it home and conjure up some sort of greasefest to wash it down with. But I opted to consign the sauce to the Beach Buddies bin in the Glen Wyllin carpark instead. It may still be there if anyone’s interested.

After the Asda bag for life, my nascent Isle of Man cargo cult has progressed to condiments

Later on in the day my Mum and I went back down to Orrisdale Head to check out access points for kayaks and look out for Steve’s tow line and tam o’ shanter, both of which were snatched off by the waves earlier in the day. Unfortunately, they remain lost to the sea, which is particularly voracious along this part of the coast. It took me a few minutes to figure out that the faint clinking sound coming from the high crumbly banks above the beach was the land falling away, one pebble at a time, to join the sand and water below.

Meanwhile, Mum set a formidable parental example by having a real swim – sans neoprene – against a much more settled silver seascape. Hopefully a sign of conditions to come. But probably not.

A real swimmer takes the waters

Yesterday I included in my blog some observations from John Christensen, the founder of Tax Justice Network, about the Isle of Man and I wanted to build on that given the overlap between some of his insights and my day job: working for an organisation that campaigns against corruption and money laundering. The rest of this post explores this theme a little further.

Isle of Man company acquires Liberian oil block – probably through corruption – and sells it, via an intermediary, to Exxon, for US$68.5 million

The Isle of Man may score badly in the Tax Justice Network indices when it comes to secrecy and policies that facilitate corporate tax avoidance. But is it really implicated in cases of money laundering and corruption?

In grappling with this question I re-read a report published by my Global Witness colleagues last year called Catch me if you can: Exxon complicit in corrupt Liberian oil sector and then sought to write the summary of its findings that follows here. The points of detail about the case are drawn from that report, which is well worth a read in full.

Where it all began

In 2004, Liberia was just one year out of vicious civil wars that had killed up to 250,000 people. The country was run by a corrupt transitional government which had a mandate to rule until national elections could take place, which they eventually did in 2006.

At this point, the Liberian national oil authority, called NOCAL, decided to auction some of Liberia’s 17 offshore oil blocks. One of the bidding companies was a firm called Broadway Mineral Resources. In 2005, the bid was transferred to a related, Isle of Man-registered, company called Broadway Consolidated. (Broadway Consolidated later changed its name to Peppercoast Petroleum, so I’ll refer to the firm here as Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum.)

Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum admitted it did not “have a specific track record of petroleum agreements.” and lacked funds of its own, only “firm commitments from investors.” This did not deter NOCAL from signing a contract with the company in June 2005 for offshore Block 13.

Why did NOCAL award Block 13 to a company with no experience and no money? The Liberian Government says that the Isle of Man firm was the only applicant for Block 13. Global Witness concluded that there may be another explanation, however, writing that “There are grounds to suspect that Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum obtained Block 13 because the company was likely part-owned by government officials with the power to influence the award of oil licenses.”

Liberia’s civil wars, that ended in 2003, left much of the country in ruins. The man responsible for much of the destruction, warlord turned president Charles Taylor, sustained his activities via exploitation of diamonds and timber, which his acolytes sold on the international market. He is now serving a 50 year sentence for war crimes in Frankland prison, near Durham, in the UK.

Who owned Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum?

According to Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum’s shareholder documents, the company was owned by a number of UK residents and one Liberian: a lawyer named David Jallah. Mr Jallah appears to have held eight percent of Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum’s shares and 51 percent of the company’s options, at least in 2011, the last year for which such data is available. He said that he held shares in the company up until 2013 and repeatedly insisted that he was Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum’s only Liberian shareholder. Mr Jallah passed away in 2018.

However, Global Witness found evidence (set out on pages 13 and 19 of the Catch Me If You Can report) suggesting that David Jallah may have been acting as a front for Jonathan Mason, who between the end of 2003 and 2005 served as Liberia’s Minister for Lands, Mines and Energy; and also Mulbah Willie, who served as a Deputy Minister in the same agency. Their positions would have given these two men considerable influence over the awarding of Block 13 by NOCAL to Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum in 2005.

It is illegal under Liberian law for companies to be owned by officials and hold oil blocks at the same time, a key anti-corruption provision that exists precisely to prevent officials from awarding themselves valuable pieces of public property. In a July 2011 letter to Global Witness, a representative of Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum denied that Jonathan Mason held shares in the company.

Isle of Man company Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum’s acquisition of Block 13 ratified via bribery

In 2006 and 2007, NOCAL made payments of US$118,400 to members of the Liberian legislature to facilitate the ratification of Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum’s acquisition of Block 13 and three additional oil blocks awarded to another company. These bribes were highlighted in a report by the Liberian General Auditing Commission and later exposed by my Global Witness colleagues in 2011.

Global Witness concludes that “there are grounds to suspect that part of NOCAL’s bribery fund may have come from [Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum]”. According to minutes from a meeting of NOCAL’s Board of Directors in August 2006, Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum had made a payment to the oil agency – which appeared unsure what it was for – of US$75,000. Six days after the meeting, on August 28, NOCAL paid the first of its bribes to the legislature.

Exxon’s purchase of Block 13 from Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum

In December 2011 Exxon – at the time headed by future U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – met Liberian officials to discuss purchasing Block 13. Exxon’s presentation to the meeting – which Global Witness obtained – stated that Exxon wanted to buy Block 13, but it had “concern over issues regarding US anti-corruption laws.”

There were, according to Exxon, two issues in particular. The first issue was that “Liberian shareholders/beneficial owners of [Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast] may have been government officials at the time of the allocation.” The second was “Payments made to legislators by NOCAL as outlined in the Liberian Auditor General’s Report and [the] September 2011 published report by Global Witness.”

West Point district, Monrovia, Liberia. the UN’s Human Development Index for 2018 places Liberia at 181 out of 189 countries and territories, globally.

However, Exxon had a plan it thought would allow the company to buy Block 13 while skirting US anti-corruption laws. This would be done by having a third company act as a go-between, buying Block 13 from Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum and then selling the majority of the license to Exxon. The company Exxon would use was Canadian Overseas Petroleum Ltd (COPL). With a few small changes, Exxon appears to have had its way. In 2013, the company signed a deal to pay US$120 million to buy Block 13, using COPL as a go-between with Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum, which meant Exxon did not pay the Isle of Man company directly.

How much did the Isle of Man company Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum get?

On 5th April 2013, Exxon paid US$120 million from a Citibank account in New York to an account with a branch of Ecobank in Liberia, the bank used by NOCAL. Ecobank then paid the Liberian Government US$50 million in signature bonuses and transfer fees, an amount equivalent to more than 70 percent of the country’s health care expenditure that year. Of this money, US$45 million went to the Ministry of Finance while US$5 million went to NOCAL. The bank also paid itself US$1.5 million in fees.

The remaining US$68.5 million of Exxon’s money went to Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum, its creditors and owners, and was also paid on 5th April. If, as the Global Witness report suggests, Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum was part-owned by Jonathan Mason and Mulbah Willie through the lawyer David Jallah, then some portion of around US$3.3 million of the money paid by Exxon would have come their way (or in the case of Mulbah Willie, who died in 2012, to his estate). When asked about this, David Jallah again denied that he held shares for other Liberians, while Jonathan Mason did not respond.

Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum pockets its share and promptly disappears

Having banked US$68.5 million of Exxon’s money on 5th April 2013, the Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast Petroleum company continued to exist for less than a month. On 2nd May, at an extraordinary general meeting held in Douglas, a special resolution was passed that it be wound up.

A Liberian perspective

My Global Witness colleagues investigate a lot of cases that involve shell companies. These structures are often used to make it hard to identify their owners and the architects of schemes that are questionable, if not criminal. For the same reason they also make it hard to tell the story; to explain what is really going on, who really did what and why anyone should care.

To get some answers to that question of why people should care about this case, I thought I’d better ask someone from Liberia.

Alfred Lahai Gbabai Brownell Sr is an Associate Research Professor and the Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the Northeastern University School of Law in the U.S. He is a former board member of international anti-corruption scheme the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and a founder of the Kimberley Process Civil Society Organizations (KPCSO) coalition working to end the trade in blood diamonds.

Alfred Lahai Gbabai Brownell Sr receiving the Goldman Prize for environmental activism earlier this year

This year Alfred was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize – the most prestigious prize, internationally, for environmental activism. The organisers explained their decision to give him the prize as follows:

“Under threat of violence, environmental lawyer and activist Alfred Brownell stopped the clear-cutting of Liberia’s tropical forests by palm oil plantation developers. His campaign protected 513,500 acres of primary forest that constitute one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, enabling indigenous communities to continue their stewardship of the forest. For his safety, he is living in temporary exile in the United States.”

I got to know Alfred nine years ago. The two of us were the sole nongovernmental organization (NGO) members of an inspection team – under the auspices of an international scheme called the Kimberley Process – sent to review the Zimbabwean government’s controls of its diamond mining production. Zimbabwe’s substantial diamond deposits had come on stream just a few years before and, after an initial ‘gold rush’ scenario, the army moved in to take over, killing dozens of freelance diamond miners as they did so.

The year before our visit, Alfred had been part of a similar Kimberley Process inspection team, whose damning findings prompted international restrictions on Zimbabwean diamond exports. When we arrived in Harare in 2010 – against the backdrop of threats by the Zimbabwean government to declare Alfred persona non grata – Robert Mugabe’s government was desperate to shake these restrictions off. From our opening meeting with the government, at which the two of us were harangued by a catatonic mining ministry mandarin, it was clear that our hosts held Alfred particularly responsible for their inability to cash in on the diamonds.  

For the remainder of our stay Alfred declined to drink any of the bottled water supplied to his hotel room, deducing – quite reasonably in my view – that there was a risk of it having been poisoned.

Alfred during his 2009 Kimberley Process review mission investigation into human rights abuses in the diamond fields of Marange, Zimbabwe

What follows is some questions from me and Alfred’s answers in italics:

From the perspective of Liberia, why does this case involving the offshore oil block, the Isle of Man shell company and Exxon matter?

This case matters because Liberia is a classic case study of what is known as the resource curse.  Here a transnational oil company is fully aware of the corrupt and toxic legacy of an oil and gas transaction in Liberia, a poor fragile state just emerging from a debilitating civil war, but decides to facilitate a cleansing scheme and become complicit. 

It is very clear who the losers are here – the people of Liberia. If you want an answer to why African countries are rich in natural resources and yet suffer from grinding poverty, here is your answer. This is why countries like Liberia are perpetually depending on overseas development assistance.

What do you think of the role played by the Isle of Man shell company in this case?

From what I can see, the Isle of Man shell company was basically a part of a scheme to dupe the Liberian people and sanitise a corrupt and toxic transaction. Often, we read about corrupt African leaders but very little is heard about corrupt corporate leaders. I am shocked that there hasn’t been a criminal investigation into this case.

Do you think people should be allowed to set up shell companies with hidden ownership?

No. Imagine for argument’s sake, that the hidden owners of such a company are actually the political leaders (president, vice president, leader of the legislature and army as well as justices of the supreme court) of Liberia. Just think about the implications on the stability, rule of law and governance of a country emerging from a severe war.

What difference would it have made if Liberian activists and journalists had been able to access, through a public register, details of the beneficial (real) owners of Broadway/Peppercoast?

It would have helped prevent corruption, promote better governance over Liberia’s natural resources and therefore contributed to the peace and stability of the country.

What do you think the Isle of Man authorities should do now?

I think they should conduct a comprehensive and thorough investigation, make their findings publicly available and hold accountable anyone responsible for any corruption or other types of crime associated with this case.

Questions for the Isle of Man authorities

The evidence assembled by Global Witness suggests that an Isle of Man company obtained and then sold a corruptly-acquired asset. This raises questions for the Isle of Man authorities, notably whether those aspects of these dealings that occurred with the Island’s jurisdiction met with its legal and regulatory standards.

I have discussed this case with the Isle of Man Financial Intelligence Unit and, at their request, sent them some additional information. I have also shared a memo outlining the main elements with the Financial Services Authority. As of right now I am awaiting an update on how, if at all, either body has followed up on this data.

What’s next

The next swim may have to be a long one, as I need to cover as much distance as I can before the weather gets really hostile on Wednesday. I’ll try and post something tomorrow and find some space to talk a bit further about what can be done to reduce the risks of Isle of Man company structures being misused.

29th August: Peel to Glen Moar / Flying aces, biking fanatics, taxes and secrecy

A quick reminder that via this swim, I’m raising money to support the excellent marine conservation work of the Manx Wildlife Trust and Blue Marine Foundation via this Justgiving page

Tweeting from @michaelpmdavis

Thursday’s swim began on Fenella beach: a surf-pounded cove underneath Peel castle whose high tide mark is traced by a pastel mosaic of sea-rubbed scallop shards.

Scallop shell fragments on Fenella Beach

Fenella is my Mum’s name and also the name of one of the main protagonists in the historical novel ‘Peveril of the Peak’ by Sir Walter Scott (author of Rob Roy and Ivanhoe). Much of the action in this story is set in Peel Castle. Fenella is described as

“of the least and slightest size of womankind [and] exquisitely well formed in all her limbs… Her countenance resembled a most beautiful miniature; and there was a quickness, decision, and fire, in Fenella’s look, and especially in her eyes, which was probably rendered yet more alert and acute, because, through the imperfection of her other organs, it was only by sight that she could obtain information of what passed around her.”

In fact it later transpires (spoiler alert) that Fenella is not really mute but a deep cover spy and part of an elaborate revenge plot, which unravels when she, (inevitably?), falls for the hunky Peveril.

Peel Castle sits on St Patrick’s Isle, which resembles a semi-submerged meteorite so perfect for a castle it might have been designed by my eight year old self. The islet has been in use for about a thousand years as a Viking stronghold, a burial ground and a cathedral as well as a castle. According to the handsome, and very heavy, ‘A New History of the Isle of Man; Volume 3 – The Medieval Period’, excavations reveal that the diet of its inhabitants previously included seabirds such as cormorant, kittiwake, shag and shearwater and shellfish such as limpets, dog whelks and winkles.

Peel Castle and St Patrick’s Isle seen from Peel beach

The last time I swam around the castle, eight years ago, I was stalked by a couple of seals that cornered me in a cave just beneath the turret known as Fenella’s Tower. A day or so later I saw what may have been one of the same animals loitering off the end of the jetty. The reason why soon became clear: a group of local school kids and a Jamaican hospital orderly fishing there had hit a shoal of mackerel. Each time one of them got a bite, it was then a race between their reeling and the seal’s pouncing. In most cases the seal won.

The fishing crew did, however, catch enough mackerel to give me some to take home and cook. I proceeded to fill the house with an oily smog which had a lasting and traumatic impact on the eating preferences of my wife and our unborn daughter.

No seals on Thursday. But the sea was beginning to heave and it would have been hazardous to stay close in to the rocks. There was another reason for keeping my distance, though: the sewage slick that slides out from the harbour area, forming a disturbingly still pathway over the sea’s surface.

180 degree view about half way from Peel to Glen Moar

There is, apparently, a proper treatment plant on the way. I hope it comes soon – Peel Castle offers a stunning backdrop to any immersion and St Patrick’s Isle a wonderful circuit to swim around. As it was, I spent about half a kilometre with my face out of the water, doing my first breaststroke swim of the journey so far. Born of necessity, perhaps, but I tried to think of it as a small homage to Mercedes Gleitze, who swam round the entire island doing breaststroke. That’s something that no long distance swimmer would contemplate today – the received wisdom is that it’s too slow and inefficient and puts too much pressure on the joints.

Aerial acrobatics

On and off over the course of the three and a half hours in the water I was aware of fulmars – stocky, stiff-winged relatives of shearwaters and albatrosses – hawking around just overhead. But it was only when we were about a kilometre short of Glen Moar that I realised just how many had congregated above Steve and I. They put on a stunning aerial display. Comparing birds with aeroplanes is a terrible cliché but I find a bit hard to resist here. Fulmars don’t do a lot of flapping. There is – compared to a bird like a gull – little flex in their wings as they fly and they really do appear to bank, swoop and circle in much the same way as a small plane.

One of Glen Moar’s flying aces

A difference is that in the force 6 strength winds – that might make many pilots think twice about getting airborne – the fulmars were absolutely in their element. Wheeling upwards to capture some of that energy, they would then stoop to water’s film before skimming along the troughs formed by the waves.

Fulmars aren’t great walkers on land but here they were putting down their dainty little pinkies and running along the surface of the sea for a metre or so at a time before performing a vertical take-off. I suspect they may have hoped that Steve and my activities might visit some level of carnage on the local fish population that they could profit from. I must have been a big disappointment as my blunderings can only have put to flight the toothsome creatures they were hunting.

More fabulous fulmars

I asked Neil Morris, the Managing Director of Manx Birdlife, about what I had seen. Here’s his response:

“Fulmars are one of the seabirds most readily attracted to fishing boats – indeed their rapid population spread southwards from Iceland during the 1900s was a result of their habit of hoovering up trawler bycatch. They are not shy birds and will approach people in/on the water. But you wouldn’t want to tackle one as, in self-defence, they can eject the most grisly sticky spit. It stinks of putrid fish and doesn’t wash out easily! They are boisterous, curious and noisy birds and brilliant flyers (the nearest we have on the IOM to albatrosses) and quite harmless unless you get just that little bit too close!”

The aerial display by this fulmar and its companions felt like a reward for a particularly attritional three and three quarter hour swim up the coast from Peel

Triumphs, taxes and transparency

Getting around the Island this week has been getting trickier as the Manx Grand Prix motorbike racing festival has got into full swing. The Manx GP is the more sedate counterpart to the TT Races – it uses the same circuit but is geared more towards enthusiasts than professionals. One of those attending this year’s event, travelling to the Island on a Triumph Tiger Sport, is a friend of mine, John Christensen, whom I had a chance to catch up with yesterday afternoon.

For 11 years John, who trained as a forensic auditor and economist, was economic adviser to the government of the Isle of Man’s fellow Crown Dependency, Jersey. Increasingly disenchanted with Jersey’s role in enabling tax dodging and money laundering, however, he left to set up the not for profit organisation Tax Justice Network. Since then he has become what the Guardian has described as “the unlikely figurehead of a worldwide campaign against tax avoidance.”

I asked John what drew him to the Isle of Man.

“I enjoy meeting and talking with people, and on all my visits here I’ve met a diverse mix of interesting people who discuss with passion and courtesy. So refreshing in an age of polarisation and anger.

The island has so much history and geographical diversity. On this trip we’ve explored Castletown,  the nature reserves west of the Point of Ayre, and Peel. Being ten times larger than Jersey, yet with a smaller population,  Man feels uncrowded, relaxed,  and unspoilt by rampant consumerism. 

What’s not to love about the Manx GP?  I’m here with friends to watch the road racing,  which is about as good as it gets. We’ve watched from Ramsey, Ballaugh Bridge, the hairpin at mile 37 and other spots. Awesome talent and courage from all the riders. I think I should volunteer as a marshal next time.”

Manx Grand Prix fan and Tax Justice Network founder John Christensen

John has visited the Isle of Man on many occasions over the past three decades. He told me that he has always been impressed by its relative openness and civility when it comes to sensitive debates about the financial services sector that dominates the Island’s economy.

He worries, though, that the Isle of Man has fallen victim to the same ‘finance curse’ phenomenon that has affected his native Jersey and is the subject of a recent book of the same name that he contributed to. John’s concern is that the Island has got itself into a situation where its financial services industries are much too powerful, politically, and have pushed up property prices and living costs to a point where it is almost impossible for other types of business to emerge and flourish.

The Tax Justice Network that John founded publishes regular reports on levels of secrecy and tax policies of offshore financial centres and he showed me a couple of the most recent ones relating to the Isle of Man. They are less than flattering.

The Corporate Tax Haven Index, launched just three months ago, “ranks the world’s most important tax havens for multinational corporations, according to how aggressively and how extensively each jurisdiction contributes to helping the world’s multinational enterprises escape paying tax, and erodes the tax revenues of other countries around the world. It also indicates how much each place contributes to a global ”race to the bottom” on corporate taxes.”

The Isle of Man comes in at #17. That places it behind – so not as bad as – fellow UK Crown Dependencies Jersey (#9) and Guernsey (#15), as well as chart-toppers The British Virgin Islands. It compares unfavourably, however, with such less than reputable jurisdictions as Malta (#23), Panama (#26) and Liechtenstein (#37). The Island’s scorecard shows a clean sweep of red cards for ‘Loopholes and Gaps’, ‘Transparency’, ‘Anti-avoidance’ measures and ‘Double Tax Treaty Aggressiveness’ and an aggregated score of 100 out of 100 in terms of how corrosive its tax policies are to the global economy.

John points out that the Isle of Man’s score is actually worse than those of Jersey and Guernsey and it only ranks below them because it is a smaller global player.

I asked John what he thought about the arguments made by some on the Isle of Man that it should not be labelled a tax haven. His first reaction was to laugh, before saying that

“Huff and puff as they may about not being a tax haven, the evidence tells its own story. There is no point in having this discussion. It’s like someone with a serious drug problem: no one believes you, it’s not credible, so stop saying it; you are just making life worse for yourself.”

Tax Justice Network’s Financial Secrecy Index, established in 2009, is published on a two year cycle. It “ranks jurisdictions according to their secrecy and the scale of their offshore financial activities. A politically neutral ranking, it is a tool for understanding global financial secrecy, tax havens or secrecy jurisdictions, and illicit financial flows or capital flight.” Here the Isle of Man doesn’t fare so badly, coming in at #42, with its secrecy rating in the yellow, rather than the red.

Perhaps this secrecy level is in line with John’s observations on how the Isle of Man does at least allow space for a measured debate about the role of its financial services in a way that Jersey – where the political establishment has been ruthless in shutting down any such discussions – does not.

I’m interested in this question of secrecy because a good portion of the work that my own organisation, Global Witness, does, concerns corruption and money laundering that is enabled by lack of transparency. Many of the cases my colleagues have investigated concern offshore financial centres, but those that most commonly figure are the likes of the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands and Singapore, not to mention the UK and U.S. I’ll try to come back to this question of financial secrecy in the Isle of Man, and what the implications might be, in my next couple of posts.

28th August: Niarbyl to Peel / crossing continents and staying on the right side of the sharks

A quick reminder that via this swim, I’m raising money to support the excellent marine conservation work of the Manx Wildlife Trust and Blue Marine Foundation via this Justgiving page

Tweeting from @michaelpmdavis

The white quartz line running at 45 degrees marks the meeting of rocks from the ancient continents of Laurentia and Eastern Avalonia

Niarbyl is the place where continents clash; ancient ones that is. Rocks from the prehistoric continents of Laurentia (containing North America, Greenland, Scotland and the northern half of Ireland) and Eastern Avalonia (containing north west Europe) meet in the cove at the bottom of the slipway. A white quartz scar puckers over the point of impact.

By the time I got back to Niarbyl yesterday the sea that was scuffing at the end of my swim here on Tuesday night was starting to mirror the famous fault line: a rugged slate cracking to white just a couple of hundred metres offshore.

a gloomier but still fabulous view south towards The Sound from Niarbyl yesterday

Luckily the wind driving this was behind me. That pushed me along a bit but the trade-off was the rollercoaster surface sucking me back, throwing me forward, barging my shoulders and upper arms as I attempted to lift them and pushing sea water down my throat when I tried to breathe.

At the end of the swim, Steve gave me his camera so I could download some of his photos and clips. I’ve included a couple here that give a sense of how much I struggle in conditions like this compared to when it is calm (and I have a seal giving me some moral support).

More flattering conditions on Monday
Yesterday’s reality check (and a top notch support crew)

Yesterday I stayed a hundred metres of so out from the rocks and had little to look at except the tops of the waves and the agonisingly gentle arc of the bay leading to Contrary Head, so called because it is the point where two tidal flows meet. The next milestone was Peel Hill, an important site for breeding seabirds and famous for the Traie Dullish chute where scallop shells are dumped and the birds bank and wheel in their pursuit of the membranous remnants.

The swim took only two and a half hours but felt longer. I realise that, for me, at least, swimming time only flies when I’ve got living things to look at. In better weather, I probably would have had plenty – both Niarbyl and the stretch north up to Peel are part of marine nature reserves. One of the animals I didn’t see but might have if I’d done the swim two months earlier is the basking shark.

The Isle of Man – a shark’s summer destination of choice

Niarbyl, where my swim yesterday started, is a hotspot for Basking Shark sightings. According to data gathered by Manx Basking Shark Watch, there have been eight here so far this year but may not be any more as the sharks have generally begun moving further north by August.

Basking Shark off the West Coast of Scotland – credit: Rebecca Bellini / istock

Basking Sharks are the second largest fish in the world. Their rubbery looking bodies are up to nine metres long and adults can weigh around seven tonnes. Vast mouth agape, like a baby bird’s, the sharks trundle up the Irish Sea in a leisurely summer pursuit of zooplankton – carnivorous creatures the size of a half a grain of rice that eat phytoplankton – which are minute plant-like organisms. Sustaining a minibus-sized body on a prey so tiny requires the sharks to filter an Olympic swimming pool’s worth of seawater every hour.

The Basking Shark’s singular appearance – all billowing mouth and gills – is definitely weird, but also quite comforting, because it is so un-shark-like. When they have their mouths shut, however, the Basking Shark bears a superficial but disconcerting resemblance to a very large Great White.

Jackie and Graham Hall have been studying Basking Sharks since 2004 and, through the Manx Basking Shark Watch charity they set up, have developed an innovative programme for monitoring the creatures. This has helped to break new ground in terms of understanding of the where, what and why of the sharks’ long lives. The foundation of Jackie and Graham’s work is developing for each shark the sort of personal profiling that governments, not to mention social media entrepreneurs might dream of. There are four main components:

  • Dorsal fin markings: involves taking two photographs of the sharks’ dorsal fins – one of each side. Basking Sharks’ dorsal fins take quite a battering; being the first point of contact with boats and other human-related objects they might reasonably expect not to find in the water. Notches and abrasions on the fins can be used to identify individual sharks.
  • Gender: this can be determined using a camera on the end of a pole. The male shark’s genitalia Jackie describes as resembling not one but two rolled up newspapers.
  • DNA: obtained by carrying out a “slime test”. The Basking Sharks’ rough skin is covered in a thick layer of viscous gunk from which DNA can be extracted. Taking a slime sample sounds like a high stakes variant on a fairground game. The participant, perched on a boat, wields a pole fitted not with a hook but a scraper, and the quarry is not so much plastic duck as aquatic brontosaurus.
  • Movements: this is the trickiest bit and entails fitting a satellite tracking device to the shark. To do this, Manx Basking Shark Watch use a device that Graham invented – a sort of catapult mounted on a broom handle – to fire a small dart into the shark’s hide just below the dorsal fin. Attached to the dart is a tracker (which looks like a rocket-propelled grenade) that collects data on the shark’s position, as well as temperature, light and depth.
Left side of the dorsal fin of a large male basking shark named “M’ by Manx Basking Shark Watch. Jackie Hall says his fin was most likely badly damaged by a boat propeller. The pink colour is due to lack of pigment in the healed area. – credit: Manx Basking Shark Watch
Right hand side of “M”‘s dorsal fin – credit: Manx Basking Shark Watch

One of Jackie and Graham’s sharks wandered as far as Nova Scotia, but most plough a broad oceanic furrow between Morocco and the north of Scotland. According to Dr Matt Witt, a marine biologist and basking shark specialist at the University of Exeter, many of the sharks spend a chunk of each year orbiting Ireland – moving up the Irish Sea in summer and down Ireland’s west coast in winter. A good proportion stick to the west of Ireland, deeper in the water column and some of them will move down to Bay of Biscay, and some of them will go down to North Africa.

Basking sharks tend to concentrate on the plankton-sucking job in hand and ignore humans. As both Jackie and Matt explain, however, it is important not to get on the wrong side of them. Literally. Lots of things about the basking shark remain a mystery. One of them is the reason why the sharks don’t mind too much being snuck up on their right hand side, but take serious umbrage if you sidle up to them from the left. The left side approach can provoke some serious thrashing about.

Approaching this shark – seen here in Port Erin bay – from this side might not be such a good idea – credit: Malcolm Lambert / Manx Basking Shark Watch

Matt explains that in technical speak, this trait would be called behavioural lateralisation. In layman’s terms, “it wouldn’t be out of the bounds of possibility that sharks are right handed or left handed”.

Being struck with a basking shark’s tail would presumably be like being whacked with a very big fly swatter. Unless of course you were caught with the edge of the tail, in which case the sensation would be more akin to the application of a giant scythe.

Jackie assures me, however, that if I do meet a basking shark, I will be absolutely fine, as long as I mind my manners. There is a very handy 1-pager produced by the Shark Trust on etiquette around basking sharks for swimmers, boaters and paddle-boarders that is worth a read for anyone planning to get in the water anywhere near them and which I have tried to commit to memory. The key elements for swimmers, divers and surfers are:

  • Maintain a distance of at least 4m from each shark and be wary of the tail
  • Do not try to touch the sharks
  • Do not swim towards them if they are near you
  • Remain on the surface and stay in a group, rather than stringing out around the sharks
  • No more than four people in the water within 100m of a shark at any one time

This is as much about the wellbeing of the sharks as intruders like me. Basking sharks remain an endangered species and disturbing them is an offence under Isle of Man law. A century ago they were hunted systematically for their livers, that yield an oil previously used in lamps. Lighting in public places in British towns was essentially burning shark. More recently they have been pursued for their fins to meet the demands of high-end diners in China. Jackie says that their fibrous fins don’t actually yield very tasty soup, but they are sometimes used as a sort of marketing prop in shop windows.

The most serious life-threatening threat to the sharks today is being caught accidentally in fishermen’s nets as bycatch, which is likely to be under-reported. And then there is the insidious threat of climate change and the rise in sea temperatures. How this will affect the basking sharks is not known. However, as Matt Witt points out, we know that plankton are directly affected by temperature changes and the basking sharks that feed on them are just one step away in the food web.

An additional factor cited by Jackie that might account for the decline in basking shark sightings around the Island in recent years, is the laying of power lines in the Irish Sea. The sharks don’t appreciate electrical signals, it appears.

This map from the Manx Basking Shark Watch organisation, based on their data sets reveals Niarbyl and Peel, as well as the southernmost parts of the Island and the Calf are the places you’re most likely to see a basking shark.

Not always found in the slow lane

One myth that talking to Jackie busted for me is the idea that basking sharks never really get out of first gear. They can actually move pretty quickly when they want to. Another, related one, is their presumed passivity. Basking sharks can be frisky when the mood takes them and fling themselves out of the water like elephantine trout. This is thought to be a form of social, perhaps courtship, behaviour or perhaps an attempt by the sharks to divest themselves of itchy lampreys that like to clamp on to their nether regions.

What’s next

I’ll post something tomorrow on my swim earlier today from Peel up to Glen Moar – a bit of an epic (by my standards) of three and three quarter hours – with company supplied by a flock of astonishing nimble fulmars.

27th August: Fleshwick to Niarbyl / a swim coaching session with a difference and the case of the Lion’s Mane

A quick reminder that via this swim, I’m raising money to support the excellent marine conservation work of the Manx Wildlife Trust and Blue Marine Foundation via this Justgiving page

Tweeting from @michaelpmdavis

Yesterday’s leg from Fleshwick Bay up to Niarbyl was my best ever swim!

I guess that was always on the cards. It was a gorgeous, golden, late afternoon and even in worse weather, I find this stretch of coast from the Sound up to Niarbyl, with its stunning deck of heather covered headlands diving to their final craggy descent into the ocean absolutely lovely. But that reflects the perspective of a walker and the seascape was entirely new to me.

White beach, just south of Niarbyl

Of course, I found that, below the waves, it’s very different. And yet not totally different. For much of this stretch the land continues to fall away sharply under the water. The drama of the heather and the crags is not exactly mirrored, but certainly matched, by the rolling boulders plumed with almost stands of palm tree-like kelp, thickets of wrack and a vigorously growing fern-like plant I haven’t yet identified. These form dens and tunnels for a group of grey seals that emerged to escort me almost as far as the White Beach, just south of Niarbyl.

A couple of these seals were the cream with chocolate sprinkles juveniles of the kind I’ve met before. Like the huggy seal near the Point of Ayre, one of them found it very amusing to swim upside down just beneath me. Some of the others were larger and darker. I was about to write “and less playful” but that wouldn’t really be true. There was no clasping or toe chewing yesterday but I did get a series of friendly nuzzles on my feet from one of the larger seals. This felt a bit like being rubbed by a very large cat.

Not many people would usually be attracted to my feet and I gave a bit of thought, as I was swimming yesterday, to their curious appeal for the local seal population. My best guess is informed by reflections on my coaching sessions with Dan and Keeley at Swimfortri, who have been consistently underwhelmed by the feeble state of my leg kick. My laziness in this regard is currently exacerbated by the addition of a buoyant wetsuit and the sensory deprivation caused by my increasingly ragged (and nibbled) neoprene socks.

A novel approach to foot massage

Watching the seals swim (and I’ve tried to capture this in some of these video clips), what is most striking is the extraordinary propulsion they derive from a seemingly casual flick of their hind flippers. Perhaps my seal friend yesterday – and the others around the Point of Ayre and Langness – have been motivated primarily by consternation at my desperately poor footwork. They have simply been trying a range of methods of persuading me to raise the tempo a bit.

Cave just north of Fleshwick

If the seals weren’t inspiration enough, I got another masterclass in leg kick from two European shags that I came across diving for fish. I had never seen one, much less two, swimming below the surface, and they moved in a seemingly synchronised manner as though hunting as a pair. I didn’t get more than a couple of seconds to observe what they were doing due to the astounding speed with which they shot across my field of vision and disappeared into the deeper water down to my left.

180 degree view from near White Beach

My less cuddly companions

I have a few times now mentioned jellyfish and posted pictures of them. I haven’t written very much about them but have been stung into action after getting my lips around a forkful of lion’s mane tentacles coming out of the Fleshwick Bay yesterday morning.

Like many swimmers, I am used to the idea of finding jellyfish in the water with me, without being terribly enthusiastic about it. I had a swim last year across a bay in Cornwall that had become a tureen of jellyfish soup. I could feel my hands spooning up the blobs up and one even bounced off my nose. Although I wasn’t stung by them, each brush with the tentacular other triggered a shuddering recoil that almost stopped me in my tracks.

These were crystal jellyfish – until recently a rare visitor to British shores – which look like small translucent flying saucers. Banked in a sprawling flotilla less than a metre below the surface they recalled the scene in any number of off the shelf sci-fi blockbusters in which the fleet of alien invaders masses with attitude on the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Jelly invaders have already achieved more than most terrorist organisations with their shut downs of power stations in UK, U.S., Japan, The Philippines and Sweden. They also succeeded in incapacitating American aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan by gumming up the cooling system for its nuclear reactor. China’s navy is reportedly addressing the threat by developing a special jellyfish mincing machine that presumably turns them into a sort of phlegm.

All this has spurred speculation in some quarters that humanity may soon face a gelatinous apocalypse. Typically, the headlines are hyperbolic, no doubt inflated by the fact that jellyfish interactions tend to come during the summer ‘silly season’, when it’s hard to fill those column inches. But the overall narrative, while exaggerated, may not be entirely misplaced.

Prior to my arrival on the Isle of Man, jellyfish expert Dr Vicky Hobson, of the University of Exeter shared some invaluable insights and gave me some home work to do. I’m now in a position to (rather smugly) recommend the following for anyone who wants to learn more about these fascinating, if hard to love, creatures:

These papers cover different topics but three out of the four look at the global picture. I think I’m on reasonably safe ground in saying that the scientific community is seriously considering the possibility that jellyfish blooms and the spread of invasive jellyfish species outside of their established habitats may be on the rise. The likely causes include ones attributable to mankind: global warming; eutrophication (excess of nutrients); fishing that takes out jellyfish predators; aquaculture; changes in salinity caused by dams and other construction; and accidental introductions of non-native gelatinous species.

Combing through the homespun remedies and the old wives’ tales

Jellyfish can pose a serious problem for swimmers. Mercedes Gleitze was badly stung by bluebottle jellyfish during the first leg of her swim to Robben Island and back in South Africa in 1932. More recently Lewis Pugh was repeatedly stung by compass jellyfish during his English Channel swim and last year Ross Edgley, the first person to swim around Britain, was stung 37 times and swam one stretch with a jelly attached to his face.

Lion’s mane jellyfish near Fleshwick on Monday

During her swim around the Isle of Man last year Anna Carin Nordin was badly stung by a lion’s mane off Langness. Undeterred, she covered the affected area with shaving foam, scraped off the stingers with the edge of a credit card, took some painkillers and carried on swimming.

I asked Vicky Hobson her advice on how you avoid being stung and what to do if you are. Here are some of her top tips:

  • If stung, try and remove the tentacle as quickly as possible. The nematocysts (stingers) are like little coiled up harpoons and when triggered, the harpoon stings you. The stings can be activated even after the tentacles have become separated from the body of the jellyfish.
  • Sometimes only a third of the nematocysts fire initially when they come into contact with the human body. Washing the affected area in fresh water alters the pH value (level of acidity) and could trigger those nematocysts that have not yet fired, thereby making the sting worse. Yes, do add shaving foam to your bag of beach toys. The idea is that, as the foam inflates, it lifts off any residual nematocysts and then you scrape them off with the edge of a credit card.
  • It’s true that, if you think you might come into contact with jellyfish, growing a beard or stubble is a good idea. When tagging barrel jellyfish (yes, you did read that correctly!), Vicky wears a wetsuit, face mask, and takes great care not to touch her face after handling the jellyfish. Nevertheless, she finds she still gets stings around her jaw, the one unprotected area of her face. By contrast, the men she works with are generally a bit stubbly and don’t seem to get stung in this area at all. Aside from stubble, a barrier cream like Vaseline can help prevent stings to the face.
  • Peeing on the stung area: this is an urban myth and doesn’t work! Trying to get someone to pee on you might offer a useful distraction from the pain but would not have any medical benefits.

The mane attraction

The jellyfish that have twice stung me during the swim so far have both been lion’s manes. Angry blood clot-looking beasts that feed on small fish and plankton, the lion’s mane is dripping with exceptionally long tentacles. The largest specimens, found up near the Arctic, can reach up to two metres across. The lion’s mane has distinction of being the world’s longest creature: including tentacles, it can be up to 30 metres long.

The lion’s mane’s other distinction is that it is the only invertebrate to feature as leading protagonist in a Sherlock Holmes mystery. It has to be said that this is not Sherlock Holmes’ most memorable outing. The title – The Lion’s Mane – is a bit of a giveaway as to who the murderer might be. Moreover, the gelatinous villain’s habit of loitering in rock pools awaiting unsuspecting swimmers probably doesn’t correspond to the established scientific literature on the species’ lifecycle and feeding habits. Still, it’s unlikely that many biologists can compete with Arthur Conan Doyle when it comes to a dramatic denouement to their investigations:

“I had reached the deepest and stillest pool when my eyes caught that for which they were searching, and I burst into a shout of triumph. “Cyanea!” I cried. “Cyanea! Behold the Lion’s Mane!”

The strange object I pointed did indeed look like a tangled mass torn from the mane of a lion.It lay upon a rocky shelf some three feet under the water, a curious waving, vibrating, hairy
creature with streaks of silver among its yellow tresses. It pulsated with a slow, heavy dilation and contraction.

“It has done mischief enough. Its day is over!” I cried. “Help me, Stackhurst! Let us end the murderer forever.”

There was a big boulder just above the ledge, and we pushed it until it fell with a tremendous splash into the water. When the ripples had cleared we saw that it had settled upon the ledge below. One flapping edge of yellow membrane showed that our victim was beneath it.

A thick oily scum oozed out from below the stone and stained the water round, rising slowly to the surface.”

Fancy a jellyfish transplant?

Barrel jellyfish that I photographed off Torquay, a month ago. This species of jellyfish is being sized up as a source of collagen to use as filler material in surgery

While seemingly the most common jellyfish found off the Isle of Man at the moment, the lion’s mane is not the only species trawling these waters. According to Vicky Hobson, there are seven or eight types of jellyfish regularly found around the UK and most, although not all, can be found around the Island. On Monday, between The Sound and Fleshwick, I saw my first barrel (or dustbin lid) jellyfish, a bulky, marshmallowy-looking animal that is the subject of much of Vicky’s research.

Despite their appearance, barrel jellyfish are actually quite sturdy, almost grisly. A South Wales-based company called Jellagen is now looking at ways to extract collagen from them to use as filler material in certain kinds of surgery. Lots of cosmetic procedures require this sort of filler and many people don’t want bovine collagen, sometimes for religious reasons, so there is a need to find an alternative. Jellyfish are not very popular creatures so people have relatively few ethical issues with them being used in this way.

Barrel jellyfish (appears following the clip of the seal) just north of The Sound on Monday

Vicky doesn’t think jellyfish used for this purpose should all be taken from sea, though. They are part of the ecosystem and an important source of food for leatherback turtles and also sunfish. Leatherback turtles come from Caribbean and the British Isles are at the northerly extent of their range. They prefer grazing on barrel jellyfish to lion’s mane but they have to eat quite a lot of them to keep the hunger pangs at bay – one barrel jellyfish provides the calorific equivalent of a single digestive biscuit.

What’s next

Tomorrow I’ll post something on my turbulent swim today from Niarbyl up to Peel Castle. I’ll also be looking to do another swim, if the weather allows, perhaps up as far as Glen Moar.

26th August: The Sound to Fleshwick / The Calf, the Manx Shearwater and a currency pioneer

A quick reminder that via this swim, I’m raising money to support the excellent marine conservation work of the Manx Wildlife Trust and Blue Marine Foundation via this Justgiving page

Tweeting from @michaelpmdavis

Seals predominate once more in Eden’s take on my latest swim, for good reason as the video clips below will show

Sunday’s swim brought me to The Sound, the channel that separates the Isle of Man from the Calf of Man, the small island just to the south.

The Sound

Prior to coming here I got quite a few questions about whether I intended to circumnavigate The Calf of Man, a journey of around 7km. According to one local long distance swimmer, if you judge the tides right, you can simply float round it. I made up my mind a few days ago to duck this challenge, though, as it was clear I wasn’t making fast enough progress around the Isle of Man. The immediate implication of that non-decision was swimming through the Sound – the channel that separates the Calf from the Isle of Man.

Various people had expressed mild concern about this idea. There has been talk of whirlpools and advice about not looking back at the four metre wall of water that would be chasing me as I passed through. Descriptions from people who’ve actually swum in the Sound lacked the same Homeric flourish but there’s no doubt that it’s a formidable and tricky body of water that has swallowed up several large ships over the centuries.

In full spate, tidal flows tear through the Sound at around five knots, which is over 9kmh and so about three times faster than I can swim. The consequences of timing it wrong are obvious. But timing it right, if the Sound is just one section of a longer leg of a round the Island swim, isn’t necessarily straightforward.

The Calf of Man, viewed from just below the Sound Cafe

The fact that Anna-Carin Nordin was swimming six hours a day against the clock as she went round the Island last year made an exact map-over of swimming time, location and tide especially hard to land. Going through the Sound, she ended up swimming an hour going against the tide, which she told me even she found exhausting. She is a far more powerful swimmer and I wouldn’t rate my chances of muscling through the channel as she did. So I figured the best thing was to make a virtue of my dilettante approach to the expedition and only dip my toes in The Sound at the most advantageous point in the tidal cycle.

It occurred to me that a second best to swimming around the Calf would have been at least swimming across the Sound to reach it. It’s probably not a very good idea, though. I find the idea of swimming across watery barriers irresistibly romantic but I’ve never shown much aptitude for it. Twenty-three years ago I tried swimming between a couple of small islands off Lombok in Indonesia with a friend and had to be fished out by a passing boat.

Being a slow learner I then tried something similar four years later when I found myself on the eastern tip of Timor Leste – then under Indonesian occupation – and immediately convinced of the wisdom of dumping my clothes and belongings on the beach and swimming off towards the deserted Jaco Island across the channel. The consequences were much the same – being hauled out by a group of paternally concerned Timorese fishermen, warning about the perils of “aliran” – currents – to which of course I’d given no thought whatsoever.

The Thousla Cross, whose dedication reads as follows: “To commemorate an act of heroism by men of this parish, in their rescue of the crew of the French schooner Jeanne St Charles in 1858.” There are several wreck sites in the Sound and around the Calf of Man, some of which are now popular with divers.

The distance across the Sound isn’t that great and I figured that if a rat could do it (more on this below), so could I. But the reality was that I needed to wriggle through quite a small tidal window to get round to the western side of the Island and there probably wasn’t the time. Unless of course I wanted to stop over on the Calf for the day and wait for the next tidal cycle.

The Calf

The Calf of Man is a fantastically bleak, slightly undulating chunk of rock. In 1798, during the French Revolutionary Wars, a Captain S Gably sent to the Isle of Man’s overlord, the Duke of Athol, a proposal to turn it into a prison camp. According to a book belonging to my grandfather written by a certain W Lockington Marshall in 1978, the Captain cited the Calf’s qualifications as follows:

  1. The Calf is remote from the countries that we are or may be at war with
  2. It is insulated
  3. It has good water
  4. Its shores are rocky and difficult to approach except in good weather, and then, on only one small landing place which might easily be guarded
  5. [The Calf] does not contain any materials that could be used to aid an attempt to escape
  6. France is over 300 miles away
  7. If two or three prisoners were to escape to the Isle of Man, “the well known timidity of the Manx people would ensure their recapture.”
  8. There is plenty of stone on the island from which to build huts – the plainer the better!
  9. The Manx fencibles [locally levied troops] could be used as guards

These days The Calf is inhabited by wardens working for the Manx Wildlife Trust (MWT), for whom I am raising funds, a lot of birds and – until recently – a rat. According to Aron, the Ornithological Warden based there from March through to mid-November,

“The Calf has had 60 species of bird breed here, although the average most years is around 35 species. We have a nationally important number of Chough breeding here, the Calf having the greatest density of breeding Choughs anywhere in the UK. The Calf is also important locally for its populations of seabirds, such as European Shag, Razorbill, Guillemot, Great Black-backed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull and Herring Gull.”

The Calf is also on the migration route for a host of species making their way up the Irish Sea and MWT has a well-established programme of netting, ringing and recording the visitors. This year’s guests included nightingale, melodious warbler, subalpine warbler and red-breasted flycatcher. Going back a little further, the Calf has hosted eastern Bonelli’s (aka Balkan) warbler, the red-eyed vireo (from North America) and red-footed falcon (from Eastern Europe).

Puffin (not to be confused with Puffinus Puffinus) – credit: Lara Howe / Manx Wildlife Trust

One of the species that previously nested here is the puffin. MWT has launched an imaginative marketing programme to tempt them back which features puffin mannequins mounted on posts in prime locations and an audio system that pumps out enticing messages in puffin-language. One Manx friend told me that the puffin dolls were larger and fatter than real puffins to convince the birds of the bounteous food supplies around the Calf. Disappointingly, this story turns out to be untrue.

Even more iconic than the puffin is the Manx shearwater, possibly the most charismatic of the species that have references to the Island in their name (although the Manx Robber Fly and the Isle of Man Cabbage certainly give it a run for its money). Manx shearwaters are from the same family of birds as albatrosses, fulmars and tiny storm petrels. After nesting on islands off the west coast of Britain, they very sensibly head over to South America for the winter.

But the Manx Shearwater was not always valued as a national icon so much as a source of food. James Chaloner, a commissioner reporting to Lord Fairfax, noted in his ‘A Short Treatise on the Isle of Man’ in 1652 that:

“Of Fowl, this Island hath plenty, and great variety, especially in the Isle of the Calf; where there is a sort of Sea-Fowl, called Puffines, of a very unctuous Constitution… the flesh of these Birds is nothing pleasant fresh, because of their rank and Fish-like taste; but, pickled or salted, they may be ranked with Anchoves, Caviare, or the like; but profitable they are in their feathers, and Oyl, of which they make great use about their Wooll.”

In the early Eighteenth Century up to 10,000 young Manx Shearwaters a year were hauled out of their burrows with iron hooks to be eaten. By the Nineteenth Century the population was decimated – possibly by rats as much as humans – and apparently absent as a nesting bird for the next two hundred years. Determining what a fully recovered Manx Shearwater population would look like is complicated by the way historic records muddle up sightings of puffins (Fratercula arctica) with manx shearwaters (Puffinus Puffinus), but there are now some hundreds of nesting pairs each year and the trajectory is a positive one.

Assessing exactly how many Manx Shearwaters are breeding is hard because they nest in rabbit burrows and tend to return to these only at dusk. MWT has a cunning answer to this problem, though, which is to play a recording of a Manx Shearwater call at the entrance to each burrow and listen out to see if this elicits a response from within.

Manx shearwater – credit: Rich Cope

As with other seabirds that nest in the ground, the main onshore threat to Manx Shearwaters is the rat. I have noticed that members of MWT and a local ornithologist I spoke to eschew the word “rat” in much the same way that characters in Harry Potter books avoid saying “Voldemort”. The preferred nomenclature is “long tails”. Anyway, the long tails – which are not native to the Calf – sometimes take time out from rummaging in the bins near the Sound Café (which has reportedly instituted a stringent waste disposal policy) and swim across the Sound to gorge themselves on plump seabird chicks.

In response, MWT has employed teams of volunteers to come and catch the long tails with near total success. Over the last winter, however, a camera trap picked up a furtive scrabbly blur and a new campaign was launched to catch the invader, which, Dr Lara Howe of MWT tells me, was finally eliminated in March this year.

Of course dealing with the onshore threats is just one piece of the puzzle and in some ways an easier one to get a grip on than what the birds have to face out at sea, where they spend the overwhelming majority of their lives. This connects to changes in the wider ecosystems of the Irish Sea and further afield that are well beyond the jurisdiction of the Isle of Man. But that’s not to suggest there’s nothing that can be done locally. One positive recent development is the designation of the area around Wart Bank – a presumed habitat for the sand eels that are crucial to the diet of puffins and other seabirds – immediately east of the Calf.

Tim Graham, the CEO of the Manx Wildlife Trust argues that the recognition and protection of the Calf and the surrounding area should go further, however:

“The Calf of Man, Southern Sea Cliffs and surrounding seas should be internationally designated – our most important sea bird colonies and marine ecosystems are there. It could be a Ramsar site (Ramsar Convention) or Area of Special Conservation Importance (Berne Convention) as well as being protected under Manx law.”

Family footfall on the Calf

I visited the Calf only once before, on a day trip with my family as a child, but my mum stayed a few days there in 1968 and she has just sent me a message saying that her father and my grandfather, Guy

“used to pass Chicken Rock lighthouse [just south of the Calf] on occasion in Jacana [his boat] and hurl parcels to lighthouse keepers: newspapers and other indispensables. [He] also used to moor at Calf and visit farmer and his family at what is now the bird observatory base.”

It appears that back in 1936, the Calf was the site of one of the last birdwatching excursions of my great grandfather, Henry Madoc, who had recently retired from his role as Chief Constable of Police. After his death in 1937, a family friend compiled a touching, if perhaps overly reverential, photographic record of the expedition as a gift for Isabel, my great grandmother.

“The Chief among the Herring Gulls” – my great grandfather Henry Madoc on his last ornithological expedition to the Calf of Man. The lighthouse in the background is on the Chicken Rock, now a popular dive spot.

The album contains faded images of a stiff figure in an unseasonable-looking tweed suit variously labelled “our leader” and “The Chief among the Herring Gulls”. It also offers some insight into my great grandfather’s ornithological methodology. This appears to have included sending an unfortunate retainer – who doesn’t merit a full name description – over cliff edges to fetch egg-bearing nests for inspection and then repeating the process in reverse to return the displaced nests to the distraught proprietors.

The Swim

Yesterday, Steve and I arrived at the Sound soon after 8:30 to find the fog cut by an outpouring of moans, grunts, growls and throat-clearing noises from the seals stationed on the Kitterland rocks in the middle. Several flopped into the water to check over Steve’s kayak. I resolved to make as discreet an entrance as possible, partly to avoid disturbing the seals remaining on the rocks but mostly in a spirit of self-preservation. These were big beasts – adult grey seals can weigh up to 350kg – and if most humans can’t understand why on earth I am doing this swim, what chance the seals putting a sympathetic interpretation on my incursion into their territory?

I needn’t have worried – the tidal rip was so strong that I was immediately whisked off to the west. At first the water was shallow enough that I could see the wrack – flattened like shrubs in a cyclone – beneath me. It reminded me of swims my family used to do in the River Lune in Cumbria, where we would jump in at one point and float down a few hundred metres before climbing out next to a weir. No climbing-out point here, but as the channel opened out the current slackened and I could start to turn northwards towards Port Erin, and into the second half of my round the Isle of Man swim.

It soon became clear that we had not left all the Kitterland residents behind, however and two juvenile seals tailed us up the coast for the next two hours. This followed a pattern I am now getting used to of the seals zooming up from the depths underneath me and then fixing me with a woebegone expression as they swam round and round me in tight circles until I got thoroughly dizzy. There were also the stunt pilot acrobatic interludes and periods where they got bored of watching me toil and disappeared off into the green grey gloom. Then suddenly reappearing and running through the same routine all over again.

The fog remained with us too, but I didn’t really mind. The sea was calm, the tide behind me and the seals were politely companionable rather than tactile. A slight regret was passing Port Erin Bay without even being able to see it. This, as I mentioned in an earlier post, was the first marine area to be given protection and the very positive results were the start of the journey that brought the Isle of Man to designate over 51% of its inshore (0-3 nautical miles) waters as marine nature reserves last year. Professor Callum Roberts, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Blue Marine Foundation, for whom I am raising sponsorship funds via this swim, told me that

Port Erin Bay

I dived [off Port Erin] back in about 2015 or so and it had been protected for 21 years by then and it was fantastic. You’d dive onto the bottom, where there was a carpet of invertebrates. There were bryozoans, hydroids, sponges, giant, dinner-sized plate-scallops. There were juvenile fish, there were adult fish. It was absolutely full of life. And then just round the corner at Port St Mary the seabed was barren. It was literally white sand, with no visible life, because it had been dragged by the scallop dredgers the whole time.

Mining relics on Bradda Head and a currency pioneer

Traversing Bradda Head, Steve points out where the cliff face is oozing a lurid turquoise, signposting the copper that drew miners here to claw their way through a treacherous warren of fissures and adit holes. According to the weighty ‘A New History of the Isle of Man: Volume 1’,

“Archaeological relics suggest copper was worked here as early as the Bronze Age. Historical records cover mining from 1656 to 1874… workings were carried to a dept of around 120m below sea level with pumping required to prevent flooding.”

Green stains on Bradda Head derived from the residual copper deposits within

Those that dug here in the late Seventeenth Century may have been supplying – directly or indirectly – my great x9 grandfather, a merchant called John Murray, the grandfather of slave and smuggling trade supplier John Murray whom I profiled in my 15th August post. Dissatisfied with the scarcity of currency on the Isle of Man, in 1668 this John Murray started smelting metal into coins, each embossed with his own name. He then succeeded in persuading the Manx authorities to adopt ‘Murray’s pence’ as official Isle of Man tender. I’ve not been able to find out nearly as much as I’d like about this John Murray so if anyone reading this has any further information, please do contact me!

A bag for life

The swim culminated in Fleshwick Bay, a delightful pebbly cove tucked deep into the north side of Bradda Head. I’m told that this used to be a scruffy beach often covered in barbeque legacies and other detritus. Now, likely due to the installation of a sturdy orange Beach Buddies wheelie bin, it is absolutely pristine.

My new kit bag

This does remind me to mention, though, that along the way here, Steve fished out of the sea an Asda reinforced plastic carrier bag that boasts “built-in anti-bacterial biomaster silver technology that helps prevent the growth and spread of harmful bacteria”. These same properties appear to have cancelled out any biodegradable qualities and it was entirely intact. Obeying its injunction to “reuse me” I have adopted it as kit bag for the neoprene hood, weird latex collar, Vaseline, ‘Bodyglide’ lubricant and other open to interpretation bits of paraphernalia I am using for my swims.

Today

Today it’s back to Fleshwick and then, all being well, pushing on up towards the fabulously wild Niarbyl.