by Fiona Widnall
I’m not going to lie, my memories of past UK dives involve murky, dark conditions with wrecks appearing suddenly out of the gloom and with that in mind and having just returned from the Maldives, my expectations of what I might see in Plymouth didn’t include tropical coloured fish and colourful sponges…. and yet that’s exactly what the weekend delivered! Just goes to show that you never know what you’ll see….
Ahead of the trip, conditions were changing on an almost hourly basis and Dive Manager Matt was kept on his toes with trip planning. As a new joiner of the club, this was to be my first experience of club diving and I was excited to get back into cold water. I arrived in Plymouth on Friday evening in time to meet Steve and Bosco for dinner and drinks at the Mount Batten Hotel and later we met Nick at the Mount Batten Centre. Matt and Nick were to arrive later with the van. I’ve been reliably informed that I was lucky there were only two Nick’s on this trip, i understand it can get confusing when there are more!
I woke bright and early to a glorious sunrise and literally had to squint as I checked out the window – it was blue sky, sunshine and flat water. Understandably I was dubious that this would remain the case… We headed over to Turnchapel to launch the boat – it was great to see the launch process and I helped out where I could learning as I went, then it was back for a quick breakfast and to get geared up. The plan was to take full advantage of the flat conditions and head out to Eddystone Lighthouse, everyone was excited as conditions don’t often allow the longer journey required but we were graced with flat calm conditions and on arrival there were even free divers in the water.
The kelp covered gullies were great but I was more interested in the rock formations and colourful cuckoo wrasse, I was surprised at how inquisitive these beautiful orange and blue fish were! Visibility was unexpectedly good, the white shell gravel seemed to reflect the light and I even spotted the egg ribbons of nudibranch! Seriously I did a double take when I spotted those and had to remind myself where I was!
After a great dive that had us all buzzing about the visibility, the conditions and the sunshine we had a quick lunch then headed back out to dive SS Persier with a perfectly positioned shot line!! This Belgian Steamer was hit by a torpedo in 1945 and, while I’m not a wreck-head, I love a wreck that’s teaming with life so I took pleasure in the schools of bib and pollack and the plumose anemone which were in full plume. Afterwards we headed back to shore with happy faces glowing from a touch too much sun – who’d have thought we’d need sun screen!
Dinner was at the Clovelly Inn and while I haven’t been in the club long I had heard mention of the portion size, spoken about in hushed tones in much the same way as urban legends. Thankfully though these tales of belly pork were all true and we left thankful of the walk home to allow the food to settle!
Our luck kept coming as we woke to fair conditions and while not as good as Saturday they were still good enough to try reefs that aren’t always possible to dive. After breakfast and ropes off we headed out to Hand Deeps – so called as fishermen thought that the underwater pinnacles looked like the fingers of an upturned hand!
Another shot line launched and off we went – I was blown away by the sheer drop offs! The rock formations weren’t what I expected and it was fascinating to explore the gullies and swim among the swaying kelp. Again we were lucky enough to spot some colourful nudibranch! You can probably tell I like my macro!
We also got a bit of unexpected training in … as we were in the sharing mood, we’d allowed various boats of divers to descend using our shot line, sadly before Steve and Bosco got to dive we realised that the shot line had become detached from the buoy…. after another shot line was deployed but Steve and Bosco had to complete a search and recovery exercise for the original shot. They were successful but it was a good reminder to choose the correct knots!
Next dive was the The Rosehill which was hit by a U-40 in 1917. The good visibility gave great views of the boiler and I was happy to explore and find conger eels, and there were a number of those!! It was also nice to see so many pink sea fans as wells as the shoals of bib and wrasse.
To round off another great day, we had a leisurely walk to the curry house for a fantastic meal in great company! Followed by a stop at the Boringdon Arms on the way home, though I must confess I took early leave as all the fresh air had wiped me out!
Having been so lucky with the weather, we woke to some “clag” – you learn a lot more on these trips than just diving… this is apparently a real word to describe the type of fog (and not some disease!). Given we had to get the boat out of the water before heading home, we planned to take two tanks out and not return for lunch. This meant setting off early and we were met beyond the harbour wall with a bit more waves and wind than we’d had so far this trip. Fortunately the plan was HMS Scylla followed by SS James Eagan Layne (JEL) both of which were closer to shore. HMS Scylla, which was sunk as an artificial reef for divers in 2004, is a great wreck as it sits upright and it’s got a good amount of life on it. I loved looking up towards the surface and seeing the sunbeams come through and backlight the railings of the frigate as shoals of fish swam by and the photographers amongst us had a field day! We followed this up with the liberty ship JEL which was hit by a torpedo during WWII. There was a lot to see on this wreck in terms of structure which gave the opportunity to swim through the large open holds. There were also huge spider crabs, conger eels, pollock, ballan wrasse, cuckoo wrasse and beautiful jewel anemones.
All in all, it was a great weekend and a fantastic introduction to club diving, which is about more than just showing up and going diving. Throughout the weekend our new boat handlers had the opportunity to practice their skills, we all learned about knots, dropping shot lines and drop offs and it was great to be part of a group that looked after one another so much and were willing to share knowledge. It was also really good to see such rigorous buddy checks being conducted before every dive after allowing people to gear up and get ready, I never felt like I was getting into the water before I was ready. I’m looking forward to the next trip and to being part of a club that I can participate in and more importantly have a good laugh with!