Red is the colour that struck me as I floated down to the sea floor, arms and legs spread like a skydiver. Red plants and red fish! What a surprise since this was the South Coast of England , and not some exotic foreign shore.
Adapted to camouflage amongst the red plant-life, the red fish of different sizes looked so cool. They were a deep scarlet red all-over and wouldn’t have looked out of place on a coral reef. The colours and sights meant that what appeared like a scary place from the surface (with blue waves rolling and the bobbing boat hundreds of meters from shore)– was actually a serene and very safe-feeling environment.
The water was pretty clear, with visibility between 5 and 8 meters. This meant I could see the dramatic terrain clearly: boulders and long gullies strewn across the sea floor. James my instructor and I were quick to spot large cod and wrasse, plus loads of big star fish amongst the beautiful plants.
I was cautious not to be too buoyant and risk a rapid, accidental ascent to the surface, so I floated very close to the bottom, using my hands to push and pull myself through the water. Unfortunately, James urged me to float a little higher instead so as not to disturb the fragile marine life with my body and dive instruments. This was unfortunate because I quite enjoyed ‘underwater climbing’ with my hands, which is how it felt! But for James, as for me, marine conservation and respect for wildlife is a massive part of diving and in that respect, dragging along the sea-floor is a bad habit to pick up.
The next day I readied myself to jump off the club’s boat again for another dive, this time with Julian. We were at the same spot I’d dived with James, keen to explore the gullies and rocks at around 12 meters deep again. One of the other club divers, Graham, had seen some baby dog fish (a type of shark) here yesterday, plus everyone had seen dozens of cuttlefish. Cuttlefish are a curious, intelligent relative of octopus and squid, it’s easy to spend a long time watching and interacting with them. The area was teaming with life which (like cuttlefish) that some divers wait years to see.
Before leaving the boat I noticed a small but significant reluctance to move! Despite my enthusiasm for diving it seemed like a part of me was still a little scared. Yet in again I rolled and down again I sank – slowly, slowly, to the bottom. The poignant redness of the plant-life on the sea-floor struck me again. And again small and large red-coloured fish weaved around nooks and crannies, barely disturbed by our bubble-blowing presence.
We headed off into the first gully. The water was a little murkier than it had been yesterday, perhaps just 4 or 5 meters visibility. But it still felt calm, safe and serene. Again I reflected on how different the environment was compared to how your average person would imagine it to be from the surface.
The gullies were generally about 3 meters deep and 2 meters wide with plant and animal life adorning the rocks on both sides. As we swam Julian shone his torch on an edible crab the size of a dinner-plate, nuzzled up in a hole. I decided to investigate closer and jumped with shock when it reared up and took a swipe at me! They can be quite feisty it turns out!
Later on Julian grabbed a large spider crab and passed it to me. The way it gripped onto my hand reminded me of my cat Rocky who is a bit of a biter and holds on strongly when you pick him up. ‘Facehuggers’ from ‘Aliens’ also crossed my mind but I don’t want to give crabs an unfair reputation so I’ll actually say that it was quite sweet.
A little further down the gully I began to notice the tide was rolling back and forth all around me. First it propelled me forward for a few seconds, and I saw the plant life pushed over like surface-plants in the wind. Then it pushed in the opposite direction for a few seconds and pushed the plants over in the other direction. It was a lovely feeling and reminded me of the displays at sea-life centres explain how the movement of the tide affects all life close to the shore. It also reminded me of the words of the ex-girlfriend who sold the idea of diving to me years ago. ‘It feels like you’re flying’, she said, ‘because the weights and air keep you buoyant, floating in the water so when you move it’s like you’re flying’. This flying sensation was heightened by the tide pushing me along which felt wonderful.
Julian swam ahead of me, in single-file, into the gullies. I wanted to stop and examine the big shrimps I found hiding in the rocks as we swam, but thought I’d better follow the ‘buddy-protocols’ and stay close to Julian the whole time. These protocols ensure that if you get into trouble under the water your buddy can help you, perhaps by sharing his air supply with you, or cutting you out of some entanglement (like fishing wire or nets).
Julian’s great at spotting wildlife, and when he shone his torch into another crack, pointing, I was certain I saw a big, hairy, underwater tarantula. It had thick, hairy legs, strange round eyes and fluorescent-looking marks on its body. It looked so strange- like something from another world. Julian later explained it was a ‘squat lobster’, not a tarantula (which makes sense).
These dives allayed a fear I had about under-water currents, which are a significant feature of UK diving. Previously the prospect of currents was putting me off diving. Currents can unexpectedly take you hundreds of meters from your boat without you realising it, so that when you surface you find yourselves all alone. Now the currents I’ve described are well on the mild side of the currents scale – so can’t be too confident that I’ve cracked my fear yet. But having felt the benign push of mild currents this time, I’m certainly more positive about currents in general than I was.
The rest of the weekend included a beautiful wreck dive, which was covered in life and golf balls hit from the shore as target practice. An unexpected weather change which almost saw me swap dive gear for a surf board for the day. And an epic loss of his keys by dive instructor James which saw everyone bin-rummaging and turning out the caravan, inch by inch, before much relief when they turned up.
All credit to Garrath and the Cheltenham Sub Aqua Club for organising another wonderful and transformational weekend. You can see photos and videos from the weekend (including the dogfish) on our CSAC Facebook page.