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.
Down in the bottom of the deep blue sea,., we rolled off the side of the RIB (rigid inflatable boat) and bobbed up and down in the blue, calm water off Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, the point furthest to the West of Wales, on a warm summer weekend. My company was five highly experienced divers, clocking up thousands of dives between them, in all manner of sea conditions and depths around the world. Dave, my instructor, alone has lost count of the number of dives he’s done, but they probably number around 2000. A quick check of our kit and Dave gave me the nod to begin the descent. A buoy connected to the shot-line marked the way and we went down the line into the dark, murky water below. I pulled myself down and then began to sink. As I went past 3 meters, then 4 meters, then 5 meters depth… the visibility became less and less good; in fact I could hardly see a thing by the time I got to the bottom. This was my first diving trip in UK sea water…I was out of my comfort zone and feeling pretty scared. Dave was somewhere in front of me, but I couldn’t quite see him, and the lack of visibility meant I felt quite disorientated. I started to think that maybe I wouldn’t be able to stay under the water.
I did my first dive with Dave in a swimming pool in Cheltenham, back in 2011. It was enough to give me a taste for more,since then I have scuba dived in Europe and Australia- seeing octopus, sharks, the distinctive Clown Fish or ‘Nemo’ and a vast array of other visual delights. These experiences, coupled with fifty or so wonderful snorkels around the world have given me a passion for diving with marine life. This passion has grown in spite of my having once had a strong fear of water and especially the sea. It was not unusual in my childhood to refuse to set foot on Brighton Pier, or to head back to safety when half-way down the pier because the sight of the sea through the gaps in the wooden floor-planks was too much for me to bear. I was petrified of inadvertently falling into the sea and drowning. I did learn to swim as a kid eventually, and enjoyed messing about with friends at our local pool, but I never felt I possessed the same confidence the other kids had, and panic would set in when I faced the prospect of swimming for any significant distance.
As I regained my composure and remembered that I was safe under water, and just needed to keep breathing, the visibility on the Pembrokeshire sea-floor began to improve. I could make out both Dave and the outline of the sunken Dakotian, now an orange wreck, strewn across the sea-floor. The Dakotian was a 400ft long merchant navy ship loaded up with tinplate, bicycles and Christmas puddings when, in 1940, it was sunk by a German bombing raid. Dave’s torch lit up colourful marine life including plants, crabs and fish which now made the Dakotian their home. After a few short moments the exhilaration, sense of excitement and exploration I felt in seeing the wreck pushed my latent fears into the back of my mind. This was the first wreck I had explored and doing so was much more enjoyable than I had expected it would be. I followed Dave around the outside of the wreck, moving between 17m and 14m or so in depth. Dave’s torch shone light into the dark recesses of the wreck, and I peered inside black openings and dark places, hopeful of what I might see. Round one corner, tucked away inside his own little cave formed by the metal-work of the wreck, a large Edible Crab sat on a ledge – poised and ready for whatever fish might come close enough for him to grab. As Dave shone the torch on him what looked like his tongue flitted back and forth like a mini propeller.
The journey to diving my first wreck took ten years. The initial catalyst was my first snorkelling experience, on the Greek island of Skiathos, in 2004. Remarkably for a boy who grew up in Croydon spending most of his spare time playing computer games, with a bit of football, scouting and drinking on the side, I had back then a quintessentially Australian girlfriend. That is a girl who grew up living by the sea, swimming, snorkelling and surfing, and who was now studying to be a Marine Biologist. She was fearless and confident in the water and introduced me to snorkelling. After the initial shock of seeing the blue expanse of the Mediterranean underwater and before my eyes for the first time (where all I could think about was the expectation of a shark appearing at any time) I quickly fell in love with snorkelling. A few years later I was learning to swim properly, and breathe underwater like I never had in my childhood. A few more years and a couple of mates dragged me along on a surfing trip to Newquay: getting battered around without any substantial training served to deepen my growing love for the sea. The key to enjoying surfing was the confidence my wetsuit buoyancy and un-sinkable surfboard gave me, just as the buoyant fins and mask had given me confidence to snorkel without fear of drowning.
As Dave and I continued to explore the Dakotian wreck, we saw a big wrasse around 2.5 feet long, which looked like the big Groupers I’d seen in Australia. We saw more crabs and some interesting terrain around the remains of the wreck. It was no longer obviously the shape of a ship, but instead a collection of different shaped objects strewn together in the dark, covered in marine life. As my air got low and it was time to return to the surface Dave guided me through the deployment of our submersible marker beacon – an inflatable bag attached to a line which we could use as a guide and support to slowly swim up to the surface. As I emerged on the surface, seeing the sky open up around me I was struck by how bright and light the world was compared to the gloom below. The scene really did look very bright and appealing.
I climbed back onto the boat and I was thrilled at having accomplished my first wreck dive. Chatting to Julian – the other most experienced instructor on the trip – I was surprised when he cited the South Coast of England as his favourite dive spot in the world. It turns out that the UK has some of the best diving and most abundant marine life in the world. The visibility is often poor compared to international destinations, but just like skiing in Scotland, when conditions are good it’s truly up there with the best in the world.
Scuba diving is an activity not without its risks. In fact I once read that of all high-risk activities, such as skiing, climbing, mountain walking and so on, scuba-diving is the most dangerous based on the number of deaths and serious accidents that occur. Much of this danger and risk can be mitigated through sound training, common sense and following the established diving protocols and techniques taught by professional diving organisations. I had an insight into how things can sometimes go wrong when diving after an uncontrolled ascent during a different dive that weekend in Pembrokeshire with Julian. An uncontrolled ascent is where you return from depth to the surface quickly and uncontrolled. This can be dangerous because your lungs and body don’t have time to process the excess nitrogen in your blood-stream which is a by-product of breathing compressed air from a scuba tank. So, usually when diving you return to the surface in a slow and steady manner, with a safety stop at around 6 meters, lasting for around a minute, designed to give your body time to adjust and dissolve the excess nitrogen. Having dived down to 17 meters with Julian and spent an enjoyable few minutes exploring around a dive site just off Skomer Island, I made the mistake of letting a little too much air into my inflatable jacket and began to ascend to the surface faster than expected. Thankfully this wasn’t an uncontrolled ascent from 17 meters: we’d slowly come up to 9 meters before I took off. At 9 meters I felt myself starting to rise, and before I knew it I was rising faster and faster. The faster you rise, the more you rise and the lighter you become, and so on, until before you know it your head pops out of the surface and you realise your mistake. In this case, no harm was done – the depth wasn’t significant enough for me to have an adverse reaction. But it was enough for me to take stock and realise I needed to be much more careful in the future so that the same thing does not occur from a greater depth.
Still, this didn’t detract from the fantastic experience that diving in Pembrokeshire was. Skomer Island was the UK’s first marine reserve and is a haven for wildlife, with puffins flying around all over the place, diving in the sea next to our boat, and the occasional curious-looking seal popping its head up out of the water. Throughout the trip I marvelled at dry-suit technology. Surely many more people would leap at the chance of getting into the sea, swimming around, diving or simply floating on the surface fully-clothed, dry and warm, if only they knew about this remarkable dry suit technology.
My final dive of the weekend was a 10 meter dive round the corner from the wreck in Milford Haven, close to some rocks in a sheltered bay. It was also exhilarating but for different reasons. I followed Dave to the sea floor which again had poor visibility, but enough visibility to see long, thick stemmed plants dotted around the sea floor, which we were able to hold on to and use to scramble from stem to stem, like an underwater version of ‘Tarzan’, swinging from branch to branch. Crawling on our hands and knees we moved around like this, exploring the sea-floor, peering into the light shining from Dave’s torch, to see what marine life we could. It was a fantastic feeling, being moved around by the tide and the swell of the ocean at 10 meters depth. The sense of exploration and anticipation of what we might see was very satisfying – especially when I saw two shark-eggs attached to one of the plants.
We returned to the surface with four UK dives under my belt and a renewed thirst for more. Not only the diving but also the exhilarating boat trips around the coastline and the fantastic company of the dive club members (I’d first met only a few months ago) made for a fantastic weekend. Now that I know how to dive in the UK I am keen to go back to Brighton and face my childhood-fear by diving underneath the pier, which, as it turns out, is a noteworthy UK diving spot with abundant marine life!