Past experiences had been spoiled by the weather, but this time John Liddiard was determined to make the most of this western island's easy diving opportunities
Admiring the cliffs above the Knoll Pins.
SOMETIMES THE RIGHT INVITATION comes along at the right time. I had been thinking for a while that I should get round to doing some diving round Lundy, which lies north of Devon, where the Atlantic meets the Bristol Channel. By happy coincidence, an invitation arrived from Andy and Colleen Baker to join them for a long weekend of diving off the island. Poseidon Adventures is Andy and Colleen's business. They say their aim is to take the hassle out of UK diving for those divers who have the time to dive but have neither the time nor inclination to organise their trip. Poseidon books the boat, the hotel, organises air and fills the places. There are some dive centres in the UK that already do all this for you, but Poseidon can arrange all-inclusive trips to the sort of places that are not on the doorstep of such dive centres. With these two taking care of the details, all we divers need to do is turn up on the day with our kit (though I'm sure they would help sort out kit rental as well). A few weeks before the trip a briefing document arrives with maps, directions and any other questions I may have wanted to ask already answered. A day before the trip, an email arrives to confirm that everything is going ahead. I travel down the M5 on a pleasant Friday afternoon, getting ahead of the three-lane car park that forms in preparation for any summer weekend with sunshine forecast. Then it's winding A-roads through North Devon to the winding streets of Ilfracombe. With a one-way system, closed roads and a steep hillside that puts steps in the middle of roads that should have connected, I am glad I remembered to bring the map that Poseidon Adventures provided. With no parking spaces in sight, I block the road outside the Crescent House Hotel and dump my overnight bag and camera box in reception, with a hurried message that I will be back in a few minutes. The manager must be used to this sort of hurried luggage event, because his reaction is to come out to the car to see if there are any more bags to unload before I drive off to pay and display on the harbour side. This bright and cheerful Saturday morning is complemented by a brisk north-westerly wind. It's the sort that's a bit too brisk for offshore diving - not that we should let a bit of wind and a few waves put us off, says Andrew Bengey, skipper of Obsession II. Andrew explains that although the ride out may be a bit lumpy, once at the island we can dive on whichever side is sheltered. The big catamaran has plenty of cabin space, and protected deck space to shelter 12 divers from the spray. A little over an hour later we are closing on the eastern side of Lundy and entering calmer water. The high cliffs provide shelter from the wind, and in the cabin I'm nice and dry. Outside, it looks like a Mediterranean cruise. If most of my dive kit wasn't already wet from the spray, it would be hard to tell just how dramatic the journey across has been.
ANDREW BRIEFS US ON THE KNOLL PINS. It's not a slackwater site, more that with the way the tide is running the current across these rocks will be easily manageable, as long as we don't hang about on the surface and drift off before the dive starts. The other part of the directions is not to drift too far. If we do, or when we surface, we should pop a delayed SMB. With the boat positioned upcurrent from the submerged reef, I jump in and head rapidly for the bottom at 20m. Perhaps I descend a bit too rapidly, because I soon realise that I'm on a sloping seabed, and the obvious bits of reef and interesting rock formations are all above me. Had I taken a couple of minutes on my descent, I would have been in among the rocks. Not that it makes a difference in the long term. I just follow my nose beneath the ledges and short bits of vertical, admiring the mixture of pretty marine life that comes with current-swept but slightly silty conditions. There are clusters of jewel anemones, odd clumps of dead men's and red fingers, brandysnap domes of ross coral (actually a bryozoan), pink seafans and everything from splodges of boring sponge to fair-sized finger-sponge fans. With the basic landscape seen and understood, I change mental gears and begin searching the details. The number of nudibranchs causes a mental note to try a macro lens tomorrow, rather than the wide-angle unit I have fitted to my camera by default. On some of the seafans and sponges, mermaid's purses - egg sacs for dogfish - are anchored. A trick I have tried in the past is to shine a bright dive light through the purse to see the unborn dogfish embryo wriggle inside. It's a bit like kids shining a light though their hands to see the bones. I pass 10 minutes trying to make it work with camera and flash, but with no success. What fun I have with digital! One dive in, and already this is my best Lundy trip ever. It has been a colourful, relaxing and fun dive, not massively spectacular but a good average, helped by a decent dive-boat and a skipper who knows his stuff. There's a bit of history between me and Lundy. I have had two trips called off due to bad weather, and one on a scabby old wooden trawler that took three hours to arrive in horrible conditions, with no shelter for anyone but the scabby old skipper in his one-man wheelhouse. He either didn't know or didn't care about putting us on decent dive sites. After a similarly long and hypothermic journey back, we cancelled the next day and forfeited our deposits. Instead we went on a tour of the lifeboat station. Looking at the list of rescues displayed on the wall, we were not surprised to see that the scabby old dive-boat was way top of the league for the number of times it had been rescued by the lifeboat. The only surprise about the trip was that none of the hypothermia suffered on deck was bad enough to warrant hospital treatment. Had the boat been subjected to a Coastguard survey, it would have been condemned. Twenty years on, and the vessel and professionalism is everything I would expect of a modern dive-boat and crew. Skipper Andrew is also 2nd Coxswain for the Ilfracombe lifeboat. After the marine life and marine reserve, the next thing Lundy is famous for is the seals. For an easy second dive we head right into the shallowest corner of Gannets' Bay, and the seals don't let us down. I could write so much more, but I'm saving this seal experience for another day. Back in Ilfracombe, we break the 10-minute walk from the harbour back to the Crescent House Hotel with a halfway stop at a pub. Later in the evening we are spoilt for choice for eating and drinking places. We dine as a group in a pleasant tapas bar a few paces downhill from the hotel.
WITH THE WIND DROPPING SLIGHTLY OVERNIGHT, the sea state improves enough for us to venture round to the western face of the island. Shortly after rounding the southern tip, Andrew points out the location of the pre-dreadnought battleship Montague, identified by marks left on the cliffs where cables were stretched to the wreck while it was being scrapped. On the next small headland, a blockhouse at the top of the cliffs marks a now-disused coastal defence position. The whole coastline on this side looks more battered. The rocks are cleaner and more rounded. Grass doesn't start until much higher up the cliffs. We dive in Jenny's Cove, about two-thirds of the way to the northern tip. The first thing I notice on entering the water is that visibility has changed from good to excellent. Then I look down to a seemingly endless field of kelp at 12m. The trick to the dive, it turns out, is to get down among the kelp and seek out the shallow gullies hidden below. These are virtually invisible from above the kelp, but easy enough to follow once I have found one. My buddy for the day is Andy Baker, and keeping track of him in the kelp is not easy. I have to get my head above the kelp and look for his bubbles. I'm bubble-free on a rebreather, so I wonder how he manages to keep track of me. A big boulder rising above the kelp makes a focal point for a small shoal of sea bass. With a macro lens, I am more interested in whether I can find anything small in the cracks beneath. Perhaps it's me, or perhaps it's the location, but I fail to find the hordes of nudibranchs that stampeded through Knoll Pins a day before. My best subject is a very co-operative tompot blenny, always a photographer's favourites because of their inquisitive 'smile'. We surface to a disturbing scene. I can't see the boat, and a big yellow helicopter is hovering above. My mind goes through an 'Oh s**t!' moment before I turn the other way and realise that the boat is 50m behind us, picking up divers. A diver-lift really comes into its own on a rough day, and the lift at the back of Obsession II is an express train among diver lifts. The helicopter, it turns out, is nothing to do with us, just part of a cliff-rescue exercise.
GETTING OUT OF THE WAVES for lunch, skipper Andrew takes Obsession II to the sheltered jetty at the south-east corner of the island. I climb out with lunchtime pasty in hand and set foot on Lundy, but walk only as far as the start of the road, because the clouds are starting to look angry, and I don't want to get my Weezle caught in a shower. Still in the shelter of the island, Pete's Pinnacle is another shallow reef with a bit of vertical. The conditions under water are very similar to those at Knoll Pins. Having advertised the promise of starring roles in divEr, I have no trouble persuading some nudibranchs to model for my macro lens. Ilfracombe has missed the showers and the sun is out again. The rest for refreshments halfway back to the hotel has become a regular event. After all, 10 minutes is an awful long way for thirsty divers to walk in the summer sunshine. For dinner, we have a group table at the bistro next door to the tapas bar. The final day of a long weekend dawns with sunshine and a not unexpected brisk north-westerly wind, though we had been hoping for better. The plan had been for a quick shallow dip and a short surface interval to catch slack on the wreck of the Robert, a small coaster that foundered after her cargo shifted in 1975. By all accounts it's a very nice wreck, but for now it will have to remain on my want-to-do list. The boat ride from Ilfracombe to sheltered water on the east side of Lundy is not quite as lumpy as on our first day, or perhaps I'm just getting used to it. Instead of the Robert, we have a gentle drift northwards over reefs separated by sloping sand at Brazen Ward. After lobsters, spider crabs and some very pushy cuckoo wrasse, I end the dive above some scattered ribs of wreckage. There is supposed to be more scattered shallower and deeper across our route, but I confess that I didn't find it. Lobsters have been out in numbers. Protected by the zoning of the marine reserve, the evidence is that stocks are increasing and spilling over into the neighbouring fishing zones. For a second dive there is unanimous agreement on returning to the shallows of Gannets' Bay and more of the manic seals. They don't let us down. It's only once back at Ilfracombe, sitting on the harbour wall outside the chip shop, that I realise that my deepest dive of such a relaxed long weekend was 22m. Even if we had dived the Robert, it wouldn't have been any deeper. So a bunch of highly experienced divers with twin-sets who would normally be diving wrecks had a good time on shallow scenic dives and playing with the seals. Many were return visitors, having enjoyed the previous year's trip. Meanwhile, the diving was spot-on for the less experienced divers in the group, with a little more depth available for more advanced divers. It's well worth considering for the start of the season.
Poseidon Adventures, 01487 843813, www.poseidonadventures.co.uk. Boat charter, Obsession II, 01271 866325, www.obsessionboat charters.co.uk. Lundy Island, www.lundy.org.uk
Outcrop with jewel anemones.
Mermaids purse attached to a dead seafan covered in bryozoans