When Karen Williams found what she calls the Yealm Hulk on a dive, she was delighted to have come across something hidden away out of Devon's diving mainstream. Subsequent visits show it constantly changing - but does anyone know what it is? Photos by Keith Hiscock, Karen Williams and John Williams. Illustration by Pete West
One of the greatest pleasures of diving is to go somewhere or see something that no-one has ever visited or seen before. With so many people diving, and the sophisticated equipment we have nowadays, this seem increasingly less likely. But the ocean is large, and as divers tend to visit the same sites, there are still things to be discovered close to home. It was a sunny morning six years ago. My husband John and I were diving with two friends and decided not to visit the usual wreck sites out of Plymouth, which would be suffering diver saturation. We chose instead a scenic site east of the River Yealm known as Fairyland, named because of the strange, large brown circle in the grass on the side of the cliff. We had dived there once or twice before, and been impressed by the beauty of the underwater terrain. There are rocks the size of double-decker buses, and as the site is subject to moderate tidal flow these have been scoured away, leaving overhangs festooned with sea-fans, plumose anemones and dead men's fingers. Ballan and cuckoo wrasse are plentiful. Sandy patches lie between the rocks and the depth is around 19-25m, depending on the state of the tide. Visibility on the day we were there was around 15m. About 20 minutes into the dive, I saw what appeared to be another large rock looming ahead. To my astonishment, as I got closer, the hull of a boat became visible. My buddy Alan and I stared at each other, eyes wide in amazement. My first thought was to mark the spot so, hands trembling, I eagerly unravelled my delayed SMB. Fixing the reel to the railing, I hastily sent the buoy to the surface in a flurry of bubbles. I then swam around to the stern - the propeller was not there, nor was the engine or the wheelhouse. The steel vessel was about 65ft long and looked like a trawler. The stern was open, with uninteresting debris lying inside, and the gears to the propshaft were in place. There was still wooden decking over the forward hold. There was no hatch, so it was easy to drop down into it, though it was rather silted and appeared to be empty except for a broken ladder. The cut-off bows were wedged in beside the bedrock. There were still traces of blue paint on the hull, but there was some growth in the form of hydroids and Devonshire cup corals on the stern, and a small piece of Ross coral (not a real coral but the bryozoan Pentapora folicea) on the deck. A large shoal of pout with the occasional pollack hung above the wreck. It became evident that the vessel had been stripped and dumped to avoid costs, probably on a clandestine trip out of the Yealm at night some years earlier. But this illegal action had created a very pretty artificial reef.
Leave it alone! Meanwhile, up in the RIB, John was perplexed to see another SMB appear, and assumed that Alan and I had become separated. We surfaced some way to the west of the wreck. The RIB was nearer to my delayed buoy marking the wreck, so after exchanging OK signals, John shouted: "I'll pick up your other SMB first." "No - leave it alone! There's a wreck down there!" I spluttered. Not that he would have been able to take it off without cutting it, as it was very firmly attached. I couldn't wait to get back on the RIB and tell them what we had found. The position was recorded on the GPS and John and Bob, having a little air remaining, made a short dive to retrieve the SMB and reel and explore the wreck. We have been back to the wreck on many occasions. It would have been difficult to find it again without the GPS, as it is fairly small and the area is very rocky, so using a sounder and transits alone would have been unreliable. Over the past five years, the bow section has broken away at the forward bulkhead. On a recent visit we saw that the stern rail had come off and lay beyond the bows, probably the result of pot lines. The wooden decking had completely disappeared. The marine organisms, including the Ross coral, had grown. Tompot blennies, leopard-spotted gobies, goldsinnies, ballan and cuckoo wrasse, pollack, urchins and spiny starfish are always present. Dogfish, lobsters and edible and velvet swimming crabs are occasional visitors.
Pout shoal It has been interesting to note how the size of the individuals in the pout shoal has grown over the years - they were youngsters when we first saw them and now they're more than 30cm long. It is also not unusual to see a large conger, nearly 2m long. On one occasion it actually swam out to examine us. The wreck stands 3m above the seabed, and there is a fairly deep scour under the hull, which is listing to port. The bows are pointing west-south-west. Current can be moderately strong on a spring tide, but never so much that it stops you diving. Slack water is three hours before or three hours after high water. We originally assumed that because the wooden decking was in place when we found the wreck, it had been down only a couple of years. However, it's possible that preservatives may have delayed the decaying process. I wondered whether the wreck's age could be determined by the growth of Ross coral. Dr Keith Hiscock of the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth helped by contacting Chiara Lombardi, who has been studying states of annual growth rate of pentapora along the Italian coast and around Plymouth. She estimates that a piece 30cm in diameter would indicate an age of about 15 years. As one piece growing on the wreck is easily that size, we now think the wreck may have been down since the early 1990s. Bearing in mind that any protective coating would have had to deteriorate before the pentapora colonised, it could have been there longer. I would be interested to hear from anyone who might know the history of this wreck or how it got there. I believe it has been dived only by the handful of people we have taken there, so if anyone else should happen to come across it, please treat it and the marine life on it with respect. The site is very small and could easily be destroyed.
The resident pollack have thrived since the wreck was found
The prop guard is almost a metre in diameter.
Diver on the stern of the Yealm Hulk
the Ross coral growth on the stern that can give a clue about a wreck's age