I sat in the bar of the chain restaurant, staring in turn at a pint of beer and a black plastic box, the purpose of which was unclear. A waitress had handed it to me, after telling me that no tables were available for a lone diner, and that I should wait in the bar. Wait for what Wittering Divers at East Wittering near Chichester offers dive charters for groups and single divers, 01243 672031, email: email@example.com. Another local operator is Dive Eclipse, based in Selsey, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
About half a pint later the box vibrated violently, lights flashed and a voice ordered me back to the waitress, as a seat was waiting. How the box knew this I have no idea, but I just wanted to get the culinary experience I was dreading over and done with.
A very charming waitress appeared and my ideas of Beefeater restaurants changed instantly.
Cara was attentive, bright, charming and very pretty (which only enhanced my morphing view of the restaurant chain). Beefeater has changed, and I would dine there again.
So too has the Travel Inn - well, at least the one on the A3M at Havant, on the Hampshire/Sussex border. The receptionist couldnt do enough for me, including finding me a room on Easter Sunday, which I hadnt really expected.
Easter weekend is a bank holiday like no other in the UK. Everyone takes to the countryside and gets out for some much-needed fresh air after being cooped inside centrally heated homes, offices and schools for five months. But it is also a time of turbulent weather and I hate to think how often I have sat on the seashore watching a raging sea as horizontal rain beat pits into my face.
For many years my local pub got more of my money than any dive centre or boat on that weekend. Thats why I had given up on Easter; that and the fact that dive sites are infested with throngs of divers hell-bent on diving as wildly and deeply as they had the previous summer, but without a technician even glancing at their gear, let alone servicing it.
I have watched them dust off a layer of corrosion, shake off the encrusting salt and leap into the frigid water before they remember that a drysuit needs to be zipped up to work. There may be more incidents that one weekend than on any other.
This year was different. The weather was promising, the tides along the South Coast were right and I had taken to the road in search of a strange fish called a lumpsucker, which Wittering Divers said I could find on the wreck of a Mulberry Harbour off Bognor Regis.
So I was breaking all my rules for an ugly fish on the worst weekend for travel and weather. Yet when I rolled into East Wittering at 9am on Easter Sunday, the sun shone from a bright blue sky and the temperature was rising into double figures. I was even beginning to enjoy myself. The traffic had been light and I was early enough to enjoy a coffee before booking in for the Mulberry Harbour dive at 11.30am. It was all very relaxing.
Wittering Divers RIB leaves from Bracklesham Bay, a popular beach with a private car park that costs £3 for more than two hours. I expected it to be heaving. The sun must have attracted all and sundry, I thought, but it wasnt even half full.
The British are an odd bunch. Had this been a weekend with horizontal rain, gales, dark clouds and Arctic temperatures, everyone would have been here in their cars, the condensation-covered windows undone slightly, steam rising from flasks.
Perhaps the good weather had put the true Brits off, but I think its something else. The few kids running around in swimming costumes in the chilly breeze off the sea came from a dying breed, one that is being pushed out by a race that can afford a low-cost flight to the Canaries and has given up suffering in the cold. What is this world coming to
Struggling into British diving kit is always a chore. I was glad to reach the boat just for the sit-down. The sun may have been warm, but this early in the year the sea hadnt even thought about sloughing off its winter temperature, and registered a chilly 9Ã‚C. That affects the air temperature just above it and skipping through that air on a RIB offered a foretaste of what was to come.
Bracklesham Bay is at the end of Selsey Bill, a piece of land jutting into the Channel. Not that long ago, the whole area was dry land. During the Roman occupation of Britain, there were settlements where now there is water. Nearby Mixon Hole, thought to be the mouth of a Roman-era river, is now several miles offshore. The wreck of HMS Hazardous (Diver, May) was driven ashore only 300-odd years ago and is also now a few miles out to sea, thanks to coastal erosion.
Geology is ongoing, but slow, so while at high tide there is water everywhere apart from Selsey Bill, at low tide much of the shallow seabed in the area is high and dry. Any skipper wishing to keep his hull intact and not spread over a wide area has to make the long trip out of the bay before heading into the next one, where the Mulberry Harbour is located.
Sat on a rather bland, flat seabed under 9-10m of water, this structure never fulfilled its intended role. These large, floating, concrete pontoons were designed to be linked together to form a huge floating harbour off the Normandy coast after D-Day, so that the Allied forces would not have to rely on securing a decent port for resupply. When complete, the Mulberry Harbours could handle as much cargo as Dover.
This one, however, drifted on its mooring, hit the seabed and sank while waiting for Dutch tugs to move it across the Channel. It was a loss for the war effort, but, as it turned out, rather good for the diving community.
Marine life loves this smashed lump of reinforced concrete, which provides a protective reef on an otherwise fairly featureless flat seabed. Over some 60 years it has become part of the ecosystem and supports a plethora of life, from shellfish to crustaceans, cephalopods and fish. And being in a sheltered and shallow spot, its an ideal location to start a years diving, a fact not lost on South Coast divers that weekend.
We joined five other boats full of divers eager to get back in the water after a winter spent in front of the telly. Wittering Divers was one of only two commercial boats; the other three belonged to dive clubs, and you can tell the difference.
Wittering Divers skipper, a Dutchman named Jan, was very professional, as was the skipper of the other commercial dive boat. In stark comparison, at least one of the dive club coxns was a total arse. With divers in the water, he simply drove right over the dive site. It would have helped had he engaged his brain before engaging gear.
The water was warmer than an inland dive site would have been, but still cold enough to make me yelp like a frightened puppy when it hit my face. What was I thinking Diving in April is for wreck-divers whose knuckles drag along the ground when they walk, students who know no better or for the mentally unstable who think that hypothermia is a cool designer clothing label. It is not for underwater photographers.
Unless, that is, they want to photograph lumpsuckers. Known to scientists as Cyclopterus lumpus, most divers believe it is called, bloody hell, thats a weird one, as thats what springs to mind when you come across a specimen.
Few people do, as the fish enter water shallower than 200m only during the early part of the year to breed and lay eggs while most divers are still curled up near a radiator.
In similar fashion to seahorses and pipefish, it is the male who cares for the clutch of eggs to ensure that his offspring have the best chance of survival. Once the eggs are laid, usually on a shallow, exposed rocky outcrop, or in this case a lump of concrete, the male protects them from predators and aerates them by blowing oxygenated water across the nest.
In rough weather the male can hang onto the rocky bottom with modified under-fins that form a sucker - hence the name.
Lumpsuckers are not particularly rare fish, but theyre not all that common, either. They are certainly not seen much, unless you can find a reliable spot where they nest.
The Mulberry is one such place, or so I had been told, but after rough weather the visibility there becomes minestrone soup. Fine sediment hangs in the water column for days. As I descended, however, it was obvious that the weather had, for the past week, been calm. I could see for 4-5m, which sounds pathetic but I had expected far worse.
My buddy and I started to circle the Mulberry, searching for likely lumpsucker haunts. The eastern end of the wreckage is a steep-sided overhanging wall covered in dead mens fingers, so we passed by quickly, seeking flat areas subject to water movement - like the western end and middle of the Mulberry.
Here a mass of twisted pipes, sharp metal reinforcing rods and plenty of flat concrete provided a terrain that was prime lumpsucker real estate. Finding one, however, proved harder than I had imagined.
As we searched, I became increasingly despondent, and with the growing impatience and frustration came cold. My hands started to feel chilled, and after about 35 minutes in which we had covered the entire Mulberry, I was almost ready to give up. We turned the corner at the western end and started back towards the buoy line. I could see another group of divers heading towards us.
The lead diver stopped and poked something which moved a little, so he poked it more and a rather disgruntled lumpsucker rose from its resting place and feebly swam a little, only to be poked again. What is it with some people
I quickly swam over, grabbed the guys arm, twisted it behind his back and thumped his head into the wreckage several times to show my disgust. Well, I would have done if he hadnt got bored and gone on his way. I simply didnt reply to his OK signal - thatll teach him!
I swam to the lumpsucker, which still looked rather aggrieved, and waited for it to calm down. It resettled on the wreckage between two bent pipes, but was still smarting when I started to take pictures, and after a moment it moved and hid beneath an overhanging concrete block. We swam off to look for others but, finding none, returned after about five minutes to find the lumpsucker back in his original place and more at ease with my camera.
As you can see, lumpsuckers are hardly contenders for a fish beauty contest, but they have an endearing quality.
They are not athletic swimmers, are unusually coloured and are covered in growths and parasites, but that just makes them all the more interesting.
The film finished, we headed back to the boat for the trip back to Bracklesham. The tide was out, so the boat had to moor a fair distance from the car park slipway and the walk back with full kit and camera equipment was a Herculean endeavour.
Small children, still running around in the cool breeze in swimming costumes (dont humans feel the cold before the age of 14), stopped to watch me struggle up the beach and bet on how long it would be before I fell flat on my face, or perhaps had a heart attack.
Thankfully, I did neither.
Generally, lumpsuckers stay in the same place for several weeks as they care for their clutch of eggs. So it was a good bet that I would find my subject again the following day, when I hoped to take some video.
Back at Wittering Divers, I phoned the local Travel Inn, which, surprisingly, had a free room. After the shock of finding that it was clean, run by friendly staff and had a restaurant that produced good food, I enjoyed a great nights sleep.
Refreshed and eager for more lumpsucker encounters, I rushed to beat the crowds I thought would be heading for East Wittering, as the sun was set to shine all day. Again, there was hardly a soul around and parking was plentiful.
I thought that walking out to the boat would be easier second time around, but once I had again struggled into my suit, which seemed to have shrunk during the winter, and the rest of the kit, I was knackered. Walking though waist-deep water was as hard work as it had been the previous day.
The Mulberry was less busy, which was fine. The calm weather over the previous few days had opened the visibility even more and it was touching a phenomenal 8m. On the seabed, I adjusted the video cameras white balance, checked that the lights worked and set off in search of my model.
I started from the broken end of the Mulberry wreckage, where I was confident of remembering my way back to the spot, but with all that extra visibility I was wandering around like a blind man given the gift of sight. I circumnavigated the structure and swam zigzag patterns across it searching for something familiar, but it was like a new site.
Perhaps the cold was affecting my brain, but no matter where I swam, I couldnt find the spot or the lumpsucker. I disturbed a large cuttlefish, several huge wrasse, lots of smaller bib and pollack, but nothing remotely lumpsucker-shaped.
I was getting despondent, and then I must have been at the same depth and angle as the day before, because I looked up and found the same twisted and bent pipes and the same overhanging piece of concrete - though no lumpsucker.
It had had no eggs, so it could, and had, wandered off, probably back to the depths. I stayed for a while, a little in denial, a little in frustration, but mostly in acceptance before returning to the boat. As a wildlife photographer, Im used to being stood up by all manner of creatures.
Still, at least I had the pictures and Id learned a few things over those two days. The British people are deserting the beaches at Easter, even when the sun shines; the Beefeater restaurant chain has greatly improved, as has the Travel Inn; and diving at Easter may be cold, but it can be rather rewarding.