Divernet

AT 9M THE SEAFLOOR BECOMES VISIBLE. At 14 I hit it, quite hard actually, as my knees testified later that night. It was my own fault. I should have put more air into my BC, but I was busy looking at a shoal of bib as I passed through it. Mind you, the pain in my ears distracted my attention from my knees at first, as Id also been too engrossed in the view to equalise.
From my seat behind the desk where I write this, the word idiot springs to mind, and your description for me is probably much stronger. How can an experienced diver forget two of the most basic and fundamental elements of diving
Well, surround yourself with enough fish to take over a small country and perhaps youll understand what I went through. Ive seen less marine life in an overcrowded aquarium.
And that was just my first taste of Vase Rock, one of the collection of Englands teeth which form the Manacles Reef off Cornwalls Lizard Peninsula.
Vase is a fairly large lump of granite, a molar if you want to pursue the dental theme, and it comprises a series of sheer walls, canyons and outcrops towards the western edge of the Manacles formation. It tops out at around 8m and, in summer, is coated with a thick wig of kelp down to around 15-18m.
Atlantic kelp is a marvel of nature. It can catch you and tangle around hoses, pillar-valves and fins without you even having to struggle. I know, because I landed smack in a dense patch on my second visit and tried to extricate myself - with great difficulty.
My fins became trapped, then my hoses, arm, camera and pillar-valve. I was like a fly on that sticky paper you see hanging from transport café ceilings. It wasnt a good start to the dive - again.
Yet the thing with Vase, and the point of starting the article in this way, is that no matter how bad your dive starts, it simply gets better and better, usually finishing with you wanting more.
As I disentangled myself from the kelp I looked up, probably to see if my buddy was there to help me. But rather than a diver, it was a dogfish I saw swimming above the fronds. It probably wondered what the kerfuffle was all about.
I stopped to watch it snake past, its feline-like eye searching its surroundings, either for prey or to see the idiot tangled in the kelp. The fish around were far too large for its tastes. Big female cuckoo wrasse, pollack, several bib and a John Dory were all I could see, although my view was slightly obscured by several fronds of kelp.
Once free, I continued down and around to the north. My aim was to round the north-east corner to my favourite spot on the pinnacle. The sheer rock faces here, where the current washes past during the full force of the tide, are covered in plumose anemones. And when I say covered, I mean not a scrap of rock visible, wall-to-wall shag-pile carpet-covered - basically, its a wall of gelatinous membrane-covered snot.

Exciting globs of goo
And who said that diving in the UK wasnt interesting! Bronze, white, cream and brown varieties vie for position in this food-rich, high-energy environment, and while a grown man getting excited about blobs of goo is decidedly odd, I am always captivated by the sight.
Diving generally takes place here at slack water, because finding a diver being swept along in a 5 knot current can be a little tricky for the diveboat skipper. Yet at slack water, the anemones are generally closed and not that interesting.
What I tend to do then is to carry on down and into the numerous gullies and investigate the areas around the boulders strewn across the gritty seafloor. The pinnacle bottoms out at around 40m, but I stick around 25m and above, where the light levels are higher. You find all the usual British reef critters here plus a few of the summer visitors such as John Dory, and it has been known for sunfish to make an appearance from time to time.
A torch is essential to bring out the best in the colours. Anyone who believes that diving in the UK is a colourless performance obviously hasnt shone a touch on an overhang covered in jewel anemones.
The purple jumps out at you. In fact, almost every encrusting or stationary organism you find here offers a level of colour more likely to be found on a mad artists palette.
As you move up the food chain, the colours do start to fade. There are some colourful seastars, but also some rather drab ones. The fish are not the most visually spectacular, either, but because its hard to catch them here, what they lack in visual stimulation they make up for in stature.
The pollack and wrasse are as large as any I have seen, and even the smaller blennies are big. Vase is a marine-life wonderland with not a scrap of metal to be found. That will put a few people off, but that keeps it clear for the rest of us.

Raising the flag
As you start your ascent, you can make your way around the rock. Being a pinnacle, Vase narrows as the depth decreases. But be careful of the current. As the tide starts to flood or ebb, the water picks up speed fairly quickly.
It is possible to hide behind the rock, but ensure that you carry a delayed SMB, as youll get picked up in it as you start your safety stop. The current is nothing to fear at the beginning of the tide, however, as it transforms the north-eastern corner.
When they detect water movement, the plumose anemones start to open. They stand up into the current and splay their feathery tentacle mass to catch anything that happens to wash by. I imagine that, if you could fight the current and stay in one place, the anemones must deliver an awesome sight at the tides full flood. But not being Superman, I have to make do with the early risers opening as the water slowly picks up.
Its still a spectacular sight. Plumose anemones are the UKs largest species and can reach 30cm tall. They prefer high-energy environments where all the work is done for them. Food is express-delivered the way supermarkets would do it if their delivery vans were Ferraris.
Vase is not a dive for the faint-hearted or the beginner, but during slack water it is a safe dive if you keep in mind that the current can move quickly and start fairly rapidly, depending on the state of the tidal cycle. It is therefore, like most of the Manacles, best dived during a neap tide.

Further east
Set in deeper water, Raglan is another pinnacle that fails to break the surface, but only just. You hit the top of the rock at about 4m and in summer, as with most other static objects in the area above 15m, it is covered in a thick layer of kelp.
Wised-up to the effect kelp has on divers should they land smack in the middle of the forest, I steered away and headed down the north-east face. This area, as with Vase, is home to massed groups of plumose anemones. Clumps of similar-coloured plumose anemones are the norm here, because they are all clones.
Plumose anemones move. You would really appreciate that only with time-lapse photography, but everyone likes a new view and the plumose is no exception.
However, as it crawls across the rock face, it leaves behind small fragments of itself, which grow into a new, identical, anemone. Thats why you most often see clumps of anemones of the same colour.
Further down the north-east face, the overhangs are carpeted in purple jewel anemones, and off the extremities delicate seafans hang. This species is similar to that seen in much of the Mediterranean, but it is extremely slow-growing, and several of the examples on Raglan will have lived through World War Two and could pre-date many of the wrecks scattered in the Manacles Reef area.
I dont suggest going to the bottom of the reef, as there is no real need. Level off in the 20-30m range, start circling around to the west and gradually get shallower. Remember that the kelp starts in 18m during the summer and that this area is best avoided unless you want fish to think that all us divers are idiots.
As you round the reef heading to the south, you find a series of ledges that are often buzzed by large pollack, mullet and bass. If you can draw your eyes away from whats above to whats below, you may find the odd anglerfish, although intensive fishing for the scampi market has reduced the numbers of these interesting fish.
There are, however, often flatfish, cheeky blennies and numerous and inquisitive wrasse.
As your dive draws to a close and you enter the kelp zone, keep an eye out for snoozing dogfish, but dont do what an acquaintance did once and grab ones tail. Dogfish are among the few sharks that can turn around and bite their tails. Or in this case, the divers hand. He wasnt wearing gloves, and the chafing mark he received reminded me of the time I fell down the stairs and put my hand through a plate-glass door. My acquaintance had tiny cuts everywhere and then had the audacity to complain about his plight.
I may forget to equalise, or gain neutral buoyancy from time to time, but I never complain when Im attacked by a fish for doing something wrong!




A
A large shoal of bib at Vase Rock
a
a dogfish hunting over the reef at Vase
kelp
kelp - not the best thing into which to fall
plumose-anemone-covered
plumose-anemone-covered rocks at the north-east corner of Vase
male
male cuckoo wrasse at Raglan
Kelp
Kelp with sea urchin attached near the top of Raglan

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: From Helston in Cornwall, take the St Keverne Road past the air-naval station. St Keverne is about 10 miles down the road, past Goonhilly radio station. At St Keverne Square turn left and follow the road, which turns into one of those quintessentially tiny Cornwall lanes. After about two miles, Porthkerris Beach is signposted.
DIVING: Vase and Raglan are a few minutes boat-ride from Porthkerris Beach. Gavin Parsons dived with Porthkerris Dive Centre off its large catamaran Celtic Cat. The beach is privately owned and provides toilet facilities, an air station and a very good shore dive. The dive centre has a shop stocked with all those things that break or are forgotten on a trip and there is a good café on the site as well. Contact 01326 280620 / 280877 or visit www.porthkerris.com.
ACCOMMODATION : Porthkerris provides camping accommodation or can arrange bed and breakfast for you. Gavin stayed at the Three Tuns pub in the nearby village of St Keverne, which he says is a great place to base yourself, as the pub does superb breakfasts, and to chill after a days diving enjoying good food and beer and lively company.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Cornwall Tourist Board 01872 322900, www.cornwalltouristboard.co.uk.