Divernet

I descended the shot line on the Eddystone to a kelp-covered slope at just 8m. Not just any old kelp, but the large and firmly rooted kelp that lives in strong currents and clear water. A last pull on the line, a quick flick of the fins and I was over the ridge and beneath the gentle current. The change in marine life was instant. The wall below me was covered in tightly packed clumps of orange, cream and pale green plumose anemones, stretching down to a rocky seabed at 20m.
A large, green and brown speckled ballan wrasse weaved around, pecking away for small morsels. To my left a shoal of pollack hovered in the current above the ridge.
Further down the wall the plumose anemones gave way to small green and white jewel anemones and clumps of tan-coloured hydroids. If I looked closely, nudibranchs were easily located, munching away at the miniature forest.
Staying halfway up the wall, we drifted slowly south with the current. Soon the wall had become a steep slope of large white plumose anemones rising just 5m above a sandy seabed at 25m with a scattering of rocks.
Not wanting to get too far down-current, we looped out across the sand and back along the seabed towards our starting point.
Facing me on the sand were a pair of dozing dogfish, while hovering above was a long, thin, light brown ling with a distinctive barbel just below its chin.
The dogfish ignored us, but the ling kept a wary eye out as it searched for a clear patch of seabed, then dipped down to scratch first one side and then the other against the sand. Fish apparently do this to remove parasites from their skin. Perhaps this ling had the fish equivalent of a smug, satisfied smile that comes from a good scratch at an itchy back.
Now clear of the sand, a forest of gorgonia stretched across the flat rocks in front of us, swaying gently in the current. Every now and then a clump of ross coral clung to the rocks looking like a plate of brandy snaps on the dessert trolley. A bit of a misnomer, ross coral, as it is actually a bryozoan.

Faith restorer
Altogether Eddystone is about as good as reef diving can get, but the special thing about this dive was my buddys reaction.
A recently qualified BSAC Sports Diver, she had done all the standard training sites and was not all that impressed with UK diving, the poor visibility and the lack of marine life. In fact, she was thinking of selling her wetsuit and only using her qualifications on tropical holidays. One good dive on the Eddystone cured her of all that.
We were diving my favourite part of the Eddystone reef, just a few metres south of the lighthouse. Considering its location in relation to south-coast shipping traffic, it would be easy to expect the Eddystone to be covered in wreckage. But apart from the scattered remains of some steel wreckage, a few hundred years of lighthouses seem to have done a good job of keeping modern ships clear of the rocks. From a diving point of view, the real attraction of the Eddystone is the marine life.
From surrounding waters, which at times are over 50m deep, the Eddystone reef rises to break the surface as a jagged collection of rocks. Running from east to west, the depth jumps from 20m to 6m, then gently slopes back down again. The reef continues at easily diveable depths for more than 800m in an east-west direction, with many rocks rising to within a few metres of the surface.
With rocks like this all over the place, does it really matter where you start Why not just jump in anywhere and explore Well, it is nice to do that every now and then, but you run the risk of diving on a kelp-covered plateau with gently sloping sides. Personally, I prefer to have some vertical or even overhanging rocks with a good covering of anemones and hydroids.

Cuckoo land
Just a few miles to the north-west of the Eddystone is Hand Deeps. Another large reef about 800m across, but this time only rising to a depth of 9m with no rocks breaking the surface.
I can imagine it getting its name a few hundred years ago, as an old crusty fisherman sat in the pub one night telling tall and salty sea tales: There be a shallow reef out there that is only a hand deep. I can lean over the boat and touch the bottom.
There is no lighthouse to mark Hand Deeps, but the right area is easily identified by the number of pot-buoys around it. Like the Eddystone, it is possible to have a good dive on many different parts of Hand Deeps, but the really special site is a wall on the north corner of the reef.
Here the reef peaks at 9m, gently slopes to 15m, then plummets vertically to 40m before breaking to a 45 boulder slope which drops away into the distance.
>From a shot at the shallowest point of this dive, following the steepest slope in a northerly direction leads into one of two corners cut back into the wall. Between these two corners is an outside corner or point that is most exposed to current and hence has very dense marine life.
The predominant coverings on the wall are brightly coloured patches of large jewel anemones and clumps of dead mens fingers.
Sea urchins cling to the vertical face and munch their way through this carpet of life.
Fish life includes goldsinny, cuckoo and ballan wrasse. At the points and corners where the current is strongest there are often shoals of pollack. Cracks are home to crabs and lobsters.
Cuckoo wrasse can be very curious, often approaching to within a metre and looking straight into a divers eyes. If you hold a hand still they might even peck at a finger.
As one moves eastwards, the wall soon breaks up into a boulder slope. Westwards the wall continues for a fair distance, with jewel anemones occasionally giving way to patches of plumose and daisy anemones on exposed corners. The crest of the wall falls quickly to 20m then more gently to 25m. There are some more sharp corners, but overall the wall maintains a general westward direction.
From Hand Deeps, several miles further to the west lies Hat Rock. This is a much smaller reef that rises mostly vertically from the seabed to a minimum depth of 20m. The main dive site is the north face of the rock.
Marine life is very similar to Hand Deeps, dense patches of brightly coloured jewel anemones, occasional clumps of plumose anemones, sea urchins, hydroids, nudibranchs and lots of fish.
Unlike the Eddystone or Hand Deeps, the flat top of Hat Rock is a little deep for serious kelp growth. Although there are the occasional sprigs, the carpets of jewel anemones extend across the top of the rock. With a greater average depth, this also makes Hat Rock potentially a more serious dive.
All three of these areas off the coast of Plymouth offer spectacular walls of anemones, clear visibility and the best of UK marine life, in the wow, spectacular, amazing category.
If I had to choose just one of these areas for a dive, then I would always go for the Eddystone.




FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Follow the M5 south, then the A38 to Plymouth, or continue on the A38 across the Tamar Bridge and take the A387 to Looe.TIDES: Slack water on all these dives is 2 to 3 hours after high and low water Plymouth. For Hand Deeps slack water is essential during spring tides but experienced divers could drift at any state of a neap tide. There are usually opportunities to dive somewhere on the Eddystone at any state of the tide.
DIVING AND AIR: There are a number of hard-boat charters from Plymouth (see small ads at back of magazine). Sound Diving (01752 670674) has a dive shop with compressor and operates a RIB shuttle from Queen Annes Battery marina. For diving from Looe, contact Looe Divers (01503 262727), which has a shop and school with compressor, operates a RIB shuttle and acts as agent for Looe hardboats.
LOCATIONS:The Eddystone is at 50.10.75N, 4.30.90W (all positions degrees, minutes and decimals). South of the lighthouse, it is the ridge that does not break the surface, just west of the one that does. The east side of the ridge has spectacular vertical walls, the west is a kelp forest. Hand Deeps is at 50.12.58N, 4.20.40W. Look for an echo which drops rapidly from 9m to 40m. Hat Rock is at 50.10.60N, 4.29.30W and rises almost vertically from the seabed to 20m. The main dive is the north face of the rock.
LAUNCHING:Recommended slips are at Queen Annes Battery and Mountbatten in Plymouth. These are both wide enough for seaplanes, so are easy launches for an inflatable or RIB.
ACCOMMODATION: All styles from camping to hotels are available. Campsites tend to be a bit expensive, but usually have good facilities. Details available from Plymouth Tourist Information (01752 264849) or Looe Tourist Information (01503 262072).
QUALIFICATIONS: In good conditions at slack water, some of the dives are suitable for beginners with appropriate leadership.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1613, Eddystone rocks to Berry Head. Admiralty Chart 1627, Falmouth to Plymouth. Ordnance Survey Map 201, Plymouth and Launceston area. Also websites www.plymouth.gov.uk and www.cornwall-online.co.uk/caradon/looe.htm