|IM STANDING ALONGSIDE THE PIER IN SELSEY, West Sussex, in the April rain. Looking out to sea, the only clues about what lurks beneath the waves are a few bleached cuttlefish bones lying on the pebbles. Still, I have been assured by a couple of local divers that this is one of the best spots in the UK to dive with cuttlefish.
Paul Parsons showed me some of the pictures he took last year when he and his diving buddy Robert Walker first saw the cuttles. I saw Pauls footage and was instantly hooked.
Normally, if youre lucky enough to see cuttlefish in the first place, they swim away in a spurt of jet propulsion and ink. I couldnt believe that we were going to be able to get so close to them and witness their remarkable behaviour.
Its hard to believe that these exotic-looking creatures come to UK waters to breed, but in late spring they move up from the ocean depths to beaches off the south coast, looking for suitable sites for egg-laying.
Cuttlefish need to lay their eggs on hard structures under water, so the old metal pilings of the pier are a perfect spot. It may not be picturesque but its certainly solid.
Our chances were looking good until we realised that the water temperature was 2Ã‚ lower than the same time last year, so we were worried that the breeding season might be delayed, and filming scuppered. We had only a small diving window in which to film these creatures - what if they werent there
Out came the full-face Aga mask, which uses a lot of air when youre talking and flushing out the CO2 that builds up in the air space. My previous experience had been with the more commonly used half-Agas but I was still getting used to this type, developed by Richard Bull.
The large flat plate of the mask allows the whole of my face to be seen on screen, including my lips moving, but with no nose dam on the mask, the user has to rely on swallowing, which makes it hell to equalise. Because of the build-up of CO2, you also have to flush in fresh air every minute or two to prevent dizziness.
I sat on the boat ready to go while the cameraman dived in. A few minutes later, he sent up an SMB to let us know that he had found cuttlefish and was filming them.
I kitted up fast, but then had a frustrating four-minute descent to 10m, thanks to a blocked ear and lack of anything to help me equalise. Every minute that went by, I imagined that we were missing exciting cuttlefish behaviour, but there was nothing I could do but keep swallowing and try to equalise.
This was our first dive, and I soon came across a large cuttlefish that was quite happy to be filmed right in front of my face. It gave me a great opportunity to get a close look at its anatomy and colorations as it hovered motionless in the water, with that wonderful rippling skirt always on the move to keep it buoyant.
As I watched closely, it manoeuvred gently around a rock, and then the front two tentacles went up in a threat posture, turning from a mud-brown to reddish-purple. Something was about to happen, and I started to get excited.
Then, right in front of my face, the cuttlefish shot straight for the rock face and returned with a crab in its tentacles. It zoomed past my face and disappeared into the gloom. The shots were fantastic - just the sort of encounter we wanted.
That footage, combined with some of Roberts, gave us a fantastic feature for the first programme in the series.
Two weeks later we flew to Belfast and then drove south to Strangford Lough. Its difficult to describe the unspoilt beauty of the place, and hard to do it justice with photographs.
This lough has been designated as Northern Irelands first (and only) Marine Nature Reserve, and supports an exceptional range of marine life, from a high-energy and rocky environment near the mouth where the tide floods in, to mudflats at the top end, where the water is much calmer.
Strangford Lough is home to more than 2000 marine species, including possibly the largest breeding population of common seals in Northern Ireland. The whole body of water is surrounded by trees and fields, sprinkled with a few grey houses and the ruins of old monasteries and churches.
It feels a bit like a huge lake, except that it is tidal. The tide rushes through the Narrows - a very restricted opening for such a huge body of water - and gets churned up as it moves into the lough, and as the depth decreases dramatically in places. At any time of the day when you look at the water, its on the move.
The force of the currents makes diving look pretty hairy when youre on the water. I think we had a minute or two of slack on one dive, but not enough to make it memorable! We were here to experience and capture the beauty of the marine life. Sadly, there was a plankton bloom and the water was a bit green, but we still saw lots of the marine life that you only ever find in a high-energy environment like this.
There seemed to be very few fish, however, even when diving around the wrecks, which was unusual. But when you felt the pull of the current, you realised that if anything was to survive, it needed to be stuck to a rock, or hiding beneath one.
We saw a fantastic blue conger beneath the timbers of an old 18th century wreck; it had certainly found a good spot to hide.
There was also the odd wrasse, and a lot of scallops, hermit and edible crabs - enough to look at if you could stay still long enough in the swell.
After an initial orientation dive to check that the Aga was working properly (a half-Aga this time, which meant that I could equalise more easily and cope better with the current on descent) our final few dives were to illustrate the force of the current.
We braced ourselves for some ripping water - and we got it. Only at the Needles have I been so sucked in and out of the currents that I felt out of control and at the mercy of the water. Here, we had to co-ordinate four divers, lights and cameras - but we got the shots.
The cameraman, Scott Tibbles, even managed to hold onto the camera while lighting and directing all of us in the flow - what a guy! At one stage, we were all lined up, hanging onto a wreck while the current did its best to suck us beneath it. We had no option but to release our grip and go with the flow.
Scotty kept filming, and looking back at the footage we got the images we needed. It was well worth it for the experience, though it was not for the faint-hearted. I thoroughly recommend Strangford Lough as a place to go, if only for its sheer beauty, and the divings OK too!
Just look at the picture of the baby seal on the next page - how cute is that And how incredible to dive with seals in their element, and have them swim around and interact with you
One of the highlights of filming Coast was our trip to the Farne Islands off Northumberland. This is of course a top spot for divers in the UK, but for those who havent done it, put it on top of your wishlist!
Timing was critical, as the aim was to try to swim with the adult seals under water before they pupped, to avoid any aggressive encounters. We were accompanied by a local GP, Ben Burville, who dives regularly with the seals here. He has a way with them under water, and its amusing watching a grown man playing peek-a-boo with a grey seal.
This was our first shoot for Coast (and my first dive in that full-face Aga mask). September is a good time of year to dive with the seals, as its not too cold and the viz is fantastic. The weather often gets so bad later in the year that you cant get out to the islands, even though they are only a mile offshore.
As far as underwater encounters with wild animals are concerned, this one is up there in my top 10 -- along with diving with wild dolphins, manatees and, obviously, sharks. But a seal encounter is so different because, providing youre in the right spot, stay still and are patient, the seals will come and check you out.
Generally, a bull seal will swim by and give you the once-over. You get the impression that he then goes off to tell the rest of the group that youre OK, and no threat. Then the females move in. They stick around a bit longer and, after a few passes, will come up to you to investigate, probably marvelling at how ridiculous you look with all your kit on.
One flick of those powerful back flippers and theyre off. Sit and wait for a few more minutes and theyll be back - this time to nibble your fins and give them a little tug to see if they come off easily!
Then, if youre lucky, theyll come up to your hand and check that out. I was told always to make a fist and not to hold my hand out flat, as these creatures have sharp teeth.
Seals are inquisitive, and once theyre happy with you, they seem to have no inhibitions. They will come up to investigate your head, hoses, arms, legs, camera - you name it.
Goodness knows what they got out of playing with me, but I sure benefited from the experience. It is always a privilege to have a wild animal approach you (unless its a great white) and this experience was no exception.
We returned to the islands in November, when it was a little colder and a lot windier. This time the seals were mostly on land, and the ground seemed to be littered with white blobs - the seal pups.
Because of their dense fur, designed to keep them warm, they cant swim and would drown if they got in the water before their first moult.
They are the cutest creatures and seem to have little fear of humans stroking them. The adults at this time are harder to deal with. Either they hang around close by and make a mad dash for you if you get near their offspring, or they hang around in the water. Its advisable not to swim with them, and we didnt dive second time around.
This was an unforgettable experience which I highly recommend that you try if you havent already (contact William Shiel on 01665 721297).
|Team-member Paul Parsons under Selsey lifeboat station Photo - Paul Parsons |
|a common dragonet at Ballyhenry Point in Strangford Lough |
|a hermit crab on the Alastor off the loughs Ringhaddy Quay |
|a tompot blenny on the same wreck |
|A diver on Lees Wreck, a merchant ship sunk in Strangford Lough during WW2 |
|completing a dive at Selsey Photo - Paul Parsons |
|Miranda Krestovnikoff with her Aga mask |
|a view of the deck of Lees Wreck |
|A baby seal suns itself in the Farne Islands |
|Miranda enjoys a close encounter |
The 13-part BBC2 series Coast starts on Friday 22 July. A wide-ranging celebration of the coastline of Britain and Northern Ireland, the series follows the coast clockwise from Cornwall as its team investigates everything from the underwater world to life on a trawler and early holiday camps.
Zoologist Miranda Krestovnikoff, who has presented various series for BBC, Channel 4 (Wreck Detectives) and UKTV History, is one of the team of five experts presenting the series, alongside geographer Nicholas Crane, historian Neil Oliver and archaeologists Dr Alice Roberts and Mark Horton.
Other underwater subjects include porbeagle sharks; leather-backed turtles and other wildlife in Cardigan Bay; the Griona shipwreck off Northern Ireland; and minke whales.
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