Divernet

THE ARRIVAL OF SPRING FINDS DIVERS DUSTING OFF THEIR KIT and planning excursions, perhaps to one of the popular locations around the British coastline. Some of us are fortunate enough to live on the coast close to these sites and have been able to dive all year when the weather allows.
Diving through the winter months enables you to see the most dramatic seasonal changes occurring on the reef, and this can give a fascinating new purpose to your diving.
One of my favourite sites is Pendennis Point in Falmouth Bay, only a five-minute drive from my home. This site is perfect for observing seasonal changes, as it offers almost every habitat in its sheltered shallow waters.
Here you can find deeply fissured reefs, sandy plains and even wrecks, all within 50-100m of the shore. Its an ideal area for training, photography and, perhaps, for depth fiends who want to test their kit and procedures.
It would be wrong to assume that the winter months are a time of inactivity on the reefs. Its true that heavy winter storms do drive some species to deeper water and will strip the reefs of their summer plumage of kelp and wrack weed.
Between the storms, however, the waters can be glassily calm and very clear. This means that by exploring during these periods you are likely to discover features of the reef normally obscured, and you will be surprised how many of the reef inhabitants remain in residence.
Scouring shallow-water wrecks can also be rewarding after a heavy storm has moved large amounts of sand and gravel - though you must of course report any finds! As spring approaches, you can observe how the reef begins to regenerate and dress itself again in kelp, new sponge growth and the frenzied breeding activity which coincides with this.
Spring normally comes early in the South-west but, particularly after a mild winter (the most recent wasnt mild) things can begin to change as early as February and March.
Its often the smallest things which first catch your attention. A good example of this are the little rosettes and spiral trails of eggs which appear over the reef, indicating that the nudibranchs and sea hares have begun to breed. You will find some of the perpetrators on the reef itself, particularly the sea lemons, which come in a variety of colour combinations from yellow and pink to brown and green or pure white, to match the colours of the sponges on which they feed.

For other species you should look closely at the kelp and purple sea lettuces, where you will often find various exotic-looking examples in the process of mating. Searching through the kelp stypes may also reveal several different species of starfish beginning their spawning behaviour at this time of year.
Often the spiny starfish can be found climbing the kelp stypes to release their spawn into the water column to be carried away on the current. Others, like the brightly hued blood henry, will lay their brood directly onto the reef by raising their bodies and seeming to stand on tip-toe.
The fish are beginning to get frisky as well, and this is often a good time to observe their behaviour at close quarters, when their minds are on their natural urges. The male corkwing wrasse are not the boldest of reef residents, but they might well allow a closer approach while engrossed in nest-building.
You will normally spot them scavenging at the edge of the reef for bits of loose weed and other debris. They pick these up in their mouths and transport them to the nest site.
Having found the site, you can hover for a while, watching this determined toil and being largely ignored by the fish.
One of the strangest fish you might encounter in spring is the male lumpsucker, which is left in shallow water guarding and nurturing his egg clutch after mating.
These fish were apparently once common in the South-west, as they still are in the North Sea, but are now infrequently encountered, so we were excited to find that one had taken up residence just a few metres off the beach.
The first clutch of eggs were spotted by a local diving instructor during a training dive on the remains of one of the WWI German U-boats wrecked here in 1920. Subsequent visits revealed the male now hard at work oxygenating two egg masses in his vivid orange/pink breeding livery.
We were able to make repeated visits to the nest over the next couple of weeks in the hope of seeing the eggs hatch, but we were out of luck, although we were able to see the development of eyes and movement in each tiny globe. In fact the experience is a little saddening, as the poor male lumpsucker does not feed throughout his vigil, and his condition visibly degrades as armies of red sea lice attach themselves to his body.
He needs all his strength to care for his offspring and for occasional forays away from the nest to fight off the attentions of hungry ballan wrasse, which are constantly cruising around looking for an easy meal. In fact all this effort is often too much and the hapless male expires after his monumental effort to secure the next generation.

Directly above this lumpsucker on top of the wreckage were a pair of large, deep maroon-coloured ballan wrasse, the female heavy with eggs resting in the weed while the larger male fastidiously courted her and saw off the advances of other determined males.
This pair were in residence for a week or more waiting to spawn and showed no interest in the instant meal directly below them. We missed the spawning, but returned soon after to find only the male now protecting his territory.
In fact this piece of wreckage, which was formerly part of the hydroplane assembly of the submarine, is a microcosm of reef life. Aside from its temporary and permanently resident fish, the underside is decorated with sponges, hydroids, tunicates, tube worms, cup corals and anemones. Amid these, topknot flatfish are often found clinging upside-down like freestyle climbers.
The top of the steelwork is covered with kelp, so that from above it is indistinguishable from the reef itself. Among the fronds are swimming crabs, hermits, prawns and well-camouflaged scorpionfish.
Other camouflaged residents include the greater pipefish and snake pipefish, both of which hang in the weed and need sharp eyes to spot. Both are related to the seahorse family, and again it is the male which takes on the responsibility of caring for the brood, carrying them on his belly until they hatch.
At the base of the kelp stipes you might find little clusters of dark sea-grapes, or a clutch of white, lozenge-shaped egg sacs. These show that both cuttlefish and squid are mating in the area. Look carefully on the gravel bottom and you are likely to find some cuttlefish, which will put on a fine display of pattern, colour and camouflage changes if approached gently.
If you want a chance of seeing the squid, you need to return after dark and wait patiently with a powerful torch, which normally attracts a few fleeting visits.
Back on the reef, by investigating the cracks and fissures you will find various species of crabs preparing to mate. Male swimming crabs and cancer crabs clutch recently moulted females to their chests to protect them while waiting until they are ready. Later the females will carry their broods until they hatch.
Spider crabs come inshore to breed as well. You might meet small congregations of them waiting for the females to moult, which is when competition between males for partners begins.

Searching for these amorous crustaceans might also reveal blennies and butterfish which have recently mated, and once again it is the poor old male that is left in the nursery protecting the eggs for a month or more until they are ready to hatch.
The shanny, or common blenny, is normally shy and quite difficult to spot with his excellent camouflage, but during breeding his colour darkens to grey or black, while the lips go white and he becomes bolder in line with his parental duties.
The first mild sunny days of spring soon propagate the first phytoplankton or algae bloom, which can reduce visibility and turn the waters dark green both inshore and offshore.
However, as usual nature has all this planned and this bloom is timed to coincide with the hatching of the millions of larvae from the various spawnings. These will feed on the algae as they develop and in turn create their own plankton bloom, which will be fed on by others further up the food chain.
At the end of this food chain is, of course, our largest fish species, the basking shark, which will appear in late April or May and provide some electric encounters for those patient enough to stalk them and forsake their diving kit for a snorkel.
Pendennis Point is close to the centre of Falmouth, with adequate parking and easy access to the water from the road. Best entry point is from the eastern end of Castle Beach, with its small clifftop car park and steps leading to the waters edge.

The U-boat wrecks are easy to find and the remains of no fewer than five subs can be found on the south-western side of the point, within 50m of the shore. To find the closest, enter via the steps and follow the reef edge on your left for about 50m. Turn left and swim another 50m or so parallel to the shore until you come to the first well-defined gully, at right angles to the shore.
Here you will find the remains of the pressure hull of the first U-boat, with other fair-sized pieces of wreckage close by. If you continue swimming east you will encounter the remains of two further submarines in the gullies 50-100m from the shore, the farthest one perhaps 200m from your entry point.
If you dive from the rocks further up the road, make sure it is over the high-water period. Its easy to get stranded by the falling tide and you might have a long swim to an exit point!

Watching
Watching a lumpsucker covered in red sea lice circle his nest
Clusters
Clusters of squid eggs are often found attached to the kelp stipes
a
a nudibranch winds its egg mass around a blade of eel grass
the
the shanny changes colour to grey or black when he is guarding his egg mass
a
a starfish raises itself

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: A39 to Falmouth, then follow signs for docks. At mini-roundabout at bottom of Melville Road turn right following signs to Falmouth Castle, Ships & Castles Leisure Centre and Pendennis Point. Follow Castle Drive around point past Coastguard Station to next car park just beyond pinch point in road. Steps and entry to dive site are just to left of car park.

DIVING: The site is easy to dive in most conditions except when easterly or southerly gales prevail. Entry and exit easiest at mid-tide or high water but access reasonable even on low spring tide. Air/equipment: Cornish Diving Services 01326 311265, Haven Scuba School, 01326 378878, Seaways 01326 375544

ACCOMMODATION: A wide range from hotels to guest houses and campsites.

WHEN TO GO: Now!

WATER TEMPERATURE: Average 10c.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Cornwall Tourist Information Centre, 01326 312300, www.cornwall-online.co.uk or www.cornwalltouristboard.co.uk