An obsession hits rock bottom
LIKE MANY OF US obsessed with the sea, my strongest childhood memories are based on the seashore. The tides would pass too quickly as I searched in and among the seaweed for blennies, shore crabs and strawberry anemones.
If it were not for the tidal limitations, I would have happily spent all day looking under rocks to discover edible crabs hiding in the gravel, or examining the detail of the barnacles that encrusted the rocks.
Luckily for me, I ended up living by the coast from the age of nine, and could explore the seashore on an almost daily basis. The seashore became my life and led me to studying marine sciences, working in marine education based on the intertidal region, and even writing a book about the seashore.
Throughout this time I had dabbled in diving, loved snorkelling but never had the opportunity to invest in diving properly with equipment, or had as much time as I would have hoped.
All that changed at the beginning of 2012. Having enjoyed snorkelling, there was part of me that wondered if I would get that much additional satisfaction from diving. However, prompted by talking to some marine obsessives, I finally got a cylinder on my back again.
I joined my local Totnes BSAC and re-acquainted myself with the skills of kitting-up and the joys of mouth-to-nose resuscitation drills in the pool (some skills you’d sooner forget). I soon had my first shore dive in a long time.
As I slipped into the water, the weight of my kit and worries lifted from my shoulders and I was happy to be in the sea. I had thought that my obsession with the sea couldn’t get much deeper and that my love affair with all things marine was already about as depraved as it could get. I was pitifully wrong.
AS I PROGRESSED ALONG the shingle shore with my buddy I caught sight of a necklace shell. You rarely get to see these on the seashore, apart from the occasional empty one washed up on to the strandline.
Here was the necklace shell, foot extended like a flying carpet gliding over the bumpy gravel bottom. This was really all I needed to have claimed a “great dive”, but this was just the start of this first dive experience.
As we approached the edge of a rocky reef, I went on to see a common starfish. If I’m very lucky I might find a common starfish on the low spring tides while rock-pooling. I’ve even seen hundreds of them washed up, dehydrated and limp after a heavy storm.
On this dive, the starfish tube feet were extended, allowing it to migrate over the rocks, plump and vibrant, in search of unsuspecting prey.
I stopped to stare while my buddy patiently allowed me time to absorb the minute movements of the tube feet.
I looked at the hole of the madreporite on its upper surface, imagining the water being drawn in through it to allow the hydrostatic tube feet to fill and suck onto the rocks.
On the reef, some mussels were covering the rock, likely prey for the common starfish. No longer were these mussels the clamped-shut jet-black defensive bivalves of the seashore. The valves were open, drawing in plankton from the surrounding water.
The filtering structures of the mussel shells gaping open made them appear as flowers, rather than pebble-like.
This world of diving was opening up quite literally before me.
I realised as I was experiencing this shore dive that the marine world I was seeing on a rocky shore was a seemingly sleepy and quieter reflection of the true deeper marine world. That here, while diving, the creatures were less under threat from dehydration in the sun’s rays or predation by birds, and were seemingly less fearful, feeding and active.
My marine obsession hit rock bottom!
As we ascended, I became transfixed on the soupy plankton. I started to imagine that all the creatures of the rocky shore were floating past me in their planktonic stage.
I tried to focus to see (quite ridiculously) if I could spot any defined characteristic shapes of any individual plankton. I saw a white lump drift towards me. It was a little larger than the other specks of plankton.
I held out my finger and managed to get this oceanic drifter to land on the tip of my glove.
As I adjusted my focus and looked closely, I could clearly see its structure.
It measured probably not much longer than 2mm and had minute projections with orange tips on its back.
I couldn’t believe it – it was an orange-clubbed nudibranch (Limacia clavigera)!
So began my new marine sport of “plankton spotting”!
FROM THEN ON, the diving experiences just proved to dig me deeper into my marine obsession. My favourite dive to date has been on the Louis Sheid in South Devon.
This was my first British wreck dive, and also my first night dive – double the excitement and double the nerves!
I needn’t have worried, because I was buddied up with the club Diving Officer Richard, who had done this night dive many times. We discussed the plan, and I asked if we might come across the second, smaller wreck at Leasefoot Beach on our return from the Louis Sheid.
“The chances of that are small – let’s just concentrate on finding the Louis Sheid first!” said Richard.
We snorkelled under moonlight – our torches lighting up ahead of us in inky but crystal-clear water. We swam past the headland and then began to descend into the depths. The sensation of descending had its usual soporific effect, and I no longer felt any apprehension.
AFTER A SMALL AMOUNT OF FINNING the skeletal structure of the Louis Sheid’s ribs appeared. They were huge – at least, compared to what I imagined.
I had often rockpooled on this shore and visualised the wreck that lay in the waters not far from the exposed rocky reef. My imagination had underplayed its impressive stature.
As we swam around its circumference we saw lobsters fighting, and plumose anemone like fluffy clouds softened the angular structure of the wreck.
Leaving the wreck, we swam over an area where lots of broken-off seaweed was decaying. As I placed a finger in the seabed to steady myself my finger sank into the soft, silty decay. I then realised a that a sea slater had stuck to my finger.
Looking properly at the area of rotting seaweed, I suddenly saw that this whole area was in fact teeming, inches thick with sea slaters (they resemble woodlice) feasting on this decaying buffet.
This attracted others to fed on them – sizeable edible crabs side-stepped across the sea-lice gorging on the isopods.
Looking above this area in the water column, a school of pollack were hovering. It struck me that night time was such a very different experience in the marine world. The sea took on yet another attractive personality.
After miraculously hitting the second wreck at Leasefoot, the highlight of all my dives put together came when Richard motioned to me to turn my torch off.
At first I held his arm to get my bearings and not lose him, but I quickly saw that we were in for a real treat. I let go of Richard and swung my hands about wildly in front of me like a mad woman to agitate the dinoflagellates even more, and create a light show of phosphorescing plankton!
At this point I was smiling and laughing so much that my mask was constantly filling with water.
I’d stop waving my hands around, clear my mask and then start waving frantically again, only to resume laughing and have to repeat the procedure all over again.
Then the bliss really set in and I stopped to just calmly enjoy the phosphorescence. Looking at Richard, I could see that he was glittering from head to toe.
Torches back on, we made our way to the shore, spotting squid on the way darting in front of us. As we approached the shallower waters and sandy furrows, the silvery sides of sand eels reflected in our torch-light and catapulted from one furrow to the next as they left the mark of their retreat in the sand.
Surfacing from our phosphorescent dream we emerged to a starlit sky and Richard spotted a shooting star – at which point I was rendered uncharacteristically speechless.
In my more recent dive experience I have had the chance to release baby lobsters reared by Padstow Lobster Hatchery into adjacent Cornish waters.
This was as a result of my patronage with Sea-Changers, which had passed on a cheque to the hatchery to help feed the lobsters.
The lobster release was, despite nauseating seas, another memorable experience. Knowing that each baby lobster that we wafted out of its tray was contributing towards the sustainability of a lobster fishery was so rewarding.
IT WAS ALSO GREAT to experience the north Cornwall coast, with considerably better visibility than I had been seeing in south Devon of late.
We even saw the erroneously named “Ross coral” heads, which are in fact bryozoans with a coral-like dome structure of wavy, russet “leaves”.
I am not yet a year into my renewed diving experiences, and while my love for the seashore has not waned, my hunger for new diving experiences is becoming insatiable!
There are so many firsts on every dive. On my last dive I saw my first hermit crab to have made a home of the beautiful pelican foot shell. The potential for new experiences and even new skills through qualifications is vast. It’s fair to say that I am now hooked.
One of the most important things I have taken from this renewed immersion into our salty world is that it’s easy to forget what captivates people about our natural environment when it is all so very new.
Whether diving or rockpooling, it’s easy to forget some of the simpler things that really engage fresh eyes and senses. What we might class as an average dive-site could offer insights and experiences to a diver fresh to the underwater scene, offering them a new perspective and concern for the big blue.
So who’s up for plankton-spotting