Shoots at Stoney
MY BUDDY ROB AND I JUMP off the Bus Stop and head left to the shelf to see what I can find with a macro lens. We drop down, mainly on the look-out for crayfish, but then I see something much bigger in the distance, motionless and waiting.
Closer inspection reveals a group of pike. It’s not that unusual to see one or two of these fish at Stoney Cove, but there must be a dozen here which, for what is usually a solitary predator, is weird.
As we move along, we see the reason for this unusual spectacle. A huge female pike is buried in the pondweed with admiring males around her.
This spawning event is a fantastic opportunity for behavioural images, though not having a wide-angle lens on means that my options are limited.
When pike are ready to spawn they stop feeding completely, and the female will pick out a spot near the weeds to lay her eggs.
As she waits, males gather until eventually you get a ball of pike writhing and twisting around each other in their efforts to get to the female and spawn. And Stoney Cove has to be one of the best dive-sites in the country at which to witness such an event.
WHEN YOU EXPLAIN that you’re a diver to non-diving friends, they often assume that you learned to dive in clear, sun-drenched waters abroad. However, a lot of us carried out our training in quarries, and one that is synonymous with UK diving is Stoney.
Before I went to university in Cornwall to study marine and natural history photography, I wanted to qualify as a diver so that when cameras came into the equation it wouldn’t all be too overwhelming.
As I’m from Nottingham the drive to Stoney wasn’t that far, and I well remember seeing its clear waters for the first time – well, they were clear before the dive-school got in, anyway!
Midweek dives are the best, as the site is less busy and, at the tail-end of the season when it’s getting cooler, the water clarity can be fantastic – which, for a novice diver, is very comforting.
When diving in the Red Sea off Marsa Shagra a few years ago, I was amazed how many international divers had heard of this hole in the ground in the east Midlands. Even some of the Egyptian dive guides had dived there!
I still think that training in Stoney, rather than just pool and the odd sea dive, provided a great learning curve. Most of my current work is based in lakes and rivers, and Stoney Cove was a perfect training area for that.
It has a well-stocked dive shop that also covers hire equipment, a training pool if you don’t fancy the outdoor temperature, and air refills. The water temperature peaks at around 17°C in summer and drops to 3°C in the winter, but expect much better visibility in the colder months, up to 20m on still, bright days. The average is around 5m, depending on algae blooms and disturbance.
The Leicestershire quarry was dug mostly for granite around the 1920s. Diving started there in 1960, and as the years went on the sport gained in popularity. In September 1999 a new access road and entrance were completed, opening the site to more divers.
Stoney became the National Diving Centre, with a shop, hire service, showers, bar and, most importantly, a place to grab a cup of tea and a sausage cob between dives.
My first deep dive at Stoney was to the Stanegarth wreck, which was brought to the site, in part, because of DIVER magazine. Sunk into the depths on 6 June 2000, it was even blessed by a chaplain.
A buoy marks where to find the wreck from the surface, and can be used to go up and down slowly. Divers tend not to see many fish around the wreck, although some of the resident perch can be found there, and some real monster-sized fish hide inside.
The Stanegarth is the biggest inland wreck in the UK and other Stoney attractions on which divers can practise their wreck photography include part of an aircraft, bus, tugboat, the Nautilus and, if you can track her, Nessie.
One of the attractions is the range of depths, with a 7m shelf ideal for beginners and photographers sloping down to 22m, where most of the wrecks and cars are to be found. The deepest point is at around 35m, where the Hydrobox is located.
Shallow dives are my favourite, going around the edges following the weedbeds.
The first 10m of water hold the most life. Sunlight penetrates down to the Canadian pondweed, which grows thickly between the rocks and silt, creating a mosaic habitat ideal for roach and perch fry and, of course, Stoney Cove’s top predator – the pike.
Pike are certainly the main attraction for many divers interested in wildlife, and everyone has a story about that monster that lurks at the back of the lake. Pike can reach well over 4ft in length and, with enough food, gain weights of near 23kg, so are big fish in the right conditions.
Their main method of catching prey is to ambush it, relying on camouflage and stealth. Small pike are well aware of this and hide in the weeds to avoid being eaten by their own kind.
It’s the small pike that have the best markings by far and, when using macro photography gear, they are often the focus of my attentions.
BIOLOGICALLY SPEAKING Stoney is quite poor in fish life, with only perch, roach and pike being readily seen. The mythical three or four carp continue to elude me.
Most fish don’t like to be approached from above, as this is the direction from which a lot of predators would strike, so either slowly moving below them or on the level will yield better encounters with a camera.
I’ve known some divers take sweetcorn or maggots to attract the fish, which will get them closer but doesn’t look very natural for photography.
Perch can be very inquisitive fish and, when seeing their reflection in a dome port, will investigate to make sure what they’re seeing is not another perch.
The small silver fish are roach, which seemed to have fallen in numbers in recent years. They used to be waiting at the entry point for bits of food that divers would kick up or bring in, but they seldom do this now.
The crayfish can be overlooked at Stoney Cove and are in fact our native white-clawed variety, a protected species which it is illegal to disturb or handle. They are present in fairly healthy numbers and, at night, can litter the lakebed, especially if there’s a dead fish nearby.
The best places to find them are the walls, especially underneath Nemo’s, the on-site bar-restaurant. Apart from the threat from the big perch, which have a technique for picking them up and swallowing them whole, the crayfish have a fairly easy life picking off any scraps and detritus on the bottom of the lake.
Because most of my work is fairly shallow I prefer to use natural light rather than a strobe. It has a more realistic quality to it and blends subject and background better for wide angles.
Most of the fish are quite approachable, being used to divers, but remember not to rush them or spook them.
If a subject is showing well or exhibiting some kind of unusual behaviour, I’ll be much more likely to stay and document it than keep moving and try to photograph everything – as with the amazing pike-spawning event.
Whether you’re a photographer, naturalist, wreck-enthusiast or just after a leisurely dive, this is a dive-site that has something for everyone.