Heybrook for all seasons
WHEN I MOVED TO SOUTH-WEST DEVON more than 20 years ago, a big attraction was the proximity of Fort Bovisand, the South Coast diving hub in those days. However, it could get very crowded there at times, so I looked around for some quieter local diving locations.
Access to the sea is not always easy on the south Devon coast. A raised beach and cliffs extend around a lot of the local shoreline, but as Heybrook Bay was close to my new home, it deserved early inspection.
At first sight, getting to the beach is demanding. A steep footpath leads to a small pebble-and-boulder beach with a freshwater run-off. This is not a site for heavy kit, so twin-sets are not suitable.
My personal choice is for a 10-litre single cylinder and a pony. Some divers make two journeys to lighten the load.
The mouth of the bay is open to the west, and in anything like a strong breeze it’s well worth checking the conditions out there before carrying your gear to the entry-point.
I try to dive around high water, if only to minimise the walk over the beach. Although there is often a swell from the west, I have never encountered any current within the bay.
The bay seems to act as a magnet for discarded fishing gear. I once dived there in fairly low visibility and found a monofilament gill-net that had been swept in and spread itself right across the bay. This ghost net was taking a heavy toll on the local wrasse population. I always take a sharp net-knife, just in case.
Also, a lot of seaweed gets pushed into the bay and this can create a soup, which, when mixed with the freshwater run-off, can produce a hazy area of low visibility close to the beach.
BE PATIENT, HOWEVER, fin a bit further out and the site starts to reveal itself. Get the conditions right with a gentle sea and good visibility and it provides a dive that is pure pleasure. Here you can take your time and, when you get your eye in, there is a lot to see and photograph.
Looking back through my logbooks, I can see how I have learnt not only to recognise the variety of species seen here but also to observe their behaviour.
My usual route takes a southerly course lining up on the rocks to the left of the entrance to the bay, and follows the outcrops to the east.
I don’t usually go much deeper than around 10m, and this provides huge scope for an underwater search.
Going towards the right side of the Bay in the direction of Renney Rocks reveals large boulders with shingle and pebbles between them, and the possibility of finding well-concealed wreckage in the narrow gullies.
FINNING OVER THE rippled coarse-sand bottom in the middle of the bay, it’s possible to find flatfish, in particular flounders. Usually they are patient if approached with care, and can make excellent photographic subjects.
Moving to the rocky reefs bordering the bay in springtime reveals a lot of very busy corkwing wrasse.
By staying still and watching a particular fish carrying nest material, it’s possible to find the nest, often constructed from calcareous seaweed.
It’s the male fish that constructs the nest, using a variety of materials including softer weed for the interior. Courtship takes place at the nest and, after spawning, the male remains to protect the eggs.
The site benefits from a healthy population of ballan wrasse with colouring from beautifully marbled blue and red to slab-sided green camouflage.
These wrasse are attended by rock-cooks, which provide a cleaning service by nipping off the clearly visible white parasites at what appear to be recognised cleaning stations.
The reef overhangs are well worth searching in late spring, when spectacular black-faced blennies show up guarding their territory and eggs.
The male is fairly easy to spot because of its bright yellow and black coloration, but the female is not so easy. Brown in colour with darker vertical bands, she gives away her position by flicking her light-coloured dorsal fin, presumably to attract males. The male guards the eggs vigorously.
In spring, common cuttlefish gather in the bay. Beautifully camouflaged with their chromatophore cells creating rippling patterns across their mantles as they come together in a head-to-head mating embrace, the male passes a packet of sperm under the female’s mantle.
Spider crabs, often camouflaged by attached seaweed, frequent the bay, and get together for mating in April and May.
The tops of the rock outcrops are covered with a forest of thong-weed in the warmer months. Here small shoals of school bass are sometimes seen, silhouetted against the surface. And I have seen bait-balls of small silvery sprats being harried by greater sand-eels while pollack lurk behind cover, waiting for a sand-eel to come within striking range.
As well as watching and photographing the abundant marine life, I like to have a rummage and have found bits of bronze from unknown wrecks and a dolphin skull, possibly a death caused by the pair-trawling for bass that used to take its toll.
There you have it – not the easiest of dive-sites, but get it right and it provides an hour or more of hassle-free underwater exploration as an alternative to better-known South Devon shore-sites.
Heybrook Bay lies just outside Plymouth on the east side of Plymouth Sound. From the A38 follow the signs to the city centre, then turn off the Embankment Road signed for Plymstock. Follow the signs for Bovisand until, when in the country lanes, you pick up signs for Down Thomas and Heybrook Bay, which is at the end of the road. A small parking area at the bottom of the hill is convenient for kitting up before following the narrow footpath to the beach. For satnav the postcode of the nearby Mussel Inn at Down Thomas is PL9 0AQ – follow the road for half a mile or so past the pub and you’ll reach your destination. Incidentally, the food at the Mussel is very good.