ONE THING I LIKE ABOUT DIVING is that you never know what you are going to see, and a mundane dive can suddenly turn into the experience of a lifetime.
We had decided to go to Babbacombe in Devon in late April, because springtime is when the cuttlefish gather in the bay to breed throughout April and May.
It’s one of the easiest dives, as the car park is at the bottom of a steep hill adjacent to the sea front.
The underwater terrain is not the most spectacular, but as Babbacombe faces north-east it is sheltered from the prevailing winds, making it a good standby when the winter storms from the south-west are battering the coast.
There are usually some interesting things to see, including a few different species of crabs, tubeworms, tompot blennies, snakelocks anemones and various wrasse species.
Depths are about 10m, the sea is usually very calm and it’s a popular site for training dives. All you have to do is kit up and walk down the steps to the beach.
A local had advised us that the cuttlefish had been seen at Mushroom Rock, so we took a compass bearing north. As usual the visibility looked good on the water’s edge over the pebbles and coarse sand, but as we swam further from shore we came across the soft muddy bottom and the vis went down to 3m.
Care was needed not to stir the silt up and reduce it still further.
At first it looked as if it would be one of those dives on which you don’t achieve what you set out to. Then we saw them – a pair of cuttlefish.
Usually they dart away, but at this time of year when they’re breeding they are particularly bold, and allowed us to get close enough in the murky water to take some pictures.
AFTER A WHILE JOHN indicated that he was cold. I didn’t realise at the time that his drysuit was leaking. An unhappy experience at the best of times, but especially when the water is only 10°C.
We reached the shore to find a large crowd of German schoolgirls shrieking with delight and pointing in our direction. Diving at such sites you are often a talking point with the tourists, but we had never had such a reception before, and I began to think that they had mistaken us for celebrities.
I soon realised that it was not us that was grabbing their attention when John said: “There’s a grey seal over there.”
This was too good an opportunity to miss, particularly as I had the fisheye lens on the camera. There was no way I was going to leave the water.
John was so cold that not even a seal could entice him to stay. Shivering violently he squelched up the beach with a suit full of water and no change of underpants!
I waited in about 2m of water, scanning the surface and ducking under to see if the seal would appear. The sun was getting lower in the sky.
As I waited alone in the water I felt excited but also a little apprehensive. Seals are generally inquisitive and friendly but they are, after all, large wild animals with sharp teeth, in their own element, not ours.
I started to think of the scene in Jaws when Richard Dreyfuss as the scientist was waiting in the cage for the arrival of the shark. Would it come up from behind? Maybe the seal won’t reappear. I started to feel disappointment.
Then, there was no mistaking it; a dark head broke the surface about 7m away.
I ducked beneath the water, straining my eyes in the gloom. I caught a glimpse of a dark shape dashing by and there he was behind me, but immediately shot off.
This cat-and-mouse game continued, the seal getting closer each time. I turned off the strobe so as not to hurt his eyes with the flash, and began taking pictures.
It became a game, and his favourite trick was to swim behind me as I turned in circles trying to keep up.
He was showing off, spinning and spiralling in the water as if mockingly saying: “Look at me! You can’t do this can you, you lumbering human?”
AS HE CIRCLED he got closer and closer, then became a little rough, swimming into me. I started to wonder what his intentions were. He seemed a little over- friendly and a bit too close for comfort.
I made a sudden movement with my arm, and he shot away nervously. Equilibrium was restored.
Disappointed, I thought that I might have frightened him away, but he regained confidence and came back.
Inquisitively he peered up at me with large doglike eyes. He started showing off again but this time he was gentler and appeared to take a bow, flippers wide, nose pointing to the surface.
He nuzzled the camera lens, possibly admiring his reflection. By this time another diver was in the water, and the seal investigated him, nibbling his fins and, alarmingly, his leg!
The diver later told me that the seal had been there the previous evening.
I stayed another 15 minutes or so but the light was getting low so I reluctantly left the water, feeling exhilarated. I have encountered grey seals before while diving in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles but they have never stayed as long or been so playful. It was a pleasure and privilege to have an encounter with one of our most fascinating marine creatures.
Best of all, it was on his terms, and he was there because he wanted to be.
Grey seals are most often seen around the UK’s western and northern coasts, favouring exposed rocky coastline. Their smaller cousins, the harbour seals, are more likely to be in sheltered estuaries.
Grey seals are fairly frequent visitors to Babbacombe. They reach more than 2m in length and weigh up to 230 kg, the males being larger than the females.
The one I encountered was probably a young male – grey seals’ lifespan is around 25 years for males and 35 years for females. They are a protected species in England and Wales.
Westbound from the A38, take the A380 signposted to Torquay, then follow local directions to Babbacombe (or use nearest postcode TQ1 3LX). There is a pay-and-display car park by the beach.
The Beach Café opens at certain times of year and meals are available at the Cary Arms, 50m up the hill. Spring is the best time to see cuttlefish but the bay gets very busy with tourists and boats in the season. SMBs are vital at busy times. www.babbacombe.com