THE BEST OF THE SOUTH-WEST itinerary sounded like a Red Sea liveaboard trip when it was first brought to my attention, but I was glad to hear about it. I was itching to get back down to Plymouth, having enjoyed a very last-minute dive there four months earlier.
The visibility during that April weekend had been a stonker at 15m-plus, so I had high hopes for a whole week of the same kind of visual feast in the forthcoming August trip.
I kept my ear to the ground regarding visibility reports leading up to the planned 10-dive, five-day package although, much like snow reports leading up to a ski-trip, you might as well not bother. The conditions will be what they will be when the time comes.
We still do it though, don’t we?
Plymouth-based In Deep Diving’s Best of the South-West itinerary is designed to plonk divers onto a variety of well-known Devon-based dive-sites, which include a mixture of wreckage and reef-age, and all from the dive-centre’s speedy hi-tec hardboat Panther.
Accommodation would be included in the package, in the form of a decent yet basic room above a local pub just a few minutes’ walk from the dive-centre’s pontoon. I imagined that the pub part
of the trip would probably prove more dangerous than any of the diving we would be doing that week, and I was right about that.
All the dives would be between 25 and 35m deep, so perfect nitrox territory for sure. Each two-dive day would include a typically healthy UK diver’s lunch of pasties, sausage rolls, cakes and tea.
Day 1 on Monday kicked off with a very reasonable ropes-off time of 9am. This would get progressively earlier as the week went on, because of the tide times.
The divers aboard Panther were a typical bunch, clad in lots of black equipment and 70% blokes.
I include myself in both categories, though it has started me thinking about adding a splash of colour to my diving wardrobe. Why do we divers all wear black?
Conditions were perfect, with a clear blue sky, not a puff of wind and a sea state to match. The only waves created that day were either from the boat’s wash, a pod of dolphins or a lone minke whale spotted just off our bow, the latter two timing it nicely to coincide with our surface interval.
We were heading off to explore what lies beside the Eddystone lighthouse. Eddystone is not only an iconic British lighthouse but an iconic British dive-site.
Opened in 1882, it sits on Eddystone rocks and towers 49m above a vast 360° expanse of sea – it’s several nautical miles from any land.
In Deep’s skipper Ben and deck-hand Conan set about placing a shotline. Ben’s in his 20s and his enthusiasm for everything diving-related is infectious.
He is also a very experienced skipper for his years.
After the briefing we leapt from the boat’s double dive-lift and into the blue (yes, blue, not green), onto the shot and slowly down towards the 25m mark to begin our dive. One of the things I love most about UK diving is that you can explore an area on your own terms – guided dives are unusual unless you go out of your way to find one.
UK divers are free to choose how they wish to navigate a site with their buddy – or even without one if they so wish. As long as you follow the skipper’s safety procedures, the rest is up to you.
With the squeeze taken out of my drysuit and camera ready for action, a few slow fin-kicks found my partner and I away from the shot and beside a wall of glowing jewel anemones, all within a glorious 10m-plus of visibility.
My partner Ana is a Spaniard, so I was keen to show off some of the colourful soft corals for which this part of the country is famed.
I lit a wall of jewels with a blast of lumens from my torch and, as if on cue,
a handful of vibrant male cuckoo wrasse popped by to inspect us, while rudely nipping at my camera strobe and lens.
These guys are extremely inquisitive, not to say vain, and love nothing more than checking themselves out in anything reflective that a diver might be carrying or wearing. Ana appeared to be quite impressed by the size of the ballan wrasse, as well as that of the free-swimming conger eel we found while moving into slightly deeper water.
A 32% nitrox mix each gave us all the time we needed at the 30m mark, but using only single 12s meant that we had to keep our air-consumption in check.
A forest of kelp sits on top of the part of Eddystone rocks we were diving, providing a home for many fish species, including some colossal pollack and bundles of bib.
The habitat struck me as being in excellent condition, and stacked with life.
Miniscule nudibranchs hung out on many of the pink seafans and the crayfish population seemed to be doing very well indeed. What an opening ceremony to our week’s diving – I had a good feeling about what lay ahead.
The list of 10 dive-sites we were to visit had been pre-planned by Ben and his colleague James, another enthusiastic chap who would also skipper the boat during the week along with his assistant Hugo. However, I’ve decided to tell you about my top five.
I’ll place Eddystone at number five on my Best of the South-West chart!
Number four takes us onto the wreck of the Persier, the site I had visited in April. I was eager to get back on it and, I hoped, with the same standard of vis.
The 5832-ton Belgian steamship fell foul of a German torpedo on 11 February, 1945, not far from Eddystone and on her way to resupply newly liberated Belgium with food and emergency provisions.
The hopelessly damaged ship was eventually abandoned with the loss of 20 of its 63 crew and disappeared into the night in high winds. It would not be seen again until 1969, when the wreck was discovered by divers from Plymouth Sound BSAC.
Essentially the site offers no more than many other war-wrecks off the South Coast. It’s classically flat except for two huge boilers, tangled bits of metal and its hull-plates just proud of the seabed.
The difference, however, and what places it in my top five, is that you can actually see vast amounts of it, rather than just 3 or 4m. Ben put his shot on the boilers and we had descended barely 10
of the 30m we had to go before we could make out divers on the wreck.
In the brilliant visibility one can really appreciate the size of those boilers.
Several crayfish hung out of the holes in them, while the eye of a monster conger eel peered at us through another. Hundreds and hundreds of bib passed by, gleaming in our torch-light.
We finned over towards the sections of hull-plating that had become the base for a vast forest of pink seafans.
We passed pairs of divers and eventually found ourselves at what we think was some kind of steering mechanism standing proud of the seabed.
This provided a natural spot to lose some of our depth and, with dwindling bottom-time, send a DSMB skywards.
We visited the site at number three, Hatt Rock, midway through the week. To get the best from it, you need slack water and a neap tide, and thankfully we possessed both of these ingredients, which is probably why we had such a great time there.
The pinnacle begins at around 27m from the surface, its flat top providing a
home mainly for sea-kelp and seafans. Dropping over the edge is where the real magic happens. I genuinely gasped as we glided over the sheer cliff, which plunges vertically down to 55m-ish, and feels like a base-jump in extremely slow motion.
The flat walls are pebble-dashed with jewel anemones and the odd urchin can be seen clinging on too.
The seabed was visible from our maximum depth of 35m and, as spoilt as it sounds, I wished I had been diving on air so that I could explore deeper.
This was truly one of the best walls I’ve dived in the UK and I know that Ana, although now quite cold with a severely leaking drysuit, was a happy Spaniard.
A couple of beats of the wall was all we could manage owing to air and deco considerations and, like a child reluctant to come in for tea, I led the way back to the surface.
I’ve found it difficult to put the next two gems of the South-West in any particular order. They should be at joint number one, but for tidiness and to continue the theme, the wreck of the Maine is up next.
Reaching this British steamship was no easy task, despite having 20m of visibility and a well-placed shot handed to us on
a plate. The problem was the smidge of current pulling us away from the shot and eventually out of sight of it when we reached the seabed at 29m.
The seabed is a coarse shingle material, one of the reasons that the vis is so good there, and we knelt on it for a few moments to take stock. There was no way I was going to miss out on this wreck, particularly after all the pub talk about how good it was the night before.
A bit of luck and one or two pieces of debris from the wreck gave its location away, and as we drew nearer a castle of metal towered before us.
The Maine is in incredibly good shape for a UK wreck, and considering that it’s been sitting there since 23 March, 1917. Sunk by a torpedo from UC-17, it sits upright and several metres proud of the seabed.
Two lucky divers discovered the wreck in 1987 – what a find! Unlike many UK wreck-sites, this one boasts oodles of recognisable features.
It’s possible to swim through lots of them, either from the torpedo-damaged port side (which is where we found the wreck) or by dropping down through the holds. There are ample options for escape, and a torch makes navigation easier once inside.
I’m told that the wreck-site is usually blessed with exceptional visibility, which was true of this occasion. We nodded in appreciation to passing divers and also to an anglerfish the size of a small crocodile, waiting for some unsuspecting creature to stray too close to its mouth.
Incidentally, that anglerfish ended up in a diver’s goodie-bag and was sent to the surface by his lift-bag.
Now, I’m in two minds about this kind of carry-on – should the creature be left there for other divers to enjoy? Or is there an argument for catching your own food in a sustainable manner?
Regardless, I noticed not a single lobster on the wreck – was this the work of divers too? Hmm.
We had less time on the wreck than we would have liked because of our faffing about at the beginning of the dive, combined with Ana’s Fisher Price fins making life tricky for her in the current, but I guess this just gives us one more reason to revisit this epic English relic! It’s a mind-blower!
And now, on to the number one spot of the week, although by no means
is this site a south-western “best-kept secret”. Far from it, it’s the James Eagan Layne, everyone’s favourite South Coast wreck.
In my opinion the JEL is one of, if not the, best examples of a wreck-site in the UK, and I couldn’t believe it had taken me all these years to dive it! It’s often compared to the Thistlegorm, and is in fact the same kind of Liberty ship, and almost as fantastically well-preserved.
On a neap tide, the maximum depth is only 23m, and with a 32% nitrox fill you can see most of the wreck in one dive. A (usually) permanent shotline marks the bow, which is worth a look as soon as you reach the wreck.
After doing just that, we made our way inside to spend the whole dive exploring first the inner port side, popping out of the damaged stern and back into the wreck, all the way back down the length of the starboard side.
Before the dive, and while looking at an incredibly detailed real-time sonar-scan
of the wreck, Ben and James had told me that the site used to be dived from the shore. The mast gave its position away, and divers would make the epic surface swim to the site, and back again once they’d finished.
They would also have to descend and re-ascend some serious shoreline terrain in the process.
The JEL was to be some pretty sweet icing on a particularly fruity cake on
In Deep’s itinerary, which more than lived up to its name.
This five-day UK dive-trip blew some of the foreign dive-trips I’ve experienced in recent years out of the water, and the balmy summer weather and flat-calm sea contributed to that, of course.
We’re lucky to be able to enjoy this kind of diving on our doorstep, and I know I’ll be revisiting some of these UK treasures again next year – perhaps after furnishing Ana with some better fins!
Half-board accommodation for In Deep Diving’s five-night Best of the South-West package cost £150pp and the 10 dives cost £300pp, including snacks and drink, air and one cylinder. Second cylinder hire costs £10 per day and nitrox fills are extra and strongly recommended, indeep.co.uk