Don't laugh! It's the entry to
A gem of a dive
Monty Halls picks his way through the doggy doos of the Eastern Kings steps (right) to share a sound idea with a friend: a dive in the 'nutrient-rich' waters around the corner from Plymouth ferryport. Not a glamorous entry point, we'll grant you, but once you're in it's a different world: a world of crabs, anemones, cuttlefish and bass. And afterwards there's the allure of a bacon sandwich. Read on and know the joys of being one of 'us'.
Marine life photographs by Mark Webster
KIT up on a busy road, then trek along a path strewn with excrement courtesy of man's best friend, until you reach a set of concrete steps down to the water. Tempted?
It may sound like a singularly unpromising setting, and the pre-dive preparation is an unmistakably British affair, but at the entrance to the Plymouth ferryport there lurks a gem of a dive site.
Before reaching the entry point, the intrepid aquanaut, pink with exertion, has to pick his way delicately through a crowd of anglers armed with filleting knives before he can take an elegant step into the water.
At this point the dive differs from the classic experience of a British dive, in that it is actually worth all the effort.
Best attempted slightly before high water, the dive is a gentle drift over a series of reefs cutting across the diver's path and disappearing down the steep slope into the sound. The marine life is spectacular, perhaps due to the localised current and water that can best be described as "nutrient-rich". The diver is guaranteed to find huge crabs, stunning anemone beds and, in the summer months, fish life that puts the nearby aquarium to shame.
My last dive at Eastern Kings was in the company of Ruth, the original "fair-weather" diver. Ruth's diving experience involved two months on a conservation project in Mozambique. Having heard her mutter darkly about the questionable sanity of British divers in general and Plymouth divers in particular, I was keen to introduce her to the world of the drysuit, where visibility over 2m can be described as "gin-clear".
After obtaining the required clearance for the dive from the harbour authority, we were pulling into the kitting-up point by late afternoon. Tourists strolling along the sea front insisted on asking us all the stock questions that are so typical when preparing for a dive in public:
"Going diving, are you?"
"Isn't it cold?"
"Any fish out there?"
"Do you see any sharks?"
Please go away now, you find yourself thinking as you struggle into your suit.
The entry point for the dive is some distance from the road, and Ruth's dark muttering was just reaching a crescendo by the time we stepped onto the platform abutting the beach huts. With a quick series of checks and an ungainly giant stride, Plymouth disappeared, and was replaced by the dark gullies and waving fronds of the Eastern Kings.
The start of the dive is a shallow bay down to 7m, extending 150m from the entry point. It would seem that, due to the calm water and increased temperatures in this area, this is a favoured site for cuttlefish. To my delight one joined us almost as soon as we were down.
It is an unusual sensation being eyeballed by a cuttlefish, and we could almost see the cogs whirring behind a baffled eye as it hung in the water, trying to figure out what on earth we were. The creature's curiosity did, however, give us the opportunity to get some great shots before he tired of us and wheeled off into the gloom.
At the edge of the bay the seabed slopes off at a sharp angle into the sound, and it is here that the drift phase of the dive really begins. As we moved over the lip of the drop, I could feel the current begin gently to accelerate us over the bottom. If you time the entry right, finning is unnecessary and you can hang suspended as the seabed runs like a conveyor belt beneath you.
This phase of the dive is home to big edible crabs and we saw a number of large specimens buried in the silt, peering at us as we flew overhead. After a few minutes of drifting, we arrived at the first reef.
Cutting across our path, there was a riot of colour as dahlia anemones jostled for space with dead men's fingers and sea stars. I have never seen such a concentrated diversity of life in the UK - even Ruth was impressed.
After this first reef we came to a series of ridges and gullies, all packed with life. Spider crabs stalked the seabed; wrasse, blennies, shannies and rockling darted over the reefs, and pollack wheeled overhead. Sinking into the gullies, one can frequently find nudibranchs clinging to the weed and rock faces, and jewel anemones abound.
The reefs disappear down to over 40m, but the best marine life is found in the first 20m. In the latter stage of the dive, as we moved into the shallows, there were large rocks the size of cars scattered along the seabed. These rocks, pitted and scarred by wave action and relatively uncolonised by seaweed, are frequented by shoals of bass, and it is not uncommon to see their predatory shapes glide past just as you are about to complete the dive.
The drift over the course of the dive takes you towards the kitting-up point, which makes the walk back more civilized. It is even more civilized when you consider that you have to stagger past a cafe serving the diver's staple food: bacon sandwiches. Many a time I have struggled out of my drysuit to rush back to the cafe, deranged by hunger.
Ruth's opinion? She was, I am delighted to say, humbled by the entire experience, and was even heard to mutter: "I had no idea that British diving could be like that."
Aha, one more of us, one less of them. n
Plymouth Harbour Authority, 01752 663225.
Appeared in DIVER - May 1998