Belongs to us(divers) – miss-quoting the Springsteen lyric of the song made famous by Patti Smith.
I have re-discovered UK night diving this October and November. The weather has been remarkably benign and has allowed divers who fancy a bit of darkness to indulge and feast on some fantastic wildlife encounters. The darkening of the evenings as winter draws closer just makes it all so much easier.
A stones throw from O’Three in Portland is Chesil Cove, a dive site famous for introducing a multitude of trainees to the pleasures of UK sea diving. Subsequently the discovery of what was missing in the Ocean Diver or Open Water course; how to get up Chesil beach after a dive. It never gets any easier, no matter how experienced you are. I can confirm that it does get harder as the years advance!
I write this in early November, what is extraordinary and what has made Chesil Cove a particularly fantastic venue, day or night this autumn is that we have not had any significant South westerly gale force winds since before the summer. There has been the odd blow but usually short-lived before the easterly & northerly airflow returns where it does nothing to the cove. The Met Office has publicised this years list of named storms, we are still waiting for Angus, the 2016/17 seasons’ first. The northerly and easterly airstream makes Chesil a lee shore and as such it is blessed with flat seas and minimal waves, making entry & exit relatively straightforward.
Consider that a fierce SW gale would turn Chesil cove into a liquidiser. Fragile marine life would be battered and bruised, mobile creatures would beat a hasty retreat to more sheltered sites. The vegetation would be converted into the sort of soup more frequently found in a Vegan’s kitchen.
In September I was keeping an eye on the various social media sites, notably – UK viz reports and Chesil Beach Watch. It became apparent divers were encountering(on night dives) a significant number of species that you would not normally expect to see on a regular or predictable basis. That is just the point, the weather has been so kind that it has not disrupted the established summer ecosystem in the cove. Sightings of a variety critters, small and large have delighted and impressed divers who have made the pilgrimage to the cove this autumn.
It is not without its downside, the impressive dive reports have been seen by local fishermen who have netted the area around the cove. They do have a living to make but it is the sort of activity that does bring divers & fishermen into conflict.
Night diving is in a league of its own. Anybody who does a lot of UK diving will no doubt have experienced near night time conditions. Especially those in May when the plankton bloom is at its peak. A 24m wreck dive when you can barely see your gauges let alone your buddy. Night diving when the conditions are favourable makes for a different yet exciting and enjoyable experience. Chesil Cove has been blessed with great viz for the past couple of months. When it is dark you will see as far as the power of your torch allows.
The character of the dive changes between day & night, the less bouldery parts which seem flat during the day become all together much more three dimensional, seemingly towering over you as you make your way out from the shore, I think it is the vegetation that contributes to this effect. During the day it is seen for what it is and swept aside as you pass, at night walls of weed make seemingly impenetrable barriers.
The darkness makes you study the illuminated area just in front of you. Often overlooked during daytime, snakelock anemones are worth checking out at this time of year. They often have a symbiotic shrimp living on them, the Periclemines shrimp. An almost transparent creature with vivid blue markings that would not look out of place on a tropical reef, look closely they are small!
The hunters are out in force at night. On my first visit this year I came across a cuttlefish that appeared to have one very long tentacle. Looking closer I realised the extra bit was an unfortunate pipe fish that had become the cuttles’ evening meal.
At night creatures become more bold and less bothered by your attention. I was able to spend a good while watching the cuttlefish as it devoured its snack. On another occasion a cuttle was so intent searching around rocks looking for food it was completely oblivious to me. It was even searching under my camera as I was trying to get a picture of it.
Look out for the twin pinpricks of glowing pink, these are torch light reflections from the eyes of common prawns as they go about their business. I was hoping I would find a John Dory, sure enough I came across one as I was making my way back to shore at the end of one of the dives. It was great to get a photograph of this enigmatic fish.
On my dives at the cove I have had encounters with larger crustaceans and a number of different fish species. I was hoping to see rays, there have been reports of undulate and thornback rays, unfortunately not seen by me. The marine life we are looking for is wild and yes there does seem to be a lot of it about at the moment. You cannot be certain you will definitely see all these critters you want. To have a chance you actually do need to go night diving! Maybe more than once!
Although winter is just around the corner the sea temperature is still in the teen’s. I recorded 14°C on the 2nd November. Certainly the air temperature is dropping and the sea will cool as winter nears. By the time you have climbed back up the beach after your dive you will be sweating.
For those interested all images in this blog were taken at Chesil Cove, October and November this year. Camera is a Nikon D500 in a Nauticam housing. Lenses include the Sigma 17-70mm, Nikon 60mm macro and the Nauticam SMC. I am using Inon strobes, many thanks to Alex Tattersall at Underwater Visions, Nauticam UK.
I intend on continuing to visit Chesil while the conditions allow. To summarise, if you fancy something a bit different this year, try a night dive. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.