A quick call to Tracey’s mobile resulted in Rachel appearing and corralling us back to their holiday let with a stunning view of the marina and Weymouth’s famous bridge (which raises for boats every couple of hours).
Time to go and we set off to wait at the marina gate. The crew arrived and we boarded the white & mustard coloured ‘X-Dream’ skippered by ‘Nige’ and his first mate Paul. Both were divers. With only a few of us on board there was plenty of space. Kit loaded, we waved farewell to the landlubbers (which on this occasion sadly included Rachel) and set off into the main harbour. Fine drizzle quickly transformed into glorious sunshine albeit with a cool breeze.
But one giant stride later and, like a not-so-young chick leaping from its nest, I was plunging into an incredible new world for the very first time. Visibility was around 6m and it didn’t take long for the murky turquoise depths to devour the glistening blades of sunlight. Water temp was around 12 degrees, chilly for some but for one who had broken the ice on Stoney Cove only 12 weeks before, it felt like a Turkish bath.
Descending to around 10m we were greeted by a wall of riveted steel. Built in the 1880s, The Countess of Erne started life as a passenger liner paddle steamer but was later converted to a coal hulk. In 1935 she broke loose from her moorings and sank against the breakwater making her easy to navigate for divers. Approximately 240' long and with a 29' beam she lies upright on the bottom and the deck hold is open & easy to access.
Floating over the tortured metal below was incredible and my fear had abated and I fiddled excitedly with my Go-Pro. I was breathing nervously, a trait which subsequently earned me the not-so-affectionate title of ‘air-pig’. There were plenty of fish and decent sized Wrasse peeped shyly from behind steel plates. Approaching the forward funnel, a monstrous spider crab the size of a dinner plate (excluding legs) crept across the deck beneath us. A second clawed beastie was sizing it up and an epic battle ensued as the two armoured creatures circled each other with pincers outstretched. On reaching the bow, we dropped to around 14m and followed Sam toward the stern.
Halfway along the starboard side he gestured excitedly and pointed to something. Nothing there I thought, he’s losing it. But then I saw it, a tiny splash of bright purple colour on the weed covered hull. So that’s what Tracey had been talking about. A Nudibranchs (pronounced “new-di-bronk”), carnivorous marine life fairly new to UK waters. This one was tiny, about 0.25” but they can grow to 12” and have been weighed at over 3lbs. There are over 2,000 varieties worldwide and more are being discovered all the time. Their scientific name, Nudibranchia means “naked gills” and describes the feathery gills & horns most of them carry on their backs. Further along we saw others, most yellow and white.
Another spider crab, even bigger this time had wedged itself under part of the hull and menacingly beckoned us closer with a waving claw. More fish and all too quickly it was time to surface. Back on the boat, experiences were exchanged and Paul handed out sugary hot chocolates & hearty meat pies.
Dive 1 was the wreck of the MV James Fennell. 123’ long, she ran aground in thick fog in January 1920. The ship is largely intact and the central section complete with its large boilers was particularly impressive. The site is strewn with large boulders which have tumbled from the nearby cliffs which complicated identification of some parts of the ship. We found the largest Wrasse here, lurking behind a steel plate and probably some 10lbs, close to the British record. It was also home to legions of starfish, some missing limbs due to encounters with nearby predators. In a crevice we spotted a giant black tipped claw almost the size of an adult’s hand and on closer inspection found a partially hidden edible crab which, thankfully, remained as such. We salvaged a couple of interesting rusted objects, one being an old door hinge and the other a large hexagonal nut, conveniently sized as a cup holder for which it is now being used. Even at nearly 15m, visibility was excellent and I considered this to be the best dive of the trip.
Thomas and Marly (the juniors) both gained some invaluable experience diving with Tracey but I think they both found the sea a little too cold clad only in wetsuits. Time to bring on the drysuit training boys! The highlight for Thomas was snorkelling through a swarm of juvenile jellyfish and proudly brandished his trophy, a bright red sting on his left cheek which he hopes will still be there to impress his mates back at school after half term!
This had been a very well organised adventure so thanks to Tracey, Rachel and the other club members for all their support and encouragement. I should also give a special mention to Sam who acted unwittingly as dive leader on the last few dives, a task that, despite his young age he completed with confidence and expertise that much more experienced divers would have been proud of. Cheers Sam!