After a relaxed drive down on Friday evening (thankfully the feared bank holiday traffic never materialised) we woke on Saturday morning full of anticipation. Thomas had braved the sea off the coast of Pembrokeshire last year on another trip but this was to be my first experience diving in the sea. Having only previously sampled the delights of Stoney Cove in February when I passed my Open Water, I had high expectations.
We arrived over an hour early at Weymouth Harbour to meet Tracey & Rachel. We walked around the harbour a couple of times trying to spot anything that looked like a dive boat but gave up. Having figured out the pay & display car park charges and fed the one-way slot machine, the friendly face of Alan appeared.
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.
Weymouth Harbour, though pretty, is fairly typical in size and it was used as a location for the film ‘Dunkirk’ in 2016. Its neighbour though, Portland, is huge and during WW2, it held the majority of the Royal Navy’s fleet as it assembled for the Normandy landings. Weymouth, the skipper informs us was crawling with UK & US servicemen for several weeks as they bravely prepared for the operation ahead.
Once out of the main marina, heading west through a gap in the sea defences we are confronted by a large basin. Calmer waters flanked on one side by tanker ships, both civilian and RFA. One large boat, ‘Tristram’ is visited weekly by UK special forces who fly in on a Chinook and practice fighting modern day pirates. Across one entrance stretches a massive chain with a sign warning ships away. First launched in 1891, the 14,000-ton battleship HMS Hood was scuttled there in 1914 to prevent enemy submarines entering the harbour. Our skipper recounted first-hand how he had dived her some years ago before a restriction was put in place. Her guns had been removed and she’d been sunk in such a way that the Navy could quickly recommission her if they ran short on fighting ships later in the war. Clever that. Except she capsized on the way down hence she now lies inverted, unstable & diving her is now forbidden.
We anchor on the eastern edge of Portland Harbour, a stone’s throw from a large sea wall, topped with a mish-mash of defensive structures spanning several centuries, each epoch building on its forebear, Napoleonic, WW1, WW2…it had started to look like a Brazilian favela (look it up Thomas).
Enough history, on with the diving. First up were Sam, Alan and me, followed by Tracey, Thomas & Marley. Hopefully nobody will read this so I’ll freely admit I was terrified.
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.
The next wreck lay around 400m away across the harbour and we waited for a couple of ribs to depart before swooping on their quarry. This was ‘Enecuri’, a 3,000 ton steam trawler that in 1900 had dragged its anchor in force 9 gale now lying 13m down. The locals, struggling with the Spanish lingo, renamed her ‘The Spaniard’. The wreck is badly broken and silted but home to some impressive marine life that we noted including Pollock, Wrasse, Nudibranchs, Blenny, Goby, flatfish, spider crab and even a solitary lobster…which I only noticed on reviewing my underwater film footage as turbulence from one of my fins had disturbed its camouflaged seat on a boulder.
After a short trip back to Weymouth in the warm sunshine, we disembarked and arranged to meet up later for a drink. The seafront had transformed into a two day festival complete with sound stage and street market so it was heaving with bodies. The King’s Arms is a delightful little pub overlooking the marina and we eagerly sampled its refreshments and discussed the day’s adventures.
Despite conversations about having to abandon Sunday’s diving due to inclement weather, it actually offered similar treats with even more warm sunshine and the much talked about storms nowhere to be seen. The wind had dropped and the sea was calmer although we later discovered that one prospective wreck, a sand dredger just outside the harbour walls was off the menu because a stiff breeze the night before had stirred up a lot of silt rendering visibility too poor. Unfortunately Alan was unable to join us on the boat but Tom arrived and we set off to the next wreck.
‘Queenie’ was a small barge that went to the aid of ‘Enecuri’, only to run into trouble herself and sink just 70m away at the base of the breakwater wall. Legend has it that the captain and his dog went down with the ship and on a calm night, locals say you can sometimes hear it barking. With the deck just 11m below the surface, she is fairly complete, has retained her propeller and her holds can still be entered. The other dive was a nearby reef which, whilst beautiful, didn’t yield anything like the level of wildlife we’d seen in the wrecks.
Monday was the warmest day yet with temperatures in the high 20s, I was all set for a long drive home when it became clear this was a three day diving trip! It was close to flat calm at the dive sites which bore a pleasant resemblance to somewhere in the Med. We powered around the Portland peninsula for about an hour to reach a wreck not far from Chesil beach, famous for its fossils. Portland was the site of a large quarry with its high quality, very hard Portland Stone being used for many of London’s famous buildings. Much of it was taken from the cliffs and craned onto barges which then took it around the coast to where it was needed. We also passed Portland Bill, the famous lighthouse. Anchoring around 50m from the rocky shoreline we were impressed to see some climbers scaling the towering cliffs.
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.
Around the corner, Dive 2 promised us sight of the Myrtledean, a 2,500 ton steamer which sank in March 1912 carrying a heavy cargo of iron ore. We found a dense population of purple-brown sea hares in the sandy areas between the rocks but little else and no sign of the wreck.
After a cheerfully sun-kissed boat-ride back to Weymouth we sorted our kit, said our goodbyes to fellow club members and our new found shipmates and made ready for the long drive back to sunny Rutland.
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!
Written by: James Frieland
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Registered address: 8 Horn Close, Oakham, Rutland LE15 6FE