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  • Writer's pictureJon Bunker

Getting Back In

Wednesday 31st March 2021

It’s always the exhaustive list, isn’t it?

Suit, boots, gloves, hood, wing, regs, cylinder, etc. The trouble is, over winter things tend to wander, being stashed away as they are in different nooks in the house. I really have no cause to complain of course; there are plenty of unfortunate divers who would kill to be able to get back in now, but aren’t fortunate enough to live as close to the sea as myself and my buddies do.

I comfort myself with the notion that once the kit is all together again, I’ll be able keep it contained in the one ‘gear gulper’ style crate I’ve had for a number of years. It doesn’t tend to work for me otherwise- too many things to forget!

I pull up next to the path on Old Castle road and start the laborious process of getting into my absurdly dry gear. Steph’s on the lookout for vis too, and stops by for a chat with Rocco the Merpup. We’ve opted to keep it ‘easy’ and shallow as this will be the first dive of the year for both myself and frequent buddy, Georgie. This will be a good opportunity to find out what (or who!) is knackered before attempting more adventurous stuff. I do find it horrifying how so many folks try to start off their year with something like the M2 or deeper, but then again, I’m predominantly a shallow water diver and always have been really.

It becomes apparent that either my suit has shrunk or I should have taken better care of myself during lockdown, because a lot seems to hinge on the stretching properties of neoprene that’s not seen action since last November.

‘Biscuits’ says Georgie, with a grin, and with kit finally assembled, it’s time to shuffle off down the path.

We knew there wouldn’t be much water, but finding the path of least resistance through the gaps in the seagrass is a challenge. Crawling through it is the last thing we’re prepared to do, as it is after all the very habitat we’re here to explore, and popular with other local divers and conservationists (and conservationist divers) for the wealth of marine species between its numerous verdant blades. Georgie is also a well-known nerd (self-described, honestly) for the stuff, recently delivering an online seminar on the ecosystem:

Fortunately, no seagrass is mangled in the making of this first dive, as we hover respectfully over the extended mat of interlinked rhizomes that make up the seabed. Once out past the new hazard marker on the outlet pipe, there’s a bit more scope to descend so I let out the air in my wing and go in for a closer look at the grass. It seems quiet. I’m really here for the diverse selection of sea slugs that are typically on show in spring, but instead I’m constantly teased by little rows of netted dog whelk eggs on the stems that (unfortunately) mimic the shape of sea slugs, typically polycera, stretching out. It’s frustrating, and a quick reminder of how out of practice I am.

I’m also really struggling with my buoyancy- something’s definitely up and unfortunately, it’s me. Last year I was perfectly weighted with 3kg in each hip pouch, but now I feel like a cork, struggling to stay down, even in a wetsuit. Biscuits indeed.

With taking pictures being the primary focus, you can imagine I’m not really feeling it. Still, I’m not in any trouble in the shallow water as long as I keep my breathing regular, and I am all dressed up and all, so I suck it up (I know, what a hero).

Out parallel with the site of the old dinghy rack, but just ahead of the ‘hump’ of the reef, I find three of the super-sized A. Punctata getting busy -like they seem to do all the time. It’s nice to see a characterful species like this after so long, but my ability to drop in on their antics for a nice level shot with the eyes is matched by the ability of my slowly emptying tank to carry me up again. Biscuits!

To keep warmer in my wetsuit I’ve detached myself from Georgie, finning along a bit and dumping a surprising amount of air from my wing. However now I’m starting to question my underwater pilotage, as I somehow seem to find myself in 4m of water yet still inside the hump of the reef? I eventually realise I’ve put way too much east in and turn north back toward the beach. It’s a picturesque swim, though the bunches of sargassum seaweed growing vigorously in this sunny corner are a reminder that what we’re seeing is a weird mix of native and very non-native species, with the latter sometimes out-competing the former. It’s not surprising I suppose; Portland is still a busy port authority with visiting ships emptying ballast tanks with all sorts of hitchhikers, interesting, bizarre or sometimes invasive. The overall effect is always staggering though, with every inch of rock covered in weeds of red, pink, yellow, green, brown, or even the beautiful iridescent blue of the bushy rainbow wrack.

As I flail about for the occasional shot of a sea lemon during the swim back to Georgie, I note a small stream of bubbles coming from my inflator. No matter how many immersions in fresh water they get, I just can’t seem to keep my inflators alive for longer than a couple of seasons, and this one- delivering a steady stream of undesired gas to my wing- is definitely toast. That would explain the air dumps I’ve needed over the course of the past half hour then. I wish I could blame all my buoyancy woes on the kit, but alas I still am incorrectly weighted in the water, oh the shame! It clearly was too many lockdown biscuits.

Back with Georgie, I compare notes; her a lovely broad-nosed pipefish and me an unfamiliar nudibranch (later identified as the sponge-munching Aegires punctilucens) and we make our exit up the very vertical stairs off Castle Cove beach. Both alive and with a few serviceable pictures, we’re chalking it up as a success overall, and I’m certainly most keen -with a few equipment and weighting tweaks- for a dive back in Chesil Cove.

Here we go 😊.

Photo courtesy of Georgie Bull

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