About the author
Izzy Imset started diving in 1984 and has been teaching scuba diving for the past 15 years. Based at Underwater Explorers, Portland and living on the island, Izzy primarily focuses on wreck and technical diving and diver training.
With 40 mile gusts battering Chesil Beach, I leave Underwater Explorers to get the rare opportunity to dive the eastern waters of Portland breakwater. True to its name and purpose, this wall of stone keeps the worst of the wind and waves away either side. Not a milk-pond perhaps, but close.
Even when calm, the East is regularly cluttered with buoys, rope, nets and fishing line with the occasional rock and edge that are dangerous for anyone on or under the sea. But knowing who the “regular occupants underwater” were, any opportunity to dive the outer harbour wall in the winter was not about to go amiss. For a change the storm is brewing and breaking “inside” the harbour and we’re diving “outside”. It just shows how versatile sea diving from Portland is!…
We’re south of Chequered Fort on the banks of the breakwater facing Lulworth – about to drop down in front of an abandoned military building that sticks out of the sea like a deserted oil platform on crutches. It’s the government’s long forgotten “Torpedo Range” tower or building. Sat lonely for so many years adjacent to the breakwater, it’s like a ghost of the past.
Today’s target is no submarine but to see the conditions down below the water line of the wall and observe what sea life, if any, there is to be found during the winter. I’ve planned to do an hour long dive in 8C but am properly dressed and equipped.
The depths we’re diving to range from 12 m. (39ft) at the base of the boulders to about 16m. (52ft) on the seabed itself, which makes the “torpedo range run” accessible even to entry level divers who know how to dive. It’s somewhere we can run many of our PADI Speciality courses but when training, you never get to see that much! : -)
The problem, if any, is that with the rush of daily tides, we know the seabed here has been covered in thick, grey-white, mud-like silt which can obstruct visibility with even the slightest disturbance (ever seen milk with tea or coffee?). On an overcast winter day with many particles already floating in the water, we need to employ specialised techniques to move with an extremely delicate body trim, to prevent stirring up the silt if we want to see anything.
As we descend and see the water turn from green to a darker sepia, our torches light up against the floor of the ocean below, giving us a first glimpse of what looks like an ancient desert underneath… but one just out of a sandstorm that’s come to settle over even more ancient sand.
Life is not plentiful for sure, but each and every movement of even the smallest species is easily noticed from that little “puff of cloud” it unwittingly leaves behind while supposedly hiding. Swimming south ever so gently, it feels like gliding over a lunar landscape where here and there zig-zag lines and little prints cross straighter ones, all recent traces of the movement of life on this surface — much like motorways, roads and streets bunched up together in a bizarre mess of transport planning (no offense to the new Weymouth traffic scheme!).
Quite soon, in the limited visibility we have, we approach the dark shadow of the wall itself and abruptly see the boulders piled on top of the other (first photo). Here and there we spot scattered metal, small to huge, most likely remnants of previous constructions. There are also plenty of abandoned, storm-torn, lobster and crab pots (2nd photo) that litter the sea bed all around the wall but long empty. Winter’s taken it’s toll on weed and kelp as the barren rock looks covered in a thin film of dust, ever so ready to rise and stir our view.
In conditions like this, the more experienced of us know you’ll see more if you slow down and look closer so we automatically switch to our “macro minds”, focusing on the smallest of life as an indicator. In an environment so much denser than air and with totally different gravity properties, we use our breathing patterns to keep us “hovering” in an ideal position. The closer we look, the more we see. Colours on a smaller scale in that gloom show us signs of abundant life or past traces of it.
The deserted tubes of Parchment Worms who breathe and feed on sea currents make me wonder whether they’re on holiday for the season or gone for good. I watch two fish darting in and out of sacks of Cuttlefish eggs lying on the seabed before dashing off. To my left I notice a Velvet Crab raising its arms in aggressive defense. Between the stones, I spot the expanding colour of an intense red — is that a Sea Orange? And there, lying half covered in silt, are a few lone Scallops probably washed away from whatever group of social order scallops live in :- )
Seeing the odd and occasional Devonshire Cup-corals scattered one or two in the crevices of the deserted lower stones and boulders wherever I look, leaves me amazed at how much life there is out here as the water temperatures start touching their coldest point.
Just looking between the stones, playing hide-and-seek with the fish, swimming from one pot to the other, watching and following the trails left in the silt, I’m so lost in this alien world that a mental bell starts ringing. Looking at my ‘bottom timer,’ a timing device much like a watch which shows how long I’ve been underwater, I feel myself dragged away from another great experience at the height of appreciation.
To prevent sudden pressure changes I need to ascend slowly and take that “travel time” to the surface into account when meeting the deadlines set out by the skipper. I also need to make sure that I avoid any sea traffic crossing my path as I reach the surface. Using a reel attached by a long thin line to an inflatable orange buoy that tells skippers on the surface to stay at least a hundred yards away on either side, I regretfully start coming up and out of this trip.
Fortunately I’m diving off Cutlass, one of the three modern dive boats run by Portland’s dive boat operator Scimitar Diving. Like her sister Scimitar, she’s equipped with the latest technology plus the essentials we divers have come to adore: On-board toilet, plenty of indoor room, large kitting up benches and even purpose built diver lifts. Regardless of sea conditions after our dive, all I need to do is swim into the lift to be raised to deck level for a warm cupper.
As I reach the surface I’m still buzzing and full of enthusiasm, knowing that in a few hours I’ll be going down under again to do one of my most favorite dives – a Drift Dive where I will be gliding the tide, riding the currents, using the motion of this massive ocean itself to carry me from one point to another. I’ll be Sea Gliding underwater in Balaclava Bay!…
Authors note: At Underwater Explorers on Portland we run regular Introduction to UK Diving sessions for divers at all levels who have learned to dive abroad or at inland sites. These focus on sea diving considerations, equipment and techniques.