Updated: Jul 25
A spectacular day's diving out of Ilfracombe, on the Barbara B with HiHo Charters!
Putting together dive trips to suit all levels of diver in the club is no easy task and it takes a great deal of work and effort. Fortunately, between Martin, James and one or two others we have an enthusiastic and selfless bunch that are more than happy to give of their time and expertise to put together 'inclusive' trips.
InDepth is all about inclusive trips, we don't put together secret dive trips where only one or two cliquey mates are invited. That kind of thing destroys otherwise great clubs! At InDepth all club members are welcome and made to feel as much, it's at the very heart of the club ethos and enshrined in the Code of Conduct and the Club's Constitution.
Subsequently, it leads to organising hardboat charters like the Barbara B and Obsession II that take all levels of diver out to Lundy Island to dive with the seals, and if you get lucky enough, you can have the dive of a lifetime, in just 8 - 10 metres of water! But first of all, you have to put the effort into organising an entire boat full of divers and that's exactly what Martin did; and it took less than 4 hours to fill the entire charter for the day!
The date was set, Saturday 27th May, it was a bank holiday weekend and the M5 was likely going to be a car park! With this in mind, we booked a room at Ocean Backpackers Hostel that could sleep 8 of us, it was cheap at around £25 each and suited what we wanted, a place to sleep!
Most of the gang elected to brave the M5 at various stages throughout the day and, as predicted, it was bedlam. The average journey time from Gloucestershire to Ilfracombe was around 4 hours!
James, however, being a local lad to the South West and having extensive knowledge of the area, decided to take the coastal path and got off the M5 as soon as he could. He was rewarded with a glorious drive down to Ilfracombe along the North Somerset & North Devon coastline. He went through Minehead and Porlock, up the infamous Porlock Hill and down into the gloriously beautiful Doone Valley and into Lynmouth. From Lynmouth he continued along the coastal road all the way to Ilfracombe, he stopped to take photographs and enjoy the sunshine along the way and literally saw no more than 6 cars the entire afternoon! Radio 2 was playing a bunch of classic 80s & 90s songs and James reminisced about his misspent youth in the area, chasing girls and driving Ford Capris & XR2s, Fiat X1/9s and Triumph TR7s! (Well, somebody had to!)
Arriving in Ilfracombe mid-afternoon the truck was parked and kit taken to the hostel and stowed away. It was time to go in search of an ice cream and re-orientate bearings as it had been a long time since the last Lundy trip!
Martin and James whiled the hours away wandering around Ilfracombe doing a bit of sightseeing and buying tat for the Dive Den! By the time most of the group had arrived, the heat had started to abate and fish n chips were the order of the day for our evening meal. After which we retired to a local pub for a quiet drink before we all got an early night.
The following morning was an early start with a full English breakfast by the harbour! We had moved all the vehicles the night before and they were parked in the harbour car park, ready and waiting... for the tide to come in enough for Barbara B to be moved from her mooring.
It didn't take us long to have all of our scuba diving kit aboard. Enough for two dives. The first being the 'hoped-for' seal dive. The second being something a little deeper and something to keep the 'wreck heads' happy... the wreck of the MV Robert, a single crew coaster which capsized and sank off the eastern side of Lundy back in 1975.
The trip out to Lundy takes a little while, about two hours, which gave us plenty of time to settle in and have a natter about the dives ahead and what we hoped for, the usual thing, good viz, lots of seal interaction. This, of course, triggered a bit of good-natured banter amongst friends as the same old jokes resurfaced about the shape of seals and buoyancy control or lack thereof, the viz in front versus the viz behind, you've no doubt heard it all before! It was a good way to pass the time as we basked in the sunlight and looked forward to the day ahead as we thundered across the waves onboard the Barbara B.
Lundy Island is beautiful. There are no two ways about it. This landmark trust site is breathtaking and is actually England's first statutory Marine Nature reserve, and it was also the first Marine Conservation Zone!
We grabbed a few snaps of our motley crew on the journey out to Lundy Island.
Having arrived at Lundy Island it was time to go in search of the seals. Our skipper, Ben, was first class and really knew what he was doing. He wasn't happy with the first spot he took us to, so decided to take us around the island to the far side and put us in the water there. This proved to be a remarkable decision!
Stepping off the back of the Barbara B into the surprisingly warm waters of the Bristol Channel we were stunned by the remarkable visibility. To say it was sensational wouldn't do it justice, it was bangin'! Easily 15 metres, possibly more, for UK diving that's incredible!
Following my compass bearing in towards the island and, having learnt from the mistakes of the past, we headed towards the coastline and the shallows. It wasn't long before I felt a sudden and sharp tug at one of my fins. Startled, I physically 'jumped' underwater and turned to see my assailant dart off, in a flash of silver and a plume of bubbles, around a large boulder and out of sight!
Pushing further forward we found ourselves in a group of gullies, seaweed idly wavering back and forth, the ebb and flow of the sea gently tugging at their stems as each wave passed overhead only to recoil a few moments later having dashed itself on the shore. Another silver flash streaked overhead, this time from a slightly more inquisitive and bolder creature. Circling back around it came in for another pass and streaked by at an incredible speed. Again, it circled, bolder still, it came in closer and grabbed at my fins, gently pulling at them with its teeth, inquisitive... what is this strange bubble-blowing lump? Quickly bored, it sped off with a flick of its tail. We followed it around a group of boulders and into a clearing, several seals darted about, each being egged on by the other as they inched closer and closer. We swam out into the middle of the opening and watched as they swarmed around us in a dizzying frenzy. The trick is to ignore them, then they'll come to you. They're like puppies, they want the attention, and they crave it, so they'll come looking for it. You just need to find the right spot and then sit back and wait. We certainly found the right spot, there were several of them dashing about. Dive bombing us from all directions, looping around and then coming in for another 'attack'. All too fast to photograph... and then they were gone! Reluctant to move from our spot, we waited a while, all was still. Just the sea as she cast her spell upon us with each gentle beat of her heart as a wave washed by and flowed back, mesmerised by her charms we waited... and waited. And then something magical happened. A moment that I shall treasure forever. A close encounter with wildlife that has etched itself indelibly on my soul. A single seal entered the enclosure and set itself on the seabed to one side and just lay there, watching us as we were watching it. The seconds turned to minutes, it didn't move, we didn't move. I couldn't take it any longer, I inched my way forward, slowly approaching as it watched me, I could barely breathe, and not wanting to cause it any alarm I sipped at my gas and exhaled as little as possible, it didn't seem in the least bit bothered by me, I got closer, and closer and before I knew it I was only inches away. I peered through my camera's viewfinder at this wondrous creature, framing my shot, I was about to press the shutter when it decided to move. Lifting its head, it moved in to investigate its own reflection on my camera's dome port, it opened its mouth and started mouthing at the port, I struggled to get the camera to focus, it was too close! At that moment it moved back a couple of inches and started to 'bark' at me, the sound reverberated through the water and through me, I felt it penetrating me, it was an astonishing experience and at that very moment, I pressed the shutter and captured an image that I am delighted with. I took several more as it sat in front of me, barking away, I was astonished, my heart was in my throat, I couldn't believe what was happening! As I was taking the shot my buddy Keith was busy filming the encounter! So between us, we captured every single precious second:
And here's the shot that was captured of the seal as it was 'barking' at its reflection.
As the seal turned and left we made our way back towards deeper water and our pick-up point. The grin never left my face. We surfaced and the atmosphere between us was electric. Exiting the water and getting back on board Barbara B it felt as if the air itself was charged with the experience. It was palpable.
I had just had the dive of my life and, to top it off, it had been my 1,451st dive which meant it had also been my 1,000th dive post subarachnoid haemorrhage! What a way to mark it.
The mood onboard the Barbara B during our surface interval was just sublime.
The MV Robert
The MV Robert is Lundy Island's only intact shipwreck. She rests on a muddy seabed on her starboard side. Her port side can be reached at 18 metres in depth, whereas the starboard side and the seabed is at 25 metres. There is a buoy attached to her stern and you drop down onto her superstructure at the accommodation block. The bow has large anchor winches and the hold is open. She measures 45 metres long by 21.8 metres high and 7.6 metres wide. She was built in 1956 and was originally known as the Esma B until 1974.
She was a cargo ship bound for Rouen out of Cardiff when her cargo of anthracite dust shifted and caused her to list badly, taking on water she sank. Her crew of 4 were all rescued by the Clovelly lifeboat.
Diving the wreck of the MV Robert Once again we step from the back of the Barbara B into the waters off the North Devon coast that surround Lundy Island. As the divers deflate their wings they drop down the shot line to the rusting hulk that awaits beneath the surface. She's easily visible, lying on her starboard side, we drop onto the stern and make our way around and into the cavernous holds that now stand empty, their watery void awash with thousands of fish. Finning through the bowels of the wreck and emerging at her bow and the large anchor winches that sit proudly on her forecastle. Finning up around the bow and onto her exposed port side we make our way back towards the stern. The hull is festooned with growth.
She's a relatively small vessel, and as such doesn't really take that long to swim around. Once you've swum around her twice there's not that much more to see. That said, given her depth, you can easily clock up some deco if you're not paying attention!
Having been first down the shot, and made our way around the wreck and back to the stern, we met up with the rest of the group. This gave James the ideal opportunity to grab a few photographs of some of the club members diving:
We made our way back to the shot and started our ascent. We had clocked up around 20 minutes of mandatory decompression and so hung on the shot as we exhaled sufficient excess nitrogen to make a safe ascent to the surface.
We hadn't been on the deck more than 5 minutes when Martin reminded James that he had just completed his 1,000th and 1,001st dives post subarachnoid haemorrhage, he'd completely forgotten! His smile broadened as the realisation sank in, and with that Martin presented him with a small plaque to commemorate the occasion. James's face was a picture of delight and surprise all rolled into one. He was absolutely made up with it!
The two-hour journey back to Ilfracombe was spent chatting about the dives, the deck was buzzing, we had had an exceptional day, UK diving at its absolute finest and all aboard were thrilled. In many ways we had wished that we had booked for two days... in others, the balance of time and cost was just right.
It was a bit of graft hauling all the kit back to the vehicles, all tired from the day's diving we got packed up and one by one we headed homeward. James, again, elected to take the long route and wend his way along the coastal roads, preferring to enjoy the drive and reminisce once again, this time about the day that we'd just had.
James Neal with the plaque he was presented with by Martin Rutterford, to commemorate his 1,000th and 1,001st dives post subarachnoid haemorrhage!
A touching tribute and a fantastic way to celebrate such a milestone.
The plaque is now proudly on display in the Dive Den, at the top of the main door.