Fawlty vis weekender

Torquay’s offshore delights fail to materialise through the murk

Author: Pat
19th May 2012

Torquay may be set on the ‘English Riviera’, but recent storms thwarted hopes of Mediterranean-style diving.

It’s a lazy four hour drive from London to the seaside town in Devon made famous as the setting for ‘Fawlty Towers’. It was actually filmed elsewhere however, and friendly owners Colin and Rose of the Torbay Star bed and breakfast couldn’t have been more pleasant. Although not uniquely divers’ accommodation, a fair few visit the area they tell me, drawn to the numerous wrecks and reefs (well, stone pinnacles) offshore.

The powerful pinkish beam rebounded off particulates in the water

Torbay BSAC 8 kindly lent us use of their compressor room. It’s located in the town’s marina at Beacon Quay, which afforded the unusual scenario of kitting up in a multi-storey car park. Our club RIB with its single 200hp engine and room for eight is a sight to behold, and in today’s bright sunshine she buzzed out into the bay, carefully avoiding local ferry services and pleasure boaters.

Our warm-up dive target about ten minutes away was Tucker Rock, an outcrop down at about 15m and said to be covered in jewel anemones. Over the side the shot went, then the boat circled to drop in buddy pairs. A quick air dump and my own descent began, numbers ticking up on the computer, ambient light shifting from clear to green to grey.

In just a couple of minutes the bottom emerged and I halted my descent a few inches off the rock – just enough to enrage a Velvet Swimmer Crab as it reared up with claws outstretched.

A decent torch or lighting rig is standard kit for diving in the UK, but even that isn’t always enough. And so it proved at Tucker Rock. The powerful pinkish beam mostly rebounded off particulates in the water, a phenomenon photographers call ‘backscatter’ – and the reason why UK diving pics often look like total rubbish. Once the eyes had adjusted, I could see that this dive site on a good day would be lovely: a series of undulating rocks covered in Dead Man’s Fingers, anemones, loads of starfish, crabs and a few fish darting around too.

I had lost my dive buddy, who was nowhere to be seen. So just a minute later I was on my way back up again. Turns out she was underweighted and already back on the RIB.

Dive two was a wreck called the SS Bretagne, sunk in 1918 carrying coal. Reverse profile be damned, she lies in around 30m and though the susperstructure has been wire-swept has many protrusions, odd bits of metal sticking out and plenty of other hazards to worry about. The Bretagne is also popular with anglers and fishermen, and consequently is covered in lost nets and lines.

If visibility was bad at 15 metres, you can imagine it at almost double that. Light just bounces back off a wall of gunk in the water, and it took a second to realise that we were seeing the side of the hull. We swam alongside the giant mass of steel, finding our way in one or two metres at best. Moving up across the top, large Pollock and Ballan Wrasse now inhabit this sorry ship, using its innards as sheltered accommodation. Were I a fish, I’m not sure I could live this close to so many nets and lines: rather like having a minefield under the garden lawn.

Day two and visibility had failed to improve. Ashen-faced divers returning on wave 1 had all become separated from each other, and none seemed exactly full of the joys of Spring.

With these reports in mind, we headed to our own site, the steamship Perrone. This wreck was a cable-laying vessel until she was torpedoed, and lies 8m proud in about 32m. Dropping down the shotline (behind my buddy this time), I could see his torch hitting ‘the wall’ and finally metal emerged at about 27 metres. Silt seemed to be everywhere, so signalling ‘ok’ the cautious swim along the superstructure began.

There seemed very little life in evidence bar the odd Blenny. A moment later my partner stopped dead, his leg caught up on something. He untangled himself and our stares said it all. Dark, narky and unlikely to improve: we were out of there. And so we were, cheered by the approaching warmth of the surface.

Topside was clear blue skies, sun hats and lunch on the quayside – such a contrast to down below. Still, that’s UK diving.

I learn subsequently that the Teign river to the north and Dart river to the south both feed into Torquay bay, making the vis ‘challenging’ here at the best of times. After a week or two of ferocious storms, forget it. My advice would certainly be time your visit to this beautiful area carefully unless you like low-vis exploration.

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