dives

James Eagan Layne

The “James” (or just JEL) is an iconic UK wreck dive, and one I have done many times. Last Sunday I passed my 40th ┬átime on this site, a Liberty ship sunk in 1945 by a U-boat. After it was torpedoed, the ship was beached in Whitsand bay, just to the West of Plymouth, in order to recover its cargo. Fortunately for us divers, the ship sank, with no loss of life, before it went aground. It lies upright in only 20m and its superstructure rises to only a few metres from the surface, so it is popular with all levels of diver. We didn’t even have to put our shotline in, as it dived very regularly by the many dive boats out of Plymouth.

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The JEL was carrying a cargo of US Army engineering equipment when it was sunk and over the years, these neat stacks of equipment have been cemented into interesting piles of artefacts, which after over 60 years in the sea are not easy to identify.

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The deck, bulkheads and much of the side plating have rotted away now, and the wreck has changed a lot in the 30 years I have been diving it. Whereas it once felt quite enclosed, it is now generally rather open. Successive winter storms (this site is pretty exposed to the prevailing South Westerlies) are taking their toll, though there is much of interest to see.

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She was powered by an oil-fired triple expansion engine, which now stands proud of the sea bed so it is easy to look all around it.

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The many crevices between the items in the cargo have provided ideal homes for generations of Tompot Blennies which are found all over the wreck. This pair were having a territorial dispute when I came upon them and ignored me until they had decided who was top tompot!

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The bow of a ship is one of the strongest parts and so survives the sea for the longest. This is also the shallowest point, and where the shotline was attached; you can see that there is quite a bit of algae in this shallower water.

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dives

HMS Elk

Every classic cub boat weekend should involve diving a couple of wrecks. I had a most enjoyable tour of the Elk last weekend- late summer sun and a lack of particulates in the water provided us with good visibility. This ship was a pre-war steam trawler which was drafted into service as a mine sweeper during WWII, and sank in the mouth of Plymouth Sound in about 30m of water. It is a relatively compact wreck and sits upright on the sea bed, so can be seen from stem to stern and back in a single dive.

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The wreck was shotted straight on the bow and we were greeted by a large shoal of Bib.

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So many fish…ERB_4407

…happy to share the wreck with us

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Swimming towards the stern, the decks have mostly fallen through, the wreck is still very “ship-like”. The boiler is found amidshipsERB_4410ERB_4426

Stern of the wreck – time to turn back.

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Triple expansion steam engine.

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Back to the boiler again.

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Surrounded by Bib for the whole dive.

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Return to the bow for our ascent back up the shot line.

dives

It must be spring

Spring has sprung – despite distinctly murky conditions on the James Eagan Lane this weekend, there were Oaten Pipe Hydroids (Tubularia indivisa) aplenty to see. The numbers of these marvellous creatures explode in early spring, that is until the nudibranch eggs hatch and they all get munched!ERB_0443

Nikon D500, Nikon AF-S 60mm with +5 diopter

trips

Fireworks and flame shells

Underwater photographers tend to take a different view of dive sites on a trip to non-shooting divers. We will often be keen to keep returning to the same site repeatedly on a trip rather than trying to see a different site on each dive. So it was on a recent trip to West Scotland, I dived in only two sites. In each of two sea lochs, I dived in a single area. However these were very much contrasting locations, one a very clean high energy site needing slack water and the other a slightly murky low energy spot. Each is home to unusual but “locally common” species, well worth braving the 6-degree water temperature for.

Loch Duich is home to the impressive fireworks anemone and the maerl bed of the narrows at the head of Loch Carron is home to hidden flame shells, as well as a mass of macro subjects. Here are a selection of images to give a flavour of the sites.

First of all, Loch Duich:

And here’s North Strome on Loch Carron:

dives

Looking for skeletons

One of the pleasures of underwater photography is learning about sea life which many divers don’t even know exist. The Skeleton Shrimp (Caprella linearis) is one such species. They are not exactly tiny (up to 2cm long) and are actually really quite common. It’s just that they are very difficult to see. They spend their lives clinging to other sea life, grabbing food particles from the water. They are usually seen on hydroids, because they are easy to spot there, though they inhabit many other hosts which get them into the current, such as Dead Men’s Fingers, but are much harder to spot on those.

So it was, I spent a very enjoyable dive in Loch Creran recently hunting for these critters. They have often been photographed before and I wanted to make a different kind of image to what I had seen previously. By using a high-power diopter, I concentrated on just the head of the creature, shooting across the hydroid fronds. Shooting an abundant species allowed me to hunt down a suitable rock with a conveniently placed hydroid, so I could shoot without disturbing the fine silt ubiquitous at this site. I like this shot because it shows the shrimp through the fronds of the hydroid, like an elusive jungle animal seen through the undergrowth. The shallow depth of field of the diopter ensures subject separation by throwing the hydroid out of focus.

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On the other hand, this second capture unintentionally caught the shrimp with its claw arms wide. It made me smile because whereas the first image seemed to say “you can’t see me”, the second seemed to say “Ta-da! Here I am!!”

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Nikon D500 + micro Nikkor 105mm + Nauticam SMC.

dives, equipment

Through the looking glass…

During a recent trip to lovely Loch Linnhe, I spotted a tiny juvenile squat lobster hiding in a decaying piece of wood. I have to confess to an addiction to these charismatic creatures; I love their bright orange colour, the Popeye aggression with which the wave their claws and the intricate detail of their jointed bodies. I had promised myself that I would not shoot any on this trip, but I decided to change that to “I won’t shoot any adults” (I *nearly* managed that).

In fact this gave me a change to try out two diopter lenses for getting closer to tiny critters. On the first of two dives at the same site from a beach in Kentallen, I tried out a fairly standard +5 wet diopter and the following day, I tried out a Nauticam SMC, a much heavier and powerful lens (lent to me by a friend).

I found the SMC easier to get focussed (for both lenses, I used autofocus to get the focus to the correct position and then “rocked” to get the subject in focus). The shallower depth of field of the SMC gives a more pleasing effect, but I was more interested in how sharp the images might be – it was hard to get the images properly focused, but I am pleased wit the results from both. The SMC gives higher magnification and adds drama to the image, but its much harder to get it in focus. In particular, it is important to get ones “ducks in a row” – in other words, the points in the frame which need to be sharp must be in the same plane. This makes framing the image hard at times – I like the composition below, but I was struggling to get both of the squattie’s eyes sharp.

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Both images have been cropped from portrait format but have the full width of the frame.

Top: D500, Nikon 105mm + Nauticam SMC, ISO200 f/32, 1/100s.
Bottom: D500, Nikon 105mm + AOC+5 diopter, ISO320 f/20, 1/125s

trips

Loch Leven Sea Pens

Loch Leven is one of the smaller sea lochs. It is only just more than six miles long and very narrow – especially at one point about two miles from its head at Kinlochleven. However, it does offer some species not often seen elsewhere. Diving from its shores also offers reliable diving in any weather at any time of year. Today, the water was warmer than the air. We were searching out sea pens- long filter-feeding creatures found in quieter sites. Entering the water by the graveyard about half way along, my buddy and I passed over seemingly endless mud. At about 12m, the sea pens began to appear; this site offers all three of the native species. Pressing on, we found a large cluster of the tall sea pen (Funiculinaquadrangularis). These beautiful creatures are more than a metre tall but very thin. Seen in close up, they are lined with feeding polyps. I was very pleased to capture a splendid tall individual with several others in the background.

Our second site was further up towards the head if the Loch, beyond the narrows. Using a convenient slipway, we found a steep bank of broken stone leading to a muddy bottom at about 20m. The very fine silt makes photography very challenging, so the success rate was limited, but the eerie undulating mud, pockmarked with burrows made for an interesting dive. It did, however, yield a nice shot of a phosphorescent sea pen (Pennatula phosphorea).