Pink Sea Fans at the SS Volnay wreck

Today I went for my final dive this year, again with Atlantic Scuba, and this time to the wreck of the SS Volnay (see here and here for background). Just off Porthallow on the Lizard peninsula, at around 17 meters (at low tide) lie the remains of this WWI casualty, hit by a mine and dynamited twice after (probably to get rid of unexploded shells), so she is mostly flattened. The boilers still are largely intact and are very impressive though, see the first not very-well composed shot (should have used my buddy for scale); note the white Dead man’s fingers. This dive would guarantee two ‘lifers’ for me, first the European spiny lobster (or Crayfish or Rock lobster) Palinurus elephas, which seems to be getting more common the last few years. Indeed, we did not have to look hard and saw the long antennae sticking out of nooks and crannies everywhere (see also the Devonshire cupcorals on the second photo). Second, and the main thing I was looking forward too, were the Pink sea fans Eunicella verrucosa. I had found some pieces of this gorgonian washed up on the beach before but never seen it alive. Luckily, at this site it is a common species (many juveniles, unbranched little ‘sticks were also present). I took a whole bunch of snaps and edited the jpgs in the standard Windows photo viewer (I keep the RAW files but need to find some time for proper post-processing). Just reducing highlights etc does wonders, but what I really need to do is be more clever with my camera settings in the first place. My New Year’s resolution will be too think ISO and aperture and not lazily rely on presets. I might also invest in a strobe capable of manual control (thanks for tips kelpdiver @dpreview!) High time to up my game! Below, three of the sea fan photos that came out best. Lastly, a nice new species for me: Trumpet anemones Aiptasia mutabilis. My four recent dives with Atlantic Scuba have all been great; a boat full of friendly divers leaving from just down the road in Mylor, skippered by Mark Milburn who has a very deep knowledge of the area. Todays dive with buddy Jan was very relaxed but I still learned a thing or two. More diving next year! P.S. Mark Milburn just published “Falmouth Underwater: a Guide to Marine Life, Wrecks and Dive Sites around Falmouth” (available here) which I highly recommend to anyone planning to dive or snorkel in the area!

Two November Boat Dives

I had the pleasure to go on two dives with Mark Milburn of Atlantic Scuba on the ‘Stingray’ RHIB this weekend and last, leaving from Mylor Harbour (see photo above). The first dive was in the Helford Pool, a deep area in the otherwise shallow Helford river. Buddied up with Sue and Al, we descended to 18 meters to swim over a gravelly area covered with tunicates and sponges. This was a drift dive but we did not get all the way to the eastern end of the pool where some small maerl beds are located. Swimming crabs and Leach’s spider crabs were very common; there were not many fish though. One exception was a cute little John Dory Zeus faber. I was struggling to take any decent photographs, in part because I have not used my strobe much yet and because I should have two, not just one! Sue Barnes kindly let me use a photo she took of the John Dory for the blog; also added is a photo of a sponge, one of the few half-decent ones I managed to take: The dive today took us to the cannon ball site, roughly a mile from Pendennis Castle, and an area where many of the cannon balls fired for practice ended up. With buddy Alex we descended to around 16 m using a shot line. Again a flat ‘rubbly’ area with few fish. The seafloor was covered with Common brittlestars Ophiotrix fragilis. The viz was quite good, and it was much lighter than the previous dive. I also had *a bit* more luck with the strobe. Leach’s spider crabs were common, and we also saw some Sea lemons, Doris pseudoargus, a large seaslug. Up next three common species: a little Rock goby Gobius paganellus, the colonial Antenna hydroid Nemertesia antennina and the colonial sea squirt Aplidium elegans (thanks David Fenwick). I keep my eyes open for seaweeds too of course, there were some small red species and what I suspect is Desmarest’s prickly weed Desmarestia aculeata. I found out back on the boat that I completely missed a small octopus that Alex pointed out, argh! I was very happy though that I managed to spot an Imperial anemone Capnea sanguinea, which is an uncommon species. The photo of this all-white individual was taken without a strobe; I really should have taken more time to get a decent shot. A good reason to go back though, and maybe we can spot some cannon balls then too. The water is 13-14 degrees and so it is still doable to dive with a wetsuit.

recent rockpool sightings

During my ‘seaweed sessions’ I of course keep my eyes open for animals too. Most prominent are the beautiful Snakelocks anemones Anemonia viridis (see also here). Other anemone species seem much more rare, such as the Dahlia anemone Urticina felina. Little schools of Mysis shrimp are very common (and very hard to photograph) but fish seem less common than a few months back. The common dragonet Callionymus lyra is (as the name suggests) not uncommon but hard to approach, the third photo was the best I could do and demonstrates how masterfully it is camouflaged (but see here what fullblooded males can look like!). Next a very pretty pink sea squirt species and a Broad-clawed porcelain crab Porcellana platycheles, completely flat so, very-well adapted to living under rocks. Finally, a tiny stalked jellyfish Calvadosia campanulata. Stalked jellies seemed to have disappeared over summer, but like the seaweeds are making a little comeback during autumn. There are not many around though, I have seen less than one per hour snorkelling (see this post for better stalked jellyfish photos; I need to work on the depth of field!).

Falmouth Seaweeds Mid-November

Above the spot where I have been snorkeling all year at Tunnel Beach, between Castle- and Gylly Beach, in Falmouth (Pendennis Castle can be seen in the background). The best time to snorkel is before low tide, as when the tide comes in the viz gets worse. I try to aim for 50-100 cm above the low tide mark which is really shallow. This area is not a real rock pool but rather a gravelly zone between the rock pools proper and the kelp forest which begins past the last row of rocks on the photo. Last week I went snorkelling three times but only last Thursday had decent viz. The photos below show the abundance of pink Harpoon weed Asparagopsis armata, green Sea lettuce Ulva lactuca and new growth of Thong weed Himanthalia elongata and older plants covered in red fuzzy epiphytes. The old wireweed Sargassum muticum plants have died off and the remnants are covered in many epiphytes such as Juicy whorl weed Chylocladia verticilata, Cock’s comb Plocamium cartilagineum and the pretty Iridescent fern weed Osmundea truncata. However, there is new growth everywhere as well so, like Himanthalia, this species seems to have a half-yearly lifecycle. Below some Irish moss Chondrus crispus next to Wireweed. After that, lots of little fuzzy Falkenbergia growing on top of Discoid forkweed Polyides rotundus. This combination grows in a large patch and looks interesting but I struggled to get decent photos, as the dark seaweeds on very white gravel mess up the white balance big time. Next one or two different species of fine flat reds, the last probably Nitophyllum punctatum. The Bushy rainbow wrack Cystoseira tamariscifolia is dying off (here overgrown with Asparagopsis and Dictyota) but the related Bushy berry wrack C. baccata is doing well. Among its epiphytes Spiny straggle weed Gelidium spinosum (ID thanks to Seaweeds of the Atlantic facebook page members) which is also freeliving, and finally the green Codium fragile. One time, when the tide came in, the water was super oxygenated, and all surfaces were covered with small silver bubbles which was beautiful (and annoying as the camera lens was also covered). The following photos show a very different looking Codium fragile, C. tamariscifolia overgrown with Sea beach Delesseria sanguinea and more Thong weed.

Practising Fish Photography

This Thursday afternoon was quite bright with low tide still in the ‘OK’ range, however it was quite gusty, resulting in bad viz. As seaweed photography was not an option, I opted to lie down in a midshore rockpool and look at things up close instead. There are a surprising amount of fish in rock pools when you stick your head in and so I chose to have a go photographing them. Most common were Corkwing wrasse, but these are very shy. A pair of Two-spotted gobies Gobiusculus flavenscens hung around a ledge and were easier to photograph. Still tricky though as my standard settings result in limited depth of field; I need to play around with the aperture next time. I will also bring my strobe and videolight to try to bring out the colours more. I tried a split-shot which half-worked but you really need a wide angle dome port for that (not a ‘wet’ wide angle lens). You can see the steps leading from the tunnel entrance to the shore.Two-spotted gobies hover above the substrate instead of lying on it as most other goby species do, but you can see they are very well camouflaged against the corraline algae. Two Tompot blennies Parablennius gattorugine swam up to me. These are the least shy of all the rock pool fish (their cousin the Shanny did not come very close) and easy to photograph as they kept checking me out, striking all kinds of different poses. I need to try to photograph these with my macrolens next time. I turned over a stone and found a Long-spined sea scorpion Taurulus bubalis, these keep very still and are also easy to photograph. Prawns were of course around and are actually really pretty with blue and yellow legs and striped body. Finally a shot of seaweeds in this pool showing fresh growth of many red species and a shot with green Cladophora showing limited visibility due to wave action. Btw, I see this is the 200th post on the blog!

Raglans Reef

It has been a long time coming, but I finally managed to go on a boatdive to the Manacles this weekend. I rented my gear at Seaways in Penryn and got on board the Atlantic Scuba rib ‘Stingray’ in Mylor Marina. Nine divers were on board; I was teaming up with Thomas and his intern Andy from HydroMotionMedia (make sure to check out the revamped website), who are working on a documentary about Marine Conservation Zones (the Manacles are one). The Manacles are a group of rocks east of the Lizard peninsula about half an hour by boat from Mylor which historically have claimed many ship wrecks, and they form one of the best dive sites in the UK. The name is an anglicization from the Cornish ‘Meyn Eglos’, meaning church stones. It was a beautiful sunny morning, and when we were close we spotted several Common dolphins Delphinus delphis, who came up to the boat, an awesome start! At slack tide, we descended to about 18 meters to inspect the walls of Raglans reef, the outermost pinnacle of the Manacles group. For the first time, I saw many of the species I was familiar with only from the internet and books with my own eyes: Cuckoo wrasse, Dead men’s fingers (a soft coral), Ross coral (which is not a coral but a Bryozoan), enormous amounts of Feather stars (see this recent post when I found them first on holiday in France), Sun stars and of course the incredibly pretty Jewel anemones Corynactis viridis:The photos are OK but I could do a lot better, this was in part due to my camera malfunctioning for a bit and my dive was pretty short anyway, as I guzzled too much air (I need to do some sports and drink less beer!). Also, I need a lot more practice with video light and strobe. However, this dive was primarily about checking out the new scenery.  Some shots of other species below: the Edible sea urchin Echinus esculentus, Elegant anemone Sagartia elegans (variety rosea) and Dead men’s fingers Alcyonium digitatum. I hope to go back to the Manacles on the Stingray very soon!

Falmouth Seaweeds August

Last week when I was chasing whitebait off Castle Beach, I also took some photos of seaweeds. I have been taking photos of seaweeds at this same same spot every month this year (I have made a new tag 2017 Falmouth seaweeds, if you click that, you can easily track the changes back in time). Many species are dying off, so it is definitely not looking as pretty as in March or in April. Below some evidence of the decay: first Furbellows Saccorhiza polyschides covered in grazing Grey topshells Gibbula cineraria and second, discoloured Berry wart cress Sphaerococcus coronopifolius and Red rags Dilsea carnosa Below some species that still look healthy: Bushy rainbow wrack Cystoseira tamariscifolia, Hairy sand weed Cladostephus spongiosus, Chipolataweed Scytosiphon lomentaria (not 100% sure!), Polysiphonia and Codium.

Whitebait 2

After seeing so many Sand smelt (Atherina presbyter) (EDIT or potentially Herring….very difficult to make out position of fins) schools from the local slip and quay in Flushing this week (see previous post), I went for a snorkel on Castle Beach in Falmouth over the weekend. Lots more were to be found! Below two clips. I have hardly shot any videos with my camera, and it unfortunately shows. Shaky camera movement and I forgot I had the option of shooting at a higher frame rate too, doh! I clearly need more practice. Each school consisted of fish of the same size (the smallest fish were around 3 cm and the largest maybe 9 cm), but when chased by a hapless snorkeller some merged temporarily. If you look closely, you can see about one in a hundred fish have a little bite taken out of them, I did not see any predators though.

SandSmelt 5

Feather Stars in Bretagne

Last week I was on holiday in Bretagne (Brittany), France. There was not a lot of opportunity for snorkelling or rock pooling activities, but the last day I checked out the pontoons of the large marina in Trinité-sur-Mer. I was not disappointed; the pontoons in Cornwall are full of life, but these ones 200 or so kilometers further south were exceptionally diverse. The most striking find was that of orange, red and purple Rosy feather stars Antedon bifida. These also occur in the UK but I had not seen these yet here so I was quite excited. I did not go into the water myself and the photos I took holding my camera under ended up being not great so I took some shots from above water as well, too bad I did not have more time!The first photo below gives a good impression of how abundant and diverse life attached to these pontoons is. Many species are the same as the ones I see in Mylor marina, including invasive species such as the Bryozoan Bugula neritina and the tunicate Styela clavata. In addition to the many sponges, anemones, mussels, oysters and colonial tunicates I even saw things such as scallops (not sure which species) and urchins (Psammechinus). The peacock worms were absolutely huge. The plumose anemones Metridium senile looked different to the ones I am used to here to with orange individuals having brown collars which sometimes were really big and wavy. It seems no one that moors their boat in a marina ever takes notice of what is attached to the pontoons, but they should, as the diversity and beauty can almost rival coral reefs. I hope I can go back one time to properly investigate but for now I will check out the local marina’s and keep an eye out for feather stars…

Falmouth Seaweeds July

Last week I went for a little swim at the usual spot at Castle Beach. The viz was nowhere near as good as last month, but still OK. There are schools of sand eels and sand smelt and I even saw an eel. The contrast between growing brown seaweeds and withering red seaweeds has become even greater. Below you see some yellowed Harpoonweed and a ‘forest’ of Thong weed covered in epiphytes. As the light was a bit subdued, I focused on the most shallow area. The bare parts of the rock are covered with barnacles, dog whelks, sting winkles and limpets. The seaweeds are mainly Serrated wrack Fucus serratus, Sea lettuce Ulva, Grape pip weed Mastocarpus stellatus, some Ceramium and Laver Palmaria palmata, as well as Dumont’s tubular weed Dumontia contorta.