Diving Trip to Portland 27th to 29th July 2016

Report by George Mitchell (click here for some of George’s photos)

It has been a while since I have dived off Portland. In the 80’s and 90’s and early noughties we were spoilt by having the chance to dive the Hood. Once that peach of a wreck dive was classified as “out of bounds” it rather took the gloss off any enthusiasm for Portland diving. Yet we should not ignore this area. There are other wrecks and drift sites that make it worth the trip. Tim Cozens and I drove down to Portland on the morning of the 27th of July calling in at the “Bunker” a lovely stone building which was once a Masonic Hall. Not massively roomy in the bunk rooms (thanks to Tim and Dave for being a bit generous with space for my camera kit!) but very comfortable. Upstairs was a lounge dining room and a kitchen at the far end. The atmosphere is all very marine and diving here helped by a large number of pictures of Portland wrecks and a front page from the New York Times the day after the Titanic sunk. We were on board the “Skindeeper” and away to the M2 by about 15:00. This boat has a twin hull with a spacious deck and well set out benches including some very sensible ropes for securing bottles in transit which we all agreed were better than elastic bands. The lift is wide and is smooth with easy to grip handles. Viz on the M2 was maybe 3m but there was plenty to see. In fact, the outer hull, rather thinner than the pressure hull, is now very corroded and missing over a substantial area, revealing a lot of the compressed air bottles used for buoyancy control, some of the mechanisms for launching the aircraft and other items of interest. The M2 is not a huge wreck so we managed to see most of it. Our second dive was really late in Balaclava Bay over an endless stretch of crepidulata fornicata with occasional clumps of the two large bryozoans that we find around our coast, flustra and pentapora foliacea, the latter also known, falsely from a taxonomic point of view, as Ross Coral. The dive ended at nearly 8pm following which we ate a hearty meal at a restaurant in the marina.

After an excellent breakfast next morning we were heading out to the Alex van Opstal a 5965-ton Belgian motor ship. This early casualty of World War Two was sunk by a mine on 15 September, 1939, just 15 days after the German invasion of Poland. It lies almost due south of Lulworth Cove. The wreck lies on its port side and as a result of the mine explosion is essentially in two halves so navigating it means following the line of the hull across a patch of open ground in to get to the bow. Don’t look for boilers and a large steam engine, the vessel was diesel powered and the engine is apparently still under a mass of wreckage. The prop is of course absent but it is worth having a look at the massive prop shaft protruding from the stern.  During the break we were offered tea or coffee or cocoa and a pie! The second dive was off Lulworth Banks where again there were bryozoans in abundance amongst the few huge shells from the naval firing range near Lulworth. These must be 12” diameter and not being 100% sure they were not still live we were cautious approaching these….so Tim appears only as an arm and a torch in the photos.

That evening we headed to the Cove House Inn, racing up the shingle of Chesil beach from the Bunker, eager to quench thirsts with some cold beer. Fortunately, someone had the foresight to book – it was packed. I like this pub as the food is very good, the service friendly and the view of the setting sun over the sea in the summer wonderful.

Our final day here started with a longer trip out to the Aeolian Sky.  The weather was a bit less calm too and we were in a smaller less stable boat called the Scimitar. This reminded me of the time years ago when we dived this in a force 6 and……… The sinking of the Aeolian Sky in 1979 means she is a modern wreck and the story of the sinking is complicated. However, this 148m 14,000 tonne vessel sank on November 4, 1979, 5 miles south of St Aldhelm’s Head, still 12 miles from the safety of Portland. She settled on her port side in 30 metres of water with her bows facing south. I first dived this in the late 80’s and am amazed how much she has collapsed since then but that means there is more of the wreck exposed ready to be explored. We were blessed with better viz than on the previous two days, perhaps as much as 6m so I managed to photograph a good deal, including my fellow divers, much of the wreck, a tompot blenny and one of the Land Rovers. They were not exactly driveable when I first saw them, but now only the chassis, engine and drive train and wheels remain the aluminium body having long gone. Some of the other items on this wreck illustrate how huge it was as a working ship, particularly one of the winches we found, the haws holes and the bridge itself. At one point Tim seemed to rush off…but of course he was just getting us back to a sensible point from which to launch our ascent. I had become rather absorbed in the scenery! The last dive was probably the best drift of the trip. We were dropped off on an excellent scallop bed. The inhabitants were mixed King and Queen Scallops along with the inevitable bryozoans, spider crabs, molluscs and small fish. I have never seen so many scallops on one dive. They were jumping up for a pastime straight into Tim’s hands and then into the goody bag! What a way to end the trip.

Back at the marina in Portland (which I should mention is well laid out and has excellent facilities) we packed the car and headed back to London satisfied with a good few days diving and at least from my point of view keen to make another trip here. Which reminds me of another time in this area when John Lugg and I found the A3….another shaggy diver’s tale involving strong currents, 40m depths a boat that nearly sunk…OK I’ll tell you over a pint sometime. The A3 was a fantastic submarine dive but it has been declared a historic site and is almost never dived now. Another reason not to go to Portland? Not at all. One of the people on the dive boat on day one told me the reason diving was prohibited on the Hood was that the plates were loose and waving around in the currents. Well of course we’ve seen that before. Actually you can still reach it by diving the dredger along the southern harbour wall and sneaking off to the harbour entrance. Better not tell the skipper of your boat…if caught you’re in trouble. Tempted? If not tempted by the Hood there are plenty of other wreck sites. Diving below Pulpit Rock is wonderful scenery and contrasts completely with the flatness of Balaclava Bay. Lets get back there.

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