1 of 12
2 of 12
3 of 12
4 of 12
5 of 12
6 of 12
7 of 12
8 of 12
9 of 12
10 of 12
11 of 12
12 of 12
At The Bottom of the Sea in Start Bay
People who live in the area and the thousands who visit here marvel at the wonderful coastal scenery surrounding Dart harbour and Start Bay. However, the scenery and marine life of this area under the water is visited by relatively few. The underwater attractions are described here by Tony Hoile, who has dived the area extensively for over 35 years, and now operates a dive charter boat Falcon II for diving groups with his business partner, Laurie Fraenkel.
“The exposed nature of the coast the strong tidal streams and the River Dart emptying nutrients into the bay provide ideal conditions for a profusion and diversity of marine creatures. The underwater rock faces exposed to the underwater currents are covered in colourful anenomes, soft and hard corals, sponges, tunicates, and crustaceans. Small fish, prawns and colourful squat lobsters inhabit the numerous crevices in the steep reefs, while larger territorial fish feed in the currents around the rocks."
Many of the dive sites we have discovered from Falcon II lie to the North East of the Dart around the extensive Dartmouth Mewstone and Eastern Blackstone. (photo) The near vertical strata of the combinations of sedimentary rock, and slabs of basalt that stretch from Old Combe Rock (known locally as the Dartmouth Needles) stretch across the mouth of the estuary in a series of spikes north east for nearly 5 miles. Some, such as the Mewstone tower nearly 35m above the surface, and then tumble in spectacular, steep slabs down to over 35m depth. Others such as the Bear’s Tail are barely below the surface. This rock was originally protruding from the water but the large cannon balls found around it show evidence that it was used for target practice from Dartmouth Castle. The Eastern Blackstone has steep vertical cliffs down to 30m. Many of the other reefs have rock faces covered in spectacular white and orange plumose anemones filtering their food from the currents each day. Devonshire Cup Corals are present in the rock overhangs, and the spectacular Gorgonia Sea Fans are found as shallow as 10m depth.
Wrecks of the area
As a historic port one would expect some maritime mishaps. Many of the more obvious shipwrecks lie between 2 and 5 miles offshore, and were a result of World War 1 activity. The Benton and Picton Castles, turn of the 20th century steel trawlers converted to minesweepers, lie in over 30m of water and sank as a result of hitting mines. The Benton is the more intact, lying on her port side covered in sea anenomes. Further out in deeper water of the wrecks of the steamships Greatham (2,338 tons sunk January 22nd 1918) and Elsa and the minesweeper HMS Aldershot, all sunk by German U Boat torpedoes. The wrecks in this area are known as the Red Light Steamers.
The casualties were not all one sided. The wreck of a German U Boat lies in very deep water off the Eastern Blackstone. This was first dived by myself and members of Totnes Dive Club over 20 years ago and lies in over 50m with the conning tower still intact. It is thought that the submarine was scuttled by the crew after being captured on the surface
What was always described as a German Bomber turned out to be a British Hurricane. The mistaken identity apparently comes from the propeller which was recovered on a fisherman’s crab pot line. Years later another fisherman’s gear was fouled and again myself and other members of Totnes Dive Club dived to identify the problem. We found a mound of crabpots that had wrapped around the foul in 48m from the surface, too deep to work to recover them. Rick Mitchelmore then used his larger vessel to tow the pots into shallower water. After cutting the pots off, an aircraft engine was found, taken ashore to Kingswear fish quay and washed down. A mature gentleman visitor watching declared “Rolls Royce Merlin”. “No” we insisted “German bomber”. “I used to build these,” he said. The decider was the brass plate stating in English “before use, fill with oil“. Stories then came out, including a diary entry and sketch of the incident when the Hurricane from a Polish RAF flight was shot down in the mouth of the Dart by a German Dornier and crashed off the Eastern Blackstone. The pilot bailed out and survived.
Further inshore lies the wreck of a small Dutch tug which sank in 15m inside the Eastern Blackstone after hitting the rock on a quiet moonlit night in the early 1930s. Interestingly, this wreck disappeared below the shifting sand for many years, and then re-appeared 8 years ago and now stands clear with a relatively intact hull, boiler, engine, propeller and rudder.
The majority of the area to the south west of Dartmouth gives way to relatively shallow, sandy areas with some reefs either side of Blackpool Sands, and fingers of rocky gullies off Beesands and Hallsands, inside the shifting sands of the Skerries Bank. However, these shallow areas are nursery grounds for small fish, crustaceans, sponges and the delicate Ross Coral.
Close under the northern cliffs of Start Point lies the wreck of the Liverpool Barque Dryad which drove onto the rocks in a north-easterly blizzard in 1891 with the loss of all 21 hands. (There is an excellent book of the history and discovery of the wreck – The Life and Death of The Liverpool Barque DRYAD by Henry Alexander).
Immediately off the end of Start lies the wreckage of the steamship MARANA, lost on the same night as the DRYAD. The 2,177 ton steamship drove onto Sinking Rock just inside the Blackstone losing her rudder and propeller. All the 28 crew managed to get into the two lifeboats, both boats overturned further west in horrendous seas, and only four got ashore near Prawle. MARANA perched on the rock for sometime before slipping into deeper water to the east, and the ship’s boilers, engine and propeller are now home to a large conger eel 10m deep in the sea.
Finally, 1 mile off Start, in 2 sections on a bank of white sand, lie the broken remains of the Swan Hunter steamer NEWHOLM which hit a mine in March 1917. It is now a favourite wreck from Falcon II for visiting experienced divers to the area in 28-48m depth.
So, as you gaze across the expanse of Start Bay, imagine the scenes depicted by these descriptions and the images here.
To contact Tony call 07970 759172 or Laurie call 07970 857504 or visit their website www.dartboat.com