Bob Watts my scuba diving journey

June 15, 2020 5:05 pm

My name is Bob Watts, I have been a diver for most of my life and have enjoyed more than a thousand dives. I initially trained with BSAC (up to 2nd class instructor) and more recently I qualified as a PADI diver when my two kids got to diving age.

A stroke two years ago has put pay to my diving career but sharing my experiences via Jo Brown and Geoff Hay is an absolute pleasure.  People often ask if a have a favorite dive memory which is difficult (if not impossible) to say.

Certainly, a half hour snorkel with a 3.5 metre wide Manta Ray off of Ningaloo reef in northwestern Australia takes some beating. She was a very rare black belly, she was pregnant and to experience such a privilege with my wife and kids made it one of the most wonderful days of my life.  Just a few hours earlier a mother Humpback Whale had introduced us to her calf. The mother breached six times for us. Even the boat captain had only previously seen five.

Before I recall a few outstanding dives, I should talk about the state of our seas. Over the years, the deterioration has been profound and the diving community has a very important role to play both in highlighting the problems and helping the massive cleanup that is unfortunately necessary.

Back in the seventies when I was diving three or four times per week on the Aberdeen coast, I rarely dived without a goodie bag.  My prey was either big crabs or lobsters.  I never took more than one per week as a treat but, looking back now as an ethical vegan, I very much regret my actions.

I’m pleased to report that the goodie bag eventually became a trash bag and I made a point of collecting as much rubbish as possible, especially plastic.  That said, if man-made rubbish has been adopted as habitat, it’s important to leave it alone.

Micro plastics in our oceans is a whole different level of problem.  Recent footage of the Mariana trench showed plastic pollution even down there. It would be very easy to get defeatist about this but we have to fight for the environment that we love so much. Tell the big polluters that their actions are not good enough. Nestlé, McDonald’s, Coca Cola and PepsiCo account for a ridiculous amount of pollution. Vote with your wallet but (very importantly) tell them what you’re doing and why.


Hammerhead Sharks

I have been lucky enough to have made three diving holidays to the Maldives. We’ve visited Villi Varu, Kurumba and Gangehi. All were stunning in their own ways but the true beauty is underwater. I had seen a big Napoleon Wrasse on the house reef at Villi Varu and had read that they enjoyed hardboiled eggs.  So, one morning I snaffled an egg from the breakfast room and set off. I explained to the dive master and my German buddy about my plans. Both looked amused but cooperative.

At about 20 metres, we leveled off and waited for the king of the reef to pay us a visit. After a minute or two he (or she) came along so I reached into the pocket of my stab jacket and was (stupidly) surprised to find that Boyle’s law had acted upon the egg and, at three bars absolute, my egg was mush. The Wrasse looked disappointed but the much smaller reef fish ate well that morning.

My second dive of the day was a boat dive to the location of a ‘cave’.  The dive master (a Swedish lady called Anita) explained that it wasn’t a cave dive in the strictest sense in that it was a coral formation that was cave shaped and the surface would always be in clear sight. The ‘cave’ was about the size of the Royal Albert Hall and was festooned with colorful life. Part of the dive plan was to exit the cave via a 10 metre diameter hole in the cave wall occuring at about 25 metres.

The dive went to plan and the hole came into view and the tropical sunlight poured through. As we emerged through the hole we looked up and found that about ten to fifteen metres above us we had an honour guard of five Hammerheads. Majestic! They were juveniles approaching adulthood.

It was difficult to gauge size and they soon dispersed when they became aware of our small group. Unfortunately, the underwater camera I owned at the time was only rated to ten metres so I was unable to take pictures. Seeing sharks is such a privilege. The biggest problem is getting close enough to get a good look or take pictures. The notable exception to this is the Leopard shark which will lay still in the current and let you take a close look.


 The Wreck of the Bianca C

Wreck diving is a specialty that is so worth the effort and worth getting right. The Hollywood image of a wreck is a largely intact vessel sitting upright on the bottom. Reality (in my experience) is mostly very different. They are often smashed up and either on their side or upsidedown.

Two wrecks off of Pink Gin beach (part of Grand Anse beach) in Grenada disprove this. The Veronica L and the Bianca C are two very different diving propositions. The Veronica L sits very nicely in approximately 17 metres of clear water.

She is quite complete and doesn’t have too many potentially dangerous overhead obstructions. She is the ideal wreck for divers who are new to the discipline. She was my kids’ first wreck dive – I’ve got a great picture of me and Jennifer doing the classic Leo and Kate pose (from Titanic) in the bows.

Conversely, the Bianca C is only for experienced divers. She sits upright in a 50 metre gully and is substantially intact. It’s a GPS dive so, when the boatman gave us the signal, we emptied our BCDs, upended and finned down.  She came into view when we were at about 20 metres and we levelled off at 40 metres. The dive plan was to go from bows to stern. The boatman had done an excellent job and we came upon the bows perfectly.

A lot has been written about the Bianca C and she certainly Google’s well. I videoed the experience and if you are interested you can find it by googling ‘Bob Watts Bianca C’. Please forgive the vanity shot that proves it’s me.

She is rated (by some) as being in the top ten wreck dives in the world. Some call her the Titanic of the Caribbean. I certainly enjoyed the experience. Towards the end of the dive we were shadowed by an enormous pelagic Barracuda. Against a blue background it was difficult to estimate its size but it was clearly a very big fish.


Hand Feeding Conger Eels

In the early 1980s, a friend and I were asked by the Merchant Navy College at Greenhithe in Kent to take over the teaching of scuba diving on their curriculum. It was an evening class option for their students and it paid £16/hour (which was a lot back then). As we both had good day jobs, we decided to have the money paid into a club to fund trips and the like. Greenhithe Merchant Navy College Sub Aqua Club (GMNCSAC) was born. The college gave us pretty much any kit we wanted and we had the keys to a fantastic indoor swimming pool.

One of our favourite diving locations was Start Bay in Devon.  There were very nice, beach side, full size caravans for rent and the diving (for UK waters) is very good. Scallops were plentiful so breakfast often included them pan fried and unbelievably fresh. As previously stated, I no longer exploit or eat animals of any kind and really enjoy a plant based and very varied diet.

One of our divers was a guy called Mick. He was very experienced and had dived Start Bay many times. He often spoke about the Conger Eels that inhabit the deep gullies off Start Point. He spoke fondly about how they could be coaxed from their dark homes and hand fed with sprats.  I was fascinated.

Like most people, my mind’s eye view of the magnificent fish was of something quite vicious and scary. Of course, this image was derived from the fish being landed in a fishing boat with a barbed hook in its face, a gaff hook in its belly and fighting for its life. The reality in its own environment is very different.

The dive into about 25 metres was quite challenging in that it could only take place at the very top or very bottom of the tide.  Currents outside of these times made it impossible to dive safely. Low water is usually churned up and quite murky.

The following day, each equipped with plastic bags containing three fresh sprats, we set off to the tip of Start Point. Our friend was boatman for the day and the slack water allowed him to pull back to a known sandy bottom where he dropped anchor and enjoyed some sunshine.

Visibility was good at about three to four metres and we were able to follow the gullies at the surface down into the depths. At about 20 metres we found good resting places about eight feet apart, settled down and deployed our first sprats. Honestly speaking we weren’t very good diving buddies for each other that day in that we rarely looked at each other.

I imagined that it could take several dives to gain the trust of the fish but I was wrong.  Like most creatures in the sea, Congers are opportunistic feeders and after only a few minutes of proffering a fish a pair of eyes emerged from the gloom.  I have to admit I was scared, very scared but Mick had coached me to stay very still. I did as I had been told.

The fish inched out from its home. Although it was fixated on the fish in my hand, I felt that it was watching me. I knew that one false move would send it back into its hole never to be seen again. I held my ground and, as much as possible, I held my breath.

Surprisingly, as the fish went nose to nose with the sprat, it didn’t perceptibly open its mouth. Instead it just sucked in a breath and the little fish disappeared in a micro-second. The Conger recoiled slightly but was curious and wanted more.

With the second sprat I tried to lure him further from his home. It took a little longer but again the little fish disappeared in the blink of an eye. I decided to push my luck. Mick had told me that, as long as I didn’t scare the fish, it might let me touch.

This time, I held the fish in my right hand but with my left hand very visible in its line of sight. Like me, the fish had gained some confidence. He was enormous. My heart was in my mouth. He willingly came the five feet or so to reach the sprat and still hadn’t fully exited his hole. I slid my bare left hand along his body. It was like stroking wet leather. It was truly wonderful.

We must never forget that diving is an honour and a privilege and we are in the environment of the creatures we encounter. It’s their home. We are visitors and must always be respectful. We should leave that environment in as good a condition as we found it, if not better. That includes the beaches too.

The first time you swim with a family of squid and see their curiosity and stunning colours, you will never order calamari again. I really hope that you enjoy your diving career as much as I have.

Bob Watts