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Have a Ray Day

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Mike Anselmi, the owner of Porthkerris Dive Centre in Cornwall, said that the Helford River Estuary is one of the most popular dive sites in the area. The shallow seabed attracts all sorts of interesting marine life including Sea Hares, Cuttlefish, Clams, Scallops, Hermits and Blonde Rays. May through to August is peak season for Thornback Ray (Raja clavata) sightings. Mike said that the Rays congregated in larger numbers around mid-August. During this time it’s not unusual to see at least 5 or 6 different individuals on a single 1 hour long dive. The Rays stick together in loose packs, so when one is sighted there are usually others somewhere close by.

This is a unique underwater experience and gives divers and photographers the perfect opportunity to get up close and personal with these creatures. It’s even possible to swim side by side as they effortlessly ‘fly’ across the seabed. Thornbacks shouldn’t be confused with their close relatives, Sting Rays. They are totally non-aggressive and pose no threat to divers. There are no lethal looking barbs protruding from the tail. Instead they have 30-50 spines along the tail and up the back which could potentially give someone a graze but only if the Ray is grabbed or picked up. The mouth is located on the white coloured underside. This has rows of very small teeth which make perfect tools for crunching on Crabs, Prawns and Flatfish – not divers.

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The Charter Boat

Mike has been running the family business for more than 22 years. He owns 2 hard boats and a twin engined RIB. We went out on Mike’s flagship, the 14 metre long Celtic Cat. Getting onto the boat is quite a novel experience. There is no jetty, so divers have to walk along a high rise gangplank which is then pushed into the sea by a Tractor. Mike’s other hard boat, the smaller 8 metre long Celtic Kitten, has a bow ramp so it can come right up to the beach. Celtic Cat has plenty of room onboard for kitting up and gear stowage. The boat also has a big enclosed cabin area and an inner sanctum where I could get hot drinks. Mike has fitted a double diver lift on the stern which is controlled by CCTV linked to the high rise Bridge. Mike normally offers the Thornback Ray dive as and when he’s asked. He said that the Rays come closer inshore during calm weather; they don’t like choppy seas.

Arrival at the site

Porthkerris Dive Centre is located way down on the South West Coast of Cornwall near the Lizard. RNAS Culdrose is a good landmark to aim for and then follow the signs to St Keverne. The last few miles can be quite confusing (I took the wrong turning, duh!) but there’s still a mobile signal for any ‘help, I’m lost’ SOS calls to the dive centre. When I started seeing the Basking Shark (this is the other big attraction) signs I knew I was on the right track. The narrow hedge-lined lanes eventually open out onto a very picturesque little bay. The new dive centre building is located right next to the pebble beach. On-site facilities include a dive shop, 2 camp sites, toilets, cafe, car park, gas fills and plenty of shore diving possibilities.  There are even a number of Pubs close by. The local Seal sanctuary located at Gweek is also worth a visit during off gassing periods.

Pre-dive briefing

ray 8ray 2The Helford River is about 20 minute’s boat ride from Porthkerris Dive Centre. At high water it’s around 12 metres deep at the river mouth and 8 metres further up the estuary by the boat moorings. The seabed is made up of sand and shingle in the central channel. Nearer the edges and further up the estuary this changes to a maerl-like composition interspersed with patches of weed (perfect for Scallops).

There can be strong currents, so it’s best to dive a few hours before high water on the flood tide when things are calming down. The visibility will be better and there is more chance of seeing Thornback Rays. Keep a close eye on air supplies, as chasing after Rays can be quite a tank-draining exercise. All divers should carry a delayed SMB. Mike asks that they are deployed at the end of the dive before commencing any safety stops. This is a busy waterway so be extra vigilant on ascents. Propeller haircuts are not advisable.

Mike dropped us in the middle of the channel right by the River mouth. The tide was still flooding which meant that the current would take us inside the channel rather than out to sea. We would also have ‘cleaner’ water for my photographs. We made a free descent without reference to the seabed. The Rays are not in any particular area so there is no set direction to take, it’s basically pot luck. We drifted along with the current scanning the seabed for any Ray like shapes.

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The Dive

ray 7Creeping up on Thornback Rays turned out to be easier than I expected. I had brought along Brian Hayes, a diving friend of many years, to act as ‘model’ and Ray spotter. We found our first Ray in the first 2-3 minutes of our dive. I could make out the diamond shaped outline hidden under the sand. A pair of eye stalks and a sharp pointy nose were the only parts visible. I guess this was in readiness to strike at any prey that unwittingly wandered into the kill zone.

Working as a team we managed to get within touching distance of around 5 or 6 different Rays on each dive. The Rays seemed to react differently depending on the tide conditions. While the tide was still flooding they were more active and on the move. Mike thinks this is when they are feeding. On 3 occasions we had to swim like lunatics just to keep up. When there was very little tide we found 2 or 3 different Rays buried in the sand and they were very easy to approach – in fact, I could have touched them with my camera dome and they still wouldn’t have budged. I even got Brian to do a ‘Steve Irwin’ manoeuvre over the top of a Ray for a close-up head shot and there was still no reaction. Maybe the Ray thought that its camouflage was so good we couldn’t see it.

ray 4As the tide turned there seemed to be less Rays about and they were moving much more slowly. We had also moved up the estuary nearer to the boat moorings. The seabed composition had changed and there were far more Sea Hares around. We swam along with one particular Ray for a good 5 minutes and then bumped into a very photogenic Cuttlefish. None of the Rays shot off in an erratic manner or seemed distressed by our presence. Considering they were being sandwiched by 2 divers this was quite surprising.

The Thornbacks we encountered varied in size from small 20cm wingspans to much bigger 50cm plus specimens. The colour schemes were usually grey or brown with a kaleidoscope pattern of spots and splodges on the topside. Most had 2 claspers dangling from the tail area meaning they were males. We only encountered one small female. Average recorded sizes are around 60 cm and weigh in at 3 or 4kg’s. They can grow to more than a metre in length and weigh over 15kg’s.

ray 5This has to be one of the best marine life dives in the UK and it’s at a shallow depth where every level of diver can safely join in the fun. Our close encounters were totally natural. There was no provocation or feeding enticements going on in the background. They say a picture paints a thousand words so hopefully my photographs show just how close we managed to get. With rather more luck than judgement we had chosen a perfect day for weather. There was plenty of sunlight and very little wave action to worry about. Underwater visibility was around 8 metres throughout and the current took away any kicked up silt during our power finning spurts. For once I actually had to admit this was pretty good going for UK conditions. The toughest part of the day was keeping my model focused on the job in-hand. Brian was getting more and more distracted by the number of decent sized Scallops scattered over the seabed. He even had his goody bag at the ready!

Stuart has spent the past 26 years taking pictures and writing stories for diving magazines and other publications. In fact, this equates to more than a year of his life spent underwater. There have been plenty of exciting moments from close encounters with crocodiles and sharks to exploration of deep wrecks and more recently rebreathers. He lives in Poole, Dorset and is very much an advocate of UK diving.

Gear Reviews

Gear Review: Mares EOS LRZ Torch Range

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What does LRZ stand for I hear you ask? The answer is: LED lights, Rechargeable, Zoomable. Mares have created a versatile set of seven underwater lights in the new range to suit all needs and budgets.

I tested the most powerful of them – the EOS 32LRZ at Capernwray on a cold but bright spring day. I was diving with Alex Mustard, and so all the underwater images are by him, showing me trying out the torch in both the shallows and in some of the wrecks at this site.

All the torches in the new line have an LED visual battery charge indicator that allows you to keep the battery level under control.

Want to use it out of the water? No problem! The new EOS LRZ torches feature an innovative temperature control system that allows you to use them both underwater and on land. I can see myself using this on gloomy dog walks later in the year!

As you can see from the video I filmed just after getting back from a dive, the torch is easy to use, even with thick gloves in cold water. The zoomable light beam means that you can highlight a particular spot, or have a wide beam, which is great for both modeling for a photographer, and exploring different underwater environments.

The EOS 32LRZ has a powerful beam with 3200 lumens of power and 135 minutes of burn time. Perfect for some of the darker dives you can experience in the UK, but also for exploring overhead or enclosed environments. I easily got 2 long dives out of a single charge, and then was able to recharge it in my car using a USB cable on the way home, ready for the next day of diving.

The look and feel of these torches are great. In your hand you can feel the quality of the torches. They are solid and well built. They also look great. Each torch in the range comes with a padded case to keep them safe during transport.

For more, visit the Mares website by clicking here.

All underwater images by Alex Mustard

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Marine Life & Conservation

Reef-World launches Green Fins Japan!

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The Reef-World Foundation, the Onna Village Diving Association, the local government, and Oceana are delighted to announce that Japan is now the 14th country globally to implement the Green Fins initiative – a UN Environment Programme initiative. Onna Village in Okinawa is the first Japanese tourist destination to adopt Green Fins environmental standards to reduce the threats associated with diving and snorkelling on the marine environment.

Green Fins is piloted in Onna Village, Okinawa prefecture, an area renowned for its marine sports and has been working to protect its reefs for many years. Green Fins is implemented as part of the national Sustainable Development Goals project, which aims to manage and illustrate to the local industry how sustainable tourism can play a role in reef conservation. The economic benefits of the reefs benefit not only the fisheries industry but also the tourism industry as it has rocketed in recent decades.

If the project is successful – proving the value of sustainable tourism – the model has the potential to be escalated to a national level. A wide rollout would allow Reef-World to focus on uptake and expansion into other marine tourism and biodiversity hotspots across Japan. Green Fins implementation in Japan would provide practical solutions to many of the common problems faced in the area. It would also help to promote high standards for diving in the country. Improving the quality of the diving industry through Green Fins would demonstrate the added value of Onna Village’s tourism product. This, in turn, will encourage tourists to spend more time and money diving in the region.

Following a week of training by Reef-World (23 to 28 May 2022), Japan now has a national Green Fins team comprised of four fully certified Green Fins Assessors and two Green Fins Coordinators from Oceana and the local government. They will be responsible for recruiting, assessing, training and certifying dive and snorkel operators to become Green Fins members in the country. This involves providing training about the ecology and threats to coral reefs, simple and local everyday solutions to these threats and Green Fins’ environmental standards to dive and snorkel operators. Green Fins membership will help marine tourism operators improve their sustainability and prove they are working hard to follow environmental best practices as a way of attracting eco-minded tourists.

James Harvey, Director at The Reef-World Foundation, said: “We are really excited to finally introduce Green Fins in Japan. We have been planning this for almost three years, but the travel restrictions related to the pandemic hindered progress. The diving industry in Okinawa and the marine life upon which it has been built is so unique, it must be preserved for generations to come. The Okinawa diving community is very passionate about protecting their marine environment, and Green Fins has given them an opportunity to collectively work to reduce their environmental impact and pursue exemplary environmental standards.”

Diving and snorkelling related damage to sensitive marine ecosystems, including coral reefs, is becoming an increasingly significant issue. This damage makes them less likely to survive other local and wider stressors, such as overfishing or plastic debris and the effects of climate change. Based on robust individual assessments, the Green Fins initiative helps identify and mitigate these risks by providing environmental consultation and support to dive and snorkel operators. Through Green Fins implementation in Japan, Reef-World aims to reduce negative environmental impacts in the region by reaching 10 marine tourism operators, training 50 dive guides and raising awareness of sustainability best practices among 10,000 tourists in the first year.

Yuta Kawamoto, CEO of Oceana, said: “Green Fins will help to unify all the conservation efforts in Okinawa by applying the guidelines in many areas and raising tourists awareness. We hope this will increase the sustainable value in the diving industry and in turn increase the diving standards in the country.”

Green Fins is a UN Environment Programme initiative, internationally coordinated by The Reef-World Foundation, which aims to protect and conserve coral reefs through environmentally friendly guidelines to promote a sustainable diving and snorkelling tourism industry. Green Fins provides the only internationally recognised environmental standards for the diving and snorkelling industry and has a robust assessment system to measure compliance.

To date, four dive operators in Onna Village have joined the global network of 600+ trained and assessed Green Fins members. These are: Benthos Divers, Okinawa Diving Center, Arch Angel and Pink Marlin Club. There has also been significant interest from other operators, even those that are not located in Onna Village, for Green Fins training and assessment.

Suika Tsumita from Oceana said: “Green Fins serve as an important tool for local diving communities to move towards a more sustainable use of their dive sites; so that they can maintain their scenic beauty and biological richness to provide livelihoods for many generations to come.”

For more information, please visit www.reef-world.org or  www.greenfins.net/countries/japan. Dive and snorkel operators interested in signing up for Green Fins can find the membership application form at: www.greenfins.net/how-to-join.

Dive and snorkel operators in Japan interested in signing up to be Green Fins members can contact the Green Fins Japan team at japan@greenfins.net.

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