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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.

ray 6

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.

ray 3

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.

Marine Life & Conservation

Exhibition: Protecting UNESCO Marine World Heritage through scientific research

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From now until 30 October, the photo exhibition “Protecting UNESCO Marine World Heritage through scientific research” features 21 photographs at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, as well as a digital edition.

Exceptional photographs highlight how innovative marine experts and scientists take the pulse of the ocean by exploring ecosystems, studying the movement of species, or revealing the hidden biodiversity of coral reefs. Scientific discoveries are more important than ever for the protection and sustainable conservation of our Marine World Heritage. This memorable exhibition comes ahead of the launch, in 2021, of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (“Ocean Decade”). The exhibition was jointly developed by UNESCO and the Principality of Monaco.

The 50 marine sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, distributed across 37 countries, include a wide variety of habitats as well as rare marine life still largely unknown. Renowned for their unmatched beauty and emblematic biodiversity, these exceptional ecosystems play a leading role in the field of marine conservation. Through scientific field research and innovation, concrete actions to foster global preservation of the ocean are being implemented locally in these unique natural sites all over the world. They are true symbols of hope in a changing ocean.

Since 2017, the Principality of Monaco supports UNESCO to strengthen conservation and scientific understanding of the marine sites inscribed on the World Heritage List. This strategic partnership allows local management teams to benefit from the results obtained during the scientific missions of Monaco Explorations. The partnership also draws international attention to the conservation challenges facing the world’s most iconic ocean sites.

The exhibition invites viewers to take a passionate dive into the heart of the scientific missions led by Monaco Explorations in four marine World Heritage sites: Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (Philippines), Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary (Colombia), Rock Islands Southern Lagoon (Palau), and the Lagoons of New Caledonia: Reef Diversity and Associated Ecosystems (France). It is also an opportunity to discover the work of a megafauna census; the study of the resilience of coral reefs and their adaptation in a changing climate; the exploration of the deep sea; and the monitoring of large marine predators through satellite data.

To visit the Digital Exhibition click here.

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Dive Training Blogs

Deptherapy returns to its Roots – Part 7

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Join Richard Cullen from Deptherapy for the final part of his Blog about the charity’s recent expedition to Roots Red Sea, El Quseir, Egypt.

Deptherapy expeditions do not just magically happen, they need planning and they need funding.  This expedition was funded by our long-term partners the Veterans’ Foundation.  The funding is part of a grant they awarded us for programmes this year, which were then put on hold because of COVID.

All charities in the Armed Forces’ Sector are struggling for funds. Deptherapy desperately needs support going forward and every penny counts.

We know what we do works and at the end of this blog you will find details of the research studies into Deptherapy’s programmes and how they impact on the lives of our beneficiaries.  This includes details that are hot off the press about the latest study that reports that what we offer through scuba diving and 24/7 support has benefits beyond those found in other sporting rehabilitation programmes.

Well tomorrow we fly home, late in the evening with the journey home for some of the guys who live up North taking around 15 hours after leaving Roots.

We want to make the most of today but with the tide running we are not going to be able to dive until later this morning which means only two dives today.

Oatsie and Swars about to start their sidemount dives

Things, however are really busy over at the dive centre with Swars and Oatsie putting their sidemount kit together for their training dives with Steve Rattle leading to their RAID sidemount qualification.  It has been nice to be able to offer the guys this extra training, given the amount of work they have put in this week.  They have needed to get through their theory quickly but given the RADI online learning system this has not been too arduous.

Steve came diving with us yesterday to get some more photos and was really amazed at the progress that Corey had made. He was quite open in his praise, as in his view Corey has gone from a non-diver to being a very competent OW diver capable of diving, unsupervised, with a buddy.  Praise indeed.

Other than the sidemount course we are diving as a group today: Corey, Keiron, Michael, Moudi and me. Corey has been given some tasks – SMB deployment on both dives and the afternoon dive will be a ‘naturalist dive’.  Guy Henderson has set Corey a task: ‘to identify three species of fish and record the time into the dive and the depth at which each one was spotted’.  Guy runs Marine Biology courses on the reef and knows where the fish are to be found, how long into the dive, and at what time.

The two Toms are getting put through their paces. They have walked their cylinders down to the entry point, but Steve sends them back to the dive centre to collect other kit they should have brought with them.

Our general dive goes well and the sidemount guys appear from their sidemount dive some 90 minutes after dipping their heads under the water.

Corey enjoying being a RAID OW20 Diver

Lots of bubbly chat at lunchtime, a group of really happy divers. Corey really has benefited from the week and over lunch thanked the team for making him a diver. He has very quickly become part of the family and after returning home he published an amazing post on Facebook about his experience.  Corey really gets Deptherapy and had soon realised that we see past mental and physical injuries and see the person inside and work with that person.  He also realised that we want beneficiaries to see their fellow beneficiaries in the same light.  He knows he now has another ‘family’ – a family of brothers in arms who have two things in common, they served their country and they have suffered life changing injuries or illnesses.

Back into the water for the afternoon dive and Corey identifies the fish and records the details on a slate.  The two Tom’s complete their second dive and qualify as RAID Sidemount Divers. Great!

Kit packed away and it is time to return to the camp for a few well-earned last night drinks.

I am often asked why we use Roots as our exclusive base for diving. I have mentioned before that it offers us an ideal retreat, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. We are secluded and there are no distractions such as late-night bars etc.

Roots Accessible Room

The second reason is the amazing welcome we receive from Steve, Clare, Moudi and the team.  We have been going to Roots since 2014 and many of the staff have become good friends, they understand our needs and are the friendliest people you could ever wish to meet.

The third reason is the huge investment Steve and Clare have made in making the resort and dive centre accessible for those with physical injuries including those who need to use wheelchairs.  All our beneficiaries can enjoy Roots and, in fact, love it here.  The reef is perfect for us and in non-COVID times we can travel to the Salem Express and other dive sites to enjoy more of the Red Sea experience.

Accessible toilet on the Roots beach

After discussions with the team I was very proud to be able to tell Corey that his progress had been such that we were inviting him on the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust sponsored two-week Marine Biology Course at Roots in June 2021. There is lots of homework to undertake under the guidance of Dr Debbie McNeill of Open Oceans and Corey will be sent the Red Sea Guide which is the basis for study.

While on that programme, Corey with fellow beneficiary Dale Mallin, will complete his RAID Advanced 35 course.  This all builds to a 10-day Red Sea liveaboard in 2022, onboard Roots’ new boat Big Blue where 18 beneficiaries will compare the coral and aquatic life on the wrecks of the SS Thistlegorm and the less known SS Turkia that is to be found in the Gulf of Suez and is rarely dived.

Paul Rose, our Vice President, is supporting the programme and is seeking the support of the UN and the Royal Geographical Society. A comprehensive report will be submitted to our partners in the project and to the Egyptian Authorities.

Last night and chill

What we do works:

In recent years there have been three academic studies into our work:

2018 – A study by a team from the University of Sheffield Medical School.

2019 – A study by The Centre of Trauma at Nottingham University.

Both these studies reported very positively on Deptherapy’s work both underwater but also in terms of the provision of 24/7 support.

The following is from our press release which was issued on 26th October:

‘A new study into Scuba Diving Rehabilitation Charity Deptherapy’s approach to supporting Armed Forces veterans with psychological injuries such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) through the medium of scuba diving has been carried out by Petra Walker in conjunction with Hanna Kampman of the Posttraumatic Growth Research Unit at the University of East London.

This study, which used Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), demonstrates that scuba diving has rehabilitation benefits beyond those found in other forms of sporting rehabilitation exercise. IPA is a qualitative methodology that examines the experiences of participants and has been used in previous studies of Posttraumatic Growth (PTG) in para-athletes.

Petra is an experienced diver herself and was exploring the wellbeing aspects of scuba diving as part of her Masters in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology when she came across a previous study on Deptherapy. Past studies have mainly focused on the medical aspects of diving, so the opportunity to examine the mental health side of rehabilitative scuba diving was impossible to ignore. The full study is currently embargoed until it is published at a future date in an academic journal, but it follows similar academic research into the work of Deptherapy by the University of Sheffield Medical School (2018) and the University of Nottingham (2019).’

This is amazing news and sets us apart from other sporting rehabilitation programmes.

We are currently working with our VP Richard Castle who is a Consultant Psychologist and our Dive Medicine Advisor Mark Downs to identify further areas of psychological and physical dive related research.

We end the week on a happy note.  A young man who has learned to dive properly with a RAID OW 20 certification, a new RAID Master Rescue Diver, two new RAID Sidemount Divers, 5 new RAID O2 Providers, many assessments for our DMs but most of all a week of learning, of making new friendships, renewing old friendships, and building on our family ethos.

Until we meet again…

For us, Deptherapy is a journey, a journey that continues to push boundaries in the use of scuba diving in the rehabilitation of those suffering life changing mental and/or physical challenges.  On our journey we want to change the way the scuba diving industry views diving for those with disabilities.

In the new year, we will be launching, with our diver training agency partners RAID, a new and exciting adaptive teaching programme that will offer diving to the disabled community. We can’t wait to share it with you!


Find out more about the work of Deptherapy and Deptherapy Education at www.deptherapy.co.uk

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