Scuba diving off the UK coast is, on the whole, an exercise in masochism. The water is cold and green, the visibility tends to be negligible and getting kitted up in a dry suit, with thermal undersuit, when there's even a hint of sun is akin to feeling like a boil in the bag fish supper. Add a dive boat rocking on a big swell and vomiting dive buddies are never far behind. British recreational divers can be a rum lot; foul mouthed, fond of bizarre, potentially dangerous practical jokes, nudity and hard drinking. Given that it takes a special kind of idiot to want to get into 5 degree water to see a wreck a murky meter at a time that's probably no surprise. Having tarred the dive community with a stereotype it both loathes and somewhat cherishes I have to say I love it. I love it because every so often you do a dive that blows your socks off, a dive of unrivalled beauty, where you realise the seas off our coast are teeming with life and history.
One of the fascinations for me is seeing the stuff you normally see on ice at the fishmongers actually doing what it does in life. A monkfish, as you can see from the excellent picture at the top of this post that my friend Dan Charity took in Portland, Dorset, is seriously ugly. Ugly, but a beautifully adapted hunter, patiently waiting for prey to be attracted to the fake bait suspended from the spine between it's eyes. John Dory are slow ethereal looking animals with diaphanous trailing fins. Spider crabs can be so big that I've often mistaken them for rocks until they've moved. Pollock are streamlined silvery torpedoes and scallops feed through a fine lace like filigree that protrudes delicately from their shells. Lay one in your hand and once they sense that danger has passed they pump like muscular butterflies and swim off into the blue.
This being a food blog, it was my intention to post on diving for scallops off Swanage and dissecting one aboard the dive boat afterwards for your edification and my lunch. It's a semi regular occurrence on chartered dive boats that the skipper suggests a local drift dive (letting the current carry you along) over some scallop beds as the last dive on the Sunday. Most people see this as the skipper trying to get out of going too far off shore so he can get the boat back and cleaned up and have his tea at a reasonable hour. Personally, I'm usually in favour, as the chance to eat freshly caught raw scallops overrides any desire to see more twisted metal (though I do love a bit of twisted metal). Eating one that you've caught yourself, fresh from the sea, prised open with a dive knife, is a revelation. The main white meat is sweet and vibrant, the coral, creamy and delicately textured, like foie gras. Unfortunately, circumstances transpired against us with time and tide hampering the trip, as well as a misbehaving Tom-tom. We managed a dive under the pier in Swanage where this rather cheery Tompot Blenny posed for me. Luckily for him, he's not edible and we had to settle for mussels with chips and a few beers by the beach. Well worth the trip.