Last September, I was on board, (the original plan) to film Beccy McDonald, wildlife warden on Lundy, surveying the Atlantic grey seals which haul out on the island’s rocky shoreline and breed in the caves. Lundy's new rib was out of action in Appledore, when Andrew offered us the chance to film from Obsession 11 -saving the day. Andrew and the other charter boats often offer Beccy a lift, giving her a chance to survey or dive. “The divers love having her aboard” he told me, “she is so knowledgeable about the wildlife and the marine reserve and we will help the island when we can.” I was fascinated by this generous, symbiotic relationship. It’s the way much of the boat community works in North Devon, helping each other out where they can – and I would have included it in my film story. But as some as you will know, disaster hit boat stories and before we did any filming of Beccy or the seals, we lost our principal camera over the cliff – where it smashed to pieces on the granite.
While the divers drifted, I chatted to Andrew and his son, first mate Ben and noted they were keeping a close eye on the divers’ whereabouts – following the bubbles! Andrew, whose winter day job is accountancy, is from an old sea faring family. His great grandfather came over from Wales with the coastal sailing barges, delivering coal to Lee Bay. His father worked on the gravel barges in the estuary and as a child in the early 70s, he remembers riding in the bucket that unloaded goods on to the quay – a free fairground ride if you like. Eighteen year old Ben, is trying to continue the tradition, making his living as a skipper. It’s much harder for youngsters today, but Ben is making a go of it, dividing his time between assisting his Dad, volunteering on the lifeboat and setting up his own charter business with Silver Spirit. She is the only boat in Ilfracombe with both a commercial fishing license and a passenger license. Ben takes people out teaching them how to become lobster potters for one day. As a reward they get to keep and cook their lobster.
Obsession 11 is perfectly equipped as a dive boat. She even has a platform which the diver can clamber on to underwater and then get winched up and step on to deck, water cascading off, like a space man emerging from a time capsule. Andrew Bengey, her skipper, had her designed to his specifications, building on from Obsession 1, with a bit more room and comfort and hot chocolate and coffee on tap. The latter is essential for divers who must wait between dives while the nitrogen inside them dissipates or wildlife film crews, who by the nature of their job – do a lot of sitting around.
We’d booked our passage home on the Lundy ferry, MS Oldenburg, leaving two days later, so Simon Vacher (the cameraman) and I were essentially stranded on the island. This would have been a bonus, if we weren’t worrying about the lack of camera and the boat stories budget!! Andrew came to my rescue a second time, offering me the chance to join his party of divers for the day and swim with the seals. It was a rare day “off” for Boat Stories. I was fascinated, watching the divers equip themselves to enter an alien world and then after a pep talk from Andrew, disappear into the depths. Their first dive was a ‘drift’ dive – literally drifting with the current down the east side of the island, over the marine conservation zone. “Stay on the pea gravel, release your surface marker buoy when you’ve had enough and we’ll find you.”
As other divers popped up, dripping but hopefully not fizzing like champagne corks, they compared photographs of pink sea fans, snakelock anemones, cup corals, stag horn and chimney sponges. Their underwater camera equipment was making me drool! But it was their stories of the playful seals which made me seriously jealous: one diver lying in the kelp, while a young seal seemed to be trying to mimic his actions, another seal swimming through their legs and nibbling their fins, a third blowing bubbles mirroring the divers and two more who appeared to be kissing. Chris Pearl, who had been diving for thirty years said, “it was on my bucket list, one of those things you dream about. It was far better than I imagined. We were just sitting on a rocky ledge and a seal came up to us and rubbed itself against us, just like a cat rubbing itself around you. It was an absolute privilege to be there in their world with them coming up to you – you don’t touch them - you let them investigate you. That’s me done now. I don’t need to dive again; I’ve had my dream holiday.”
“It’s been like staying on a Greek Island for a week,” his wife added, “we’ve had such glorious weather.”
They were a mixed aged group, from a Surrey based dive-club, some had come back into diving after retirement and others old and young, were newly qualified. They were staying at Milcombe, the large white house which nestles in the folds of the hillside, just above Lundy’s harbour. “We’re really impressed with the accommodation” one gentleman told me, “our only complaint is that we have to hike up to the Marisco Tavern for supper.”
The day we lost our camera over the cliff, I managed to track down a spare camera in Dorset and Andrew got on the radio to see which local boats were crossing to Lundy the following morning. The wind was preventing any charter boats coming out, but he tried to organise a relay system, from fishing boat to potting boat to dive boat to us. In the end we heard there was a potential problem with the camera and it wouldn’t get to us until nearly dusk, so we decided to postpone and I got my day on the dive boat. Luckily for us, Beccy and the island has offered us a second chance this Spring and as Simon, the cameraman, keeps reminding me, we are hugely privileged to be returning to Lundy– this time as the seabirds are arriving back to breed.
You can book Obsession 11 or Silver Spirit on 01271 866325 or 07971 462024. Check out other North Devon charters & boat trips on our boat trips page.