HOW DO YOU FIND A CREATURE the size of your fingertip that can change colour to match the seabed The answer is to ask Toyah Tomkins to dive with you. The co-owner of Bouley Bay Dive Centre on Jersey has a special gift for spotting critters so small that pinheads would complain about overcrowding.
Divers travel to far corners of the planet to find critter diving, but there’s no need. The creatures may not have flamboyant or pygmy or mimic in their names, but they’re no less special to see.
Bouley Bay is a small, fairly secluded bay in north-western Jersey, one of the Channel Islands. The coast of Brittany is visible when air conditions allow, and between the island and France are small islets, reefs and a plethora of wrecks to keep any visiting UK diver happy.
Mind you, I’m not an “if-it-isn’t-covered-in-rust-I’m-not-interested” diver. I prefer the sort of sub-aquatic adventures that might interest a marine biologist, because I get more excited about seeing a hermit crab than a porthole. However, even if you are a rust junkie read on, because what I found may surprise you.
The Channel Islands sit in a privileged position, as they are at the northern range of some North Atlantic and Mediterranean critters. In the summer, if you know where to look and search hard enough, you can find anemone shrimps and blackfaced blennies in the waters off southern England, but Bouley Bay is home ground for these animals.
I know a UK diver who will look in every single snakelocks anemone to find the enigmatic electric blue-flecked shrimp. He hardly ever finds one.
One dive in Bouley Bay, even in the early season, produced a shrimp in one in four anemones.
That’s a pretty good hit rate, considering that the shrimps don’t show themselves until the water temperature is 12°C. While I was there, the temperature fluctuated between 13° and 11°C. So it was borderline whether I would find any, but I found them on virtually every dive.
Pictures of shrimps in anemones taken in Indonesia or the Philippines often win underwater photographic competitions. If that’s your goal, then consider the delicate green and purple of the snakelocks anemone and the clear electric-blue of the shrimp. It’s a surefire competition winner.
The trouble I encountered was surge. My week at Bouley coincided with a north-easterly blow between 12 and 20mph, which pushed a swell and chop into the bay. It never got bad enough to stop diving, but even slight water movement sways the anemones like a palm tree in a hurricane.
The shrimps were buffeted around, I was buffeted around and I could only imagine what the poor anemone was thinking. To and fro, to and fro I went, the shrimp went and the anemone went, about as much in time as a first-round drop-out from Britain’s Got Talent.
I REACHED A LEVEL of frustration that only just fell short of me biting through my reg. Thankfully, as in space, under water no one can hear you scream.
Every time the shrimp entered my viewfinder looking like a grandma on a rollercoaster, my camera failed to focus fast enough and I missed the moment. I moved from one anemone to another and suffered the same frustration, grabbing only a handful of sharp pictures with a shrimp in frame.
This can happen in the tropics too. My saving grace was that from start to finish I had driven only 25 miles from my home. I boarded a car ferry at Poole and got off in St Helier just over three hours later.
The expense was minimal. No expensive airline tickets, no costly car-park fees, and no baggage restriction.
I had everything with me and could jerry-rig a camera set-up.
Condor fast ferries operate year-round, and provide allocated seats, duty-free shop, bar and restaurant aboard. The staff are pleasant and welcoming – I wish all travel could be done this way.
From St Helier to Bouley Bay is just over five miles. Petrol is cheap and Jersey’s road network, although narrow, is good.
After the shrimp, I moved onto another subject that proved almost as frustrating to photograph. The seabed of Bouley Bay consists of rough sand and it is covered in juvenile flatfish.
It’s hard to distinguish the species.
I could spot sole and turbot, but there must also have been plaice, flounder, dabs and topknots. In places the seafloor seemed to jump up and skitter away in a dozen directions as I passed overhead and the flatfish fled.
I caught the movement and followed the fish, but as it landed it blended perfectly into the sand and more often than not completely vanished. As I found it again, the damn thing jumped up and took off. I must have looked like a buffoon, lifting from the seabed and dropping back down, like someone imitating a dog trying to catch a fly.
There were some larger flatfish around too (too big for my macro lens set-up), plus an undulate ray.
Another photographer even spotted a large torpedo ray, which can produce electricity in high concentrations – which is why they are also called electric rays.
BOULEY BAY IS ONE of those places where almost anything can turn up. Last year a sunfish was spotted near the harbour wall; seahorses are seen from time to time; octopuses could make a comeback after fishing was banned at the beginning of the year; and, in certain years, the seabed is alive with either spider crabs or mating sea hares.
The latter are a type of nudibranch. I’ve seen them in the UK quite a lot and they reach the size of an average thumb, but in Jersey they come fist-sized.
I was there to catch them mating. It didn’t seem to be a swarm year, when the seabed is covered in stacks of them, but they were around in good numbers. Mostly they were in couples, with the odd single male hanging around.
I played the voyeur for a while, but sea hares are sensual and slow in their love-making and I quickly grew tired of seeing nothing much happen and moved on.
From the ridiculous to the even more ridiculous: Bouley Bay has a lot of critter activity and Toyah is a superwoman at finding critters, but she outdid herself with two particular species.
One is the rather blandly named Brown shrimp. It’s a terrible name for a particularly alien-looking creature, so I’m going to use its Latin name. The men in white coats had a better name for this diminutive creature when they called it Crangon crangon.
Crangon looks as if it might have burst from the chest of John Hurt and be about to hunt down Sigourney Weaver in Alien, apart from the fact that it’s about as big as my little fingernail.
It lay in the sand, blending in about as well as the alien from the Predator, and looked like a baby mantis shrimp. It was ugly yet impressive, and made another species to add to my incredible list of Jersey-based critters spotted.
I have saved the best for last, however. Remember me mentioning a creature that could change colour to match the seabed and the size of the top of your little finger Well, early in the season, most are the size of your little fingernail, if not smaller. A penny would dwarf them and Toyah found loads – I think the woman has bionic eyesight.
The little cuttlefish is not just a baby common cuttlefish. In fact it isn’t a cuttlefish at all, but a species of bobtail squid. It grows to a maximum of 5cm and starts life at less than a centimetre.
For mere mortals these bobtails are impossible to spot, but Toyah with her sixth sense found about 20 in my time in Bouley Bay.
Once they know they’ve been spotted the little bobtail squid leap up from the seabed, squirt a blob of ink and bolt.
The ink blob is about the same size as the bobtail, and any attacker is supposed to go for the ink rather than the squid, which instantly turns the same colour and texture as the surrounding seawater or sand. In essence, it disappears.
These are stunning little creatures, defiant, bolshie and enigmatic. They were my favourites from my week in Bouley Bay.
I HAD SEEN A MULTITUDE of critters. I could have paid thousands of pounds and travelled to the ends of the Earth to find muck-diving in warmer water, but it wouldn’t have been better than this. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
The frustration of photographing such creatures was far outstripped by the joy of seeing them and diving with them. If you go to Jersey to dive the wrecks, to appreciate the history or just to enjoy a holiday, be sure to call in at Bouley Bay for a few days of shore-diving, at least.
After all, few people in the world can say they’ve come face to face with the world’s smallest cephalopod.
Condor fast ferries travel to Jersey via Guernsey from Poole and Weymouth – two people and a car costs from £34 each way. There is also a slow ferry from Portsmouth, www.condor ferries.com. Gavin Parsons stayed at the friendly Water’s Edge Jersey Hotel on the Bouley Bay seafront and reports that the rooms, which start from £70 per night (two sharing), are good and breakfast “superb”, www.watersedgejersey.com. Bouley Bay Dive Centre has a RIB for offshore diving, sells air and nitrox, rents equipment and offers guided dives in the bay, www.scubadivingjersey.com