Up Temperate diving » Holland May 07 Slideshow

Cuttlery Draw  - Zeeland, The Netherlands - May 07

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A chance conversation in Manado led us to try the diving in Holland a couple of years ago and we're converts. Let's say up front that's it not crystal clear warm diving for big fish but if you like little stuff and easy shore diving it's a great place to go. Of course that's ignoring the biggest draw, the cuttlefish who breed there in May and allow even the inept to observe them :-) Which is handy! Oddly we heard about this gathering before the similar one in Babbacombe in the UK. In Babbacombe Bay a ring of traps is set by greedy local fishermen which catch the animals and prevents them breeding. This has reduced numbers horrendously and violates all sensible fishery practices. In Holland the cuttlefish are a great attraction, although there is angling, and egg laying 'tents' are setup to make the dark waters around the bridge more attractive to the cuttlefish. It is a very stark contrast.

Webbed cuttlefish
Cuttlefish breeding by the Zeelandbrug
The main reason we go diving in Holland is to see the cuttlefish breeding. The dives around the bridge aren't trivial, it is very murky with vis often less than 1m and commensurately dark. The strong currents have claimed a number of victims. It is crucial to dive at slack and important, but hard, to keep your bearings. That done you can enjoy an amazing experience, at least until other divers are attracted by your lights - some things are the same whatever country you dive in.
Web shortlist
Non cuttlefish pictures
Although the cuttlefish are the main attraction there's plenty of other life to see and lots of easy dive spots to explore.
Webbed cuttlefish
Olympus Mju770 - Mini review
What's most worrying, the trashed camera or the spaced out expression? It'll be the latter as unbelievably the camera is fine without a case! Our Dutch trip was the perfect chance to try this tough but tiny gadget and it passed with flying colours.

Cuttlery Draw  - Zeeland, The Netherlands

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Sex tourists - Sepia officianalis
When considering national stereotypes we British are often portrayed as prudish whereas our European neighbours are considered sophisticated love machines. While this may not be entirely fair it is probably the reason why so many people go abroad for their excitement… and of all the places to go for erotic thrills Holland is top of the list!

So when we wanted a dirty weekend away The Netherlands was the obvious place to go. As divers we are often surrounded by sex but simply don't know what's going on There are a few events like coral spawning which attract attention but on the whole we are oddly less well informed about the mass aggregations of larger animals. I have always been fascinated by cephalopods and particularly enjoyed encounters with cuttlefish who appear to take a real interest in divers on occasion and Dawn, my partner, and I have spent as much time as we could in the company of these creatures underwater. It was strange that we heard about the mating gathering in Holland before we were aware of the similar event in Devon - now that we have heard about the carnage in Babbacombe Bay and the fishing threat to end their gathering there it seems all the more appropriate to relay our Dutch experiences.

We first heard about the cuttlefish gathering by the Zeelandbrug from Dutch divers during the long dull nights at an Indonesian dive resort. We always gravitate towards people who dive in their own country - as they tend to have a better grasp of the qualities that make a good dive -and we were fascinated by the chance to see the gathering. We got some friendly advice from the local BSAC club and our first trip last year was an enjoyable but fruitless exercise as we missed them by a week due to the late spring. This year we went a couple of weeks later and the warm weather meant they had been active early and so we missed the big crowds, but did still see reasonable groups.


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Swimming out to the Zeelandbrug

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Exploring under the bridge

The cuttlefish are THE big diving event in Zeeland and the bridge car park is crowded whenever a good slack falls within normal daylight hours. Luckily there's plenty of daylight in the late spring to early summer and much before 9.30 is not considered normal so you can get a chance at some undisturbed gloom.

The encouragingly named Island of Schouwen Duiveland in the area of Zeeland is only roughly 15 miles long and 7 high (a little bit bigger than Gozo, and smaller than Malta) so getting around is easy. Even more so because it is very, very flat and you can often see your destination in the distance!

After getting some advice from the local BSAC club (I guess it must have escaped from the UK) we chose to stay at the De Kabbelaar hotel in Scharendijk which is an integrated dive centre, shop and hotel. The founding family have relatively recently chosen to rent out the shop and concentrate on the accommodation but the setup is seamless for customers. The original intent was to provide basic accommodation for divers and there are rooms for large or club groups but its far from primitive and we were very happy last year in a simple double. Separating the hotel business from the shop has allowed Bastien and Caroline more time to concentrate on the accommodation and they have added some more spacious new rooms. We were delighted to get to spread out in one of the new ones which made a great base for the week we were there.

The hotel has a dry front door which opens into the bar and a wet back door which opens, via 2 secure, chip keyed, CCTV observed doors, into a huge washing and drying area. Each resident gets a locker, with a high shelf and power for chargers. There are showers too, that’s in addition to the en suite facilities in the room. More secure doors get you to the stairs up to the rooms or straight into the bar...

As in the UK diving in the Netherlands is predominantly a weekend pursuit and our local informant’s most valuable tip was to go during the week. That ensured a relaxed, crowd free weeks diving and no queues anywhere. It helps that cuttlefish season is just pre-high season for land lubbers too. May's pair of bank holidays do however make for some busy long weekends - avoid them if you can.

Contributing to the post dive calm was a typically practical Dutch innovation - self service air fills. No more frantic runs to the dive shop before they close, and no queues because there's simply no hurry.  The air is metered out at 400litres for 50 Euro cents so a 10litre tank costs 2.5Euros (£1.75) to top up from 50bar of leftovers. The stations don't fill beyond about 220 bar and, even though the fill rate is pretty gentle, will fall closer to 200 after cooling. Whether the UK populace could be trusted with this breakthrough is open to question but the Dutch can clearly cope. The station at the dive centre has been joined by a containerised unit at the Zeelandbrug itself. The only problem is amassing a good stack of half Euro coins. Once we've given up the pound we’ll be able go prepared but most of the local restaurants are pretty tolerant of divers asking for change.


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Lobsters are very common around the reefballs

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Everything is covered in life - this is a chain!

The island has two distinct bodies of water above and below it. Above the island the tideless Gravelingenmeer allows diving at any time on a selection of sites, several of which have been augmented with concrete reef balls to provide a reef for the local wildlife to gather on. They work very well and bring the focus up off the light silty sea bed which makes for better vis. Careful footwork is important as there's no tide to wash the sites clean and it'll take time to settle again. It's easy to assume that there's only half a dozen on each site but there are many 10s which makes for a good area to search. Most of the sites are comparatively shallow, the dykes generally slope gently to 2 or 3m and then more sharply down to a plateau at 7-10m. If you keep going there's another dropoff which can take you down beyond 30m but we didn't meet anyone who recommended it and can't say we were tempted.

To the South there is the Oosterschelde, which is tidal and the sites here should be dived at slack. The currents can be strong as the water is torn past some of the features which make up the sites on this side more diverse. There are tide tables on the web and more usefully there's a set for sale in the shop with the offsets for each of the popular sites. Far and away the most popular site, North or South, is the Zeelandbrug. Whether or not the cuttlefish are there someone will turn up for slack. When the cuttlefish are there any daytime slack will be well attended, even during the week. There's decent sized car park for 30-40 cars but fishermen will often claim the pole positions by the steps. There's a 'hardcore members' area under the bridge where you can get a bit of shade and some gravel free concrete to change on or catch some rays.

The Dutch weather can be blazing in early summer, so we always come back with a fetching drysuit tan, and the water is warming quite fast. It has been 12oC early in May and up to 15oC by the end of the month for the 10-15m range which holds most interest. Up in the shallows it is often considerably warmer. Most of the divers here will be in semi-dry suits with the significant minority of drysuit wearers looking somewhat more comfortable at the end of the dives. If you are aiming to be down for 60-90minutes photographing wildlife then a drysuit is de rigeur.

All the divers have been pretty friendly and many of are very happy to explain the sites, wildlife and suggest the way to get the best from a dive. Indeed many of them go prepared for a good chat and carry albums of photos – framed 12x16” prints in one case! We were warned that the Dutch could be pushy under water and did experience some light jostling when we were already settled by some cuttlefish and our strobes drew a crowd but they were nosey rather than pushy and I’ve suffered a lot worse in the UK from my own (ex) club members and many blue water herds. In vis which is 4-5m at best and falls to less than 1m in a crowd the key is to stay calm, hold your position whilst protecting yourself and above all to avoid entanglement. Does that make it sound dangerous? It’s no big deal just be sensible and careful.

You may find your dive program shaped by the tides and the object of your desire. We were there for the cuttlefish so we concentrated on the bridge and supplemented it with a sprinkling of the others, all on the North coast as it happens where the lack of tide makes planning almost trivial and doesn’t interfere with long photo dives. With the long daylight hours, easy travel and self service air it’s quite easy to fit in 3 dives a day, with the option to add a 4th as a night dive.


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Paired cuttlefish find a room

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There are lots of slugs too - Aeolidiella glauca

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The reef balls make a very effective artifical reef

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Black Gobies guard their eggs in May

Sites:

Scharendijk

An ideal starter for De Kabellaar residents, its only 20m from the air station to the steps over the dyke. There's a choice of several sites on the other side; reef balls, a small sunken boat and even a platform for training or practice. It's a very benign place to get used to the conditions and a great photo venue for some of the locals; barnacles, mussels, anemones, prawns and slugs. For non De Kabellaar customers it’s a longer walk but you can catch your breath at the bottom of the steps over the dyke reading the friendly advice to divers on behaviour and what wildlife might be waiting for them. There will often be a group on the picnic bench at the top of the steps to cheer you on too.

The site is quite close to the Scharendijk marina entrance but a normal dive wouldn’t take you that far. Situated in a quiet corner of the Gravelingenmeer there’s no current to sweep the site and it can get quire murky. That shouldn’t upset you too much if you are into macro wildlife as there’s a good collection and some of us spent 30 minutes on the buoy ropes marking the ends of the runs of reef balls snapping skeleton shrimps and nudibranches.

If you have some training to do or want to get back into the water after a break this is the place to start.

Den Osse

A similar site but for those with strong legs, after a few days of diving the climb up the steps first from the car park, then the thrill of crossing a road in full kit followed by the final ascent of the dyke can be tough on the thighs. Still it’s a good workout and you’ll be able to enjoy the view down from the top which is a steep, cobbled slope with a handrail and even some metal steps into the water.

The shallows here are particularly nice, very clear and very bright on a sunny day. It’s an excellent place to get good shots of black faced gobies guarding their eggs in discarded shells and starry Nudibranches laying eggs on sea lettuce. The top of the oyster-covered slope down to the 8-10m plateau, where the reef balls are, is fringed with a wall of Japweed acting as a low rent kelp forest. The slope is alive with fish and crabs and usually a warm red place with growth of delicate darker algae

Dreischor

The last of the reef ball sites and the most remote. Although this is quite low risk diving do bear in mind that you may be alone on this site – apart from the resident cows – and that it is a 5-10 minute drive back to civilisation. The other risk made only too apparent by the odd cube of shattered car glass is that of theft. Off season it seems lonely and remote but the opportunistic thief is more likely to venture out when picking are better in the higher season. It is preferable to dive this site with others around, you can probably strike a deal with other divers to share minding duties – though there may not be anyone about at all. There are usually a herd of cows about and they may well be there to greet you at the shore when entering or leaving the water but won’t log your dive or watch your car.

Zeelandbrug

What you probably won’t get is great vis. Although the area immediately around the bridge piers is almost solid with shellfish beds the bed further away is very silty and the tidal action merely seems to shuffle water around rather than providing a major exchange of clean water. That said it seemed slightly better on the high than the low tide. Undoubtedly the major factor affecting the vis is the day of the week and time of day. We have avoided weekends and still seen the carpark full, underwater fellow divers normally announce themselves with a rolling wall of silt so it’s well worth getting up early and risking a little tide.

A neap tide will give a near 2 hour slack on the bridge and few casual divers will go in much more than 30 minutes before nominal slack so you should get some cuttle time to yourself. Of course it may take a while to find the ‘tent’ villages and so like us you might find the clean water window cut to 10-15 minutes by divers who know their way around even if they can’t read the tides.

It is possible to make the dive between slacks but a number of people have been lost that way. When the tide is truly running the piers of the bridge have bow and stern wakes, the water isn’t truly slack until you can see light debris stationary on and in the water and the guide rope has no pull on it. A compass is vital for navigating in the likely low vis as the bottom is quite uniform once away from the piers and surprisingly relatively flat between the first and second so it’s quite easy to lose your bearings… that’s not the end of the world if you’re up to the swim back but it’s hard work after slack when the tide is running.

Dutch Enlightenment:

For many years local divers have been working to support the cuttlefish breeding by planting additional nesting material for them, sometimes called corfs after a form of mining basket. These are rows of crossed sticks, and the Dutch –English translation is that they are grouped as villages of tents either side of the first bridge pier. There are 3 major ‘villages’ plus a few more sensibly sited further away from the main diving areas ensuring peace for the cuttlefish and a better chance to study their success. While we were there (both times in fact) there were crews filming the planting and monitoring of sticks

The divers planting the sticks attend the site daily and are fiercely interested in the day’s sightings, so be willing to describe what you’ve seen and hope for some advice in return. One couple epitomise the Dutch empathy for the environment and cycle their gear to the site – the non car parking space at the base of the steps beside the site guide sign is their spot. They are concerned that numbers have fallen this year and that fishermen are taking too many but this is pressure from angling not commercial potting for the cuttlefish. If this hit and miss approach is affecting their numbers then it’s obvious that the brutal strip mining of the breeding cuttlefish in Babbacombe bay will devastate their population. It may be worth making and publicising the point that these cuttlefish have gathered only to breed and die. If they don’t get to breed then that will cut the population to be caught and further that these are no animals in prime condition. Their entire effort and energy has been devoted to procreation – I wish I could claim that – and they are dying even as they court and then lay their eggs. Their dilated pupils and single minded preoccupation with their task in the face of spectators make it only too clear that they are running on empty and shutting down their higher functions to dedicate their last hours to their final, most important task.

It’s a quietly tragic end to a very promising and intelligent life. Cuttlefish are fantastic animals to interact with, when they choose, and a simply absorbing spectacle to watch at close quarters. That an animal with such potential should be designed for just one season of life in the case of the female is very sad. Whilst watching the courtship and egg laying is magical one is struck by the stoic stillness of the single animals waiting to die after completing their mission. There’s no frantic continuation of everyday business, just an apparent understanding that their work is over and that they can rest now. To be so sentient and show such interest in the abstract objects in their surroundings is surely a sign that they are worthy of much greater respect and care than they receive.

British Reserve:

Given that the UK conditions appear, from Alan James’ excellent pictures, to be much more favourable and maybe even conducive to surface observation perhaps it would be a good time to suggest that a sustainable tourist business would do more for local prosperity  and the UK’s environmental reputation than short sighted slaughter during this critical period. Here you have an animal which can truly inspire and captivate any wildlife aware surface dweller and if a the price of an exclusion of fishing around the area was an accompanying ban on diving that would be a fair trade to secure better rights for these amazing creatures.

It would certainly be possible to set up remote observation of an egg laying complex set up in the Dutch fashion as the artificial sites are focal points for the cuttlefish to gather so it would be possible* to set up cameras to relay cephalopod porn to coach loads of prim old ladies and eager school children.

*I never said easy!

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Cuttle courtship is very touching

Resources:

Searching for information will bring up mostly Dutch dive reports there hasn't been much else written about Zeeland.

See the cuttlefish on Youtube:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TyBUI9o_pxM&eurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Evideo%2Escubadata%2Ecom%2Fshow%2Dvideo%2Ephp%3Fmedia%3Dhttp%3A%2F%2Fyoutube%2Ecom%2Fv%2FTyBUI9o%5FpxM%2Eswf%26tag%3DCuttlefish%26title%3DMa

Read a little more about cuttlefish:
http://cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/nature/marine/cuttle.htm

There are a couple of books covering the area, one very attractive volume is, unfortunately for the travelling monoglot Brit, entirely in Dutch but the other which looks somewhat more hand crafted is in Dutch, French and German with most of the vital stuff shown in graphic guides. Written by a Belgian with an obsession with detail it is easy to decode all you need from the pages devoted to each site although the site descriptions are less illuminating sometimes containing more odd historical detail than practical advice.




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