Tadpoles & Leeches – A Tale of Glorious Delusion
Henley Spiers, half British and half French, is a renowned, award-winning photographer, writer, and trip leader who has fast become one of the most highly decorated underwater shooters in the world. Henley’s photography has been published in the likes of The Sunday Times, Der Spiegel, and Sierra Magazine, and frequently graces magazine covers.
This is not a tale of ground-breaking dive exploration, pushing myself and equipment to the very limits. Nor is it one of extraordinary big animal encounters. No, I’m afraid this is a simpler story, one of a water-deprived father, getting over-excited about a muddy pond, and discovering the leech-protecting benefits of his Fourth Element wetsuit in the process.
Late May 2020, the first U.K. lockdown had been in effect for two months, and the government eased restrictions on outdoor activities. Scuba diving was officially back on the agenda, but with a 2 year old daughter, and a heavily pregnant wife, as well as knowing the popular shore sites would likely get very busy, I held back from diving straight back in. Instead, we made the most of the Devon countryside, with long, isolated walks into Dartmoor being a family favourite.
Dartmoor National Park is one of Britain’s most prized natural areas, famous as the inspiration behind Sherlock Holmes’ adventure with the Hound of the Baskervilles. It is a harsh yet enticing landscape, one carved out by ice and fire over millions of years. The dramatic geological events here left behind the biggest granite deposit in all of Great Britain. Hay Tor in particular was famous for having some of the best quality granite, and stone has travelled from here to some of the most famous national monuments: London Bridge, the British Museum, the National Gallery…the list goes on. We walk down to the abandoned quarry area, reclaimed by the wild, now a beautiful, secret spot in the heart of the park.
Cousteau famously said that, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” I would also say, less poetically, that divers, once introduced to underwater worlds, will forever be curious about any body of water. As we walk the banks of the former quarry, now transformed into a large pond, the murky brown water disguises most of what lies beneath, but in the shallow areas, we spy an army of tadpoles, gyrating enthusiastically. Cue immense excitement from both Apolline, our 2 year old daughter, and yours truly. We resolve to come back, but better prepared next time.
Upon our return, Apolline’s initial bucket and net survey reveals the presence of newts and leeches, as well as the tadpoles. Watching the leeches writhe energetically and glue themselves to the sides of the bucket, I am glad I packed a Xenos 5mm; it looks like it will be serving a more important function than thermal protection today. Passers-by stop to wonder what we’re doing, casting gazes which fall somewhere between concern and admiration.
The water clarity is atrocious, measured in centimetres rather than meters, and I focus my photographic efforts on the shallow areas, where the visibility seems a touch better. The taddies display all the enthusiasm and curiosity one would expect of the young, crowding around my unusual presence, and latching onto the camera dome port. The pond water hasn’t taken me deeper than chest-height and yet the thrill of adventure courses through my veins. Some of this is undoubtedly due to months of confinement, but I also put it down to the feeling of breaking new ground. I am experiencing far more trepidation here, in a new environment, than I have when faced with sharks, or aggregating marlin. Doing things alone, and for the first time, makes all the difference in these situations, and it is why I am in awe of true explorers and innovators, breaking new ground. I think of Cousteau, developing the Aqualung, exploring the underwater world, and I am in awe at his bravery, determination, and vision.
As I lift myself out of the water, black wetsuit gleaming, and a futuristic-looking camera housing in hand, a pair of nearby visitors stop and gawk, I even overhear them saying “wow, look at that guy”… Hay Tor Quarry has surely rarely been the scene for this kind of action, and for the briefest of moments, I feel like Andy Torbet, surfacing after a monumental cave exploration, before running off for a bit of stunt work on a James Bond set. The spell is quickly broken as I look over at Jade, documenting the whole thing with a wry smile, whilst Apolline jumps up and down excitedly, eager to see the pictures.
Perhaps a little delusion is what we all need at times like these, especially if it can be enjoyed by the whole family. As I write this, in our third national lockdown, I look forward revisiting those shallow, muddy, leech-infested waters, once again soon.