Dave Peake has a deep connection with Whitsand Bay in Cornwall. Starting off as a young boy catching crabs and spearing fish he has been snorkelling and diving there for over 60 years. He developed a passion for photography which ultimately became his tool to communicate to the outside world how the Bay was being destroyed by the dumping of millions of tonnes of dredged sediment from the nearby dockyard. Almost single handed he has fought a campaign to have the dredging stopped for over 25 years. In the process he has become an expert on contaminant levels, licensing and sediment dynamics and met with denial, arrogance and buck-passing from the many authorities and people he has dealt with. He speaks with energy, sometimes with frustration, but surprisingly for someone who has been fighting a 25 year campaign, not with any bitterness.
Whitsand Bay has played a huge part in my life. It’s part of my history, a hideaway that I’ve been visiting ever since I was a small boy. It has been somewhere to escape to, a different realm where I can be away from the pressures of life and stress. We used to come over from Plymouth with my family and spend summers at Boiler beach, named after some of the remains of a shipwreck called the Chancellor. I learned to swim here, shaking off a fear of the sea that I had when I was very young. It has enthralled me ever since.
Together with my lifelong friend, John Souness we started actually exploring underwater. Having a mask and snorkel was pretty rare in those days. We had been inspired by watching Hans and Lottie Haas on TV. ‘Diving to Adventure’ was on each week, and we were just blown away by the images of the marine life in the Red Sea.
Taking the Cremyll ferry from Plymouth we would walk over Mount Edgcumbe and down to our spot at Polhawn Cove at the eastern edge of Whitsand Bay. From the top of the hill we would get our first sight of how clear the water was that day. We called it the ‘Vis’. On a good day it would be 40 or 50 feet. We’d spend all the day in the sea in our trunks, coming out when our teeth started chattering on our snorkels. We called ourselves the Plymouth Amberjacks.
A natural progression was to build ourselves home-made spear guns so we could catch some fish to bring home. There was nothing more satisfying than bringing a fish home for my Mum to cook. This became a bit of an obsession for us and we started travelling all around the coast trying out new spots. Then of course we wanted to stay underwater using the SCUBA gear that we had seen on the TV. We went along to Plymouth Sub Aqua Club and after proving ourselves by ferrying gear around for the other divers for a few months we were finally allowed our first dive. We went down to about 20 metres on the Mewstone just outside Plymouth Harbour. With all the sponges, fish and seafans around us it seemed like the tropics and we were enthralled; but diving in our trunks again we came up so cold we could hardly speak.
These halcyon days gradually came to an end. John went to University in London and I joined the police. Life in an underwater search unit can be quite satisfying, but you are often diving in dark, dirty rivers looking for murder weapons or stolen goods. It can also be quite harrowing if you are searching for a body.
I still felt a need to keep diving and tried making my first camera housing for a Box-Brownie. I used a couple of perspex sheets, glue, wing nuts and a rubber band – it was simple, it worked and I’ve been hooked ever since. I love to snorkel in the shallows taking pictures of the patterns of light on rocks or to capture the vibrancy of different seaweed colours. When I go to take photos underwater, it’s partly a curiosity about what lies underneath and partly a desire to bring this world to other people.
From the early 1980’s we started seeing odd things turn up on the beach. It was more than just the odd bit of flotsam washed up on the high tides, there was large amounts of the same kind of rubbish- rubber gaskits, cables, paint brushes and things like that. Everyone knew they came from the dockyard, but no one said anything. Partly perhaps because people had less environmental concerns in those days, but don’t forget that the dockyard employed 25,000 people at the time.
If you had a favourite walk and saw it getting worse and worse, wouldn’t you want to do something? I was a diver and a photographer and I knew I had to bring this to peoples’ attention. This was my beach being destroyed. I wrote a letter to MAFF (the old ministry of Agriculture, Farming and Fisheries), who told me not to worry, it was just debris coming off ships that were passing through. So began nearly three decades of buck-passing and stonewalling.
The dump site at Rame Head is two miles offshore from Whitsand Bay. It has been in use for over 100 years, starting off as an ammunition dump site during the First World War. There are around 131 of these sites around the UK. Dredging into Devonport goes on every year to maintain the channel into the dockyard. If a new facility is to be built then the scale of operation increases massively, and this is when they are removing the highly contaminated sediment that has been accumulating toxins over decades. Over the last 30 years about 10 million tonnes of sediment has been dumped at this site in Whitsand Bay.
In 1989 The Royal Navy built a new Frigate complex at Weston Mill. The sediments in this area were highly contaminated. I remember that we weren’t allowed to dive there in the police if we had any cuts on our hands at all. Then in 2000 they started the Remote Ammunitioning Facility Tamar (RAFT) project which would involve dredging 500,000 tonnes of sediment. Most recently Millbay docks were dredged in 2010. There was a layer at 2.3 metres deep that was judged to be too toxic to be dumped at sea so it was hauled out with these huge scoops and left it to dry on the dockside. Ultimately it ended up filling in the new marina and being covered in grass.
I started to try and get in touch with the agencies responsible for licensing the dumping. I wanted to know how much they were dumping, what they were dumping and why they had to dump it just offshore in this beautiful bay. In 25 years I have come across constant denial. Not one person or organisation has taken responsibility for this problem.
I’ve tried having meetings with them, I’ve had photos on the front page of the local papers, we’ve had our local MP involved and still nothing has changed. I spent two years as part of a committee trying to seek alternatives to dumping with all these different people involved but we got nowhere. I remember going to speak at a public meeting with about 1,000 people. All the Navy top brass were there. As I finished my talk I presented them with a plate of oysters, all opened and arranged with slices of lemon. I told them I’d gathered them from the Tamar that morning and they were welcome to tuck in. Knowing that they come from such polluted waters, none of them took the risk.
The dumping still goes on. There’s still a few of us still fighting to get it stopped. Diving has always been an escape for me, but now I am confronted with the rubbish of man. It just makes me angry. This sort of abuse would never be allowed on land. I know the stretch at Polhawn Cove like the back of my hand. I could do the swim blindfold. I’ve even got my own names for the different holes and gullies in the rock and it upsets me to see the rubbish that gets locked up in there. Just one discarded fishing net I found recently had over 100 crabs, dogfish, and cormorants. The seabird particularly haunted me as a snorkeller – like me, it would have been free diving from the surface and then got caught up in this net and drowned.
I think the management of our seas needs to be taken more seriously. I see nothing wrong with introducing permits across the board for anyone that wants to take from the sea. The sea belongs to no-one, but we still need to feel we have responsibility. I know that the dumping is destroying the marine environment in the Bay and I know it has to stop. I think everyone else knows it too.