A beginners guide to : diving the Dorset Coast
So what do you see down there? Isn’t it just dark and murky? These are the two questions I’m most commonly asked by non-divers and “holiday divers” alike about diving off the UK coast. When I then tell people that the visibility can be ten plus metres or that we’ve encountered sharks, dived with seals, explored reef systems and venture inside shipwrecks - the response is usually one of surprise and a desire to learn more about this mysterious pastime of ours.
I’ve been scuba diving along the beautiful Dorset coastline for over fifteen years and during that time i’ve discovered that not one dive is ever the same. The Jurassic coast, a UNESCO World Heritage site, boasts almost limitless opportunities for every level of diver – from the complete beginner through to seriously gnarly technical deep divers, there’s an underwater world just waiting to be discovered.
Those new to diving in the UK often start with a gentle shore dive at the idyllic Chesil Cove, which, when the wind is blowing from the east, means that the sea-state is flat calm. Entry from the beach is easy and on a summer’s day it’s possible to find 20 or more neoprene clad underwater explorers in the water. From the shore, the seabed gradually drops to around 18 metres, with most of the interesting stuff found in just ten metres of water. During the summer months it’s possible to encounter squid, sizeable edible crabs, lobster, hunting John Dory, bass and even the remains of an old wreck - literally yards from the water’s edge. The water temperate can reach 19 degrees during the summer months and divers will often choose to wear wet suits, rather than cold water dry suits during this time. Grey triggerfish, a species usually found in tropical climates often make an appearance around August and the rocks and range of marine flora and fauna provides a habitat to a broad range of juvenile fish species here.
For the intermediate diver and those looking to build on their diving experience, there’s no better place in the country than Dorset to explore shipwrecks. Lyme bay is known as “the bay of a thousand wrecks” and many of which are victims of both the first and second World wars. The remains of German U-Boats and a plethora of torpedoed war wreckage attracts divers from as far as Holland and one particular wreck ranks number one as the “must do dive” along the whole 90 miles of coast – the M2 submarine. “The M2” as it’s simply known amongst divers sits upright, intact and in 33 metres of water just a couple of miles out to sea and west of Portland. She tragically sank in 1932 with the loss of all of her crew on a training exercise. Today, when the weather permits, as many as 4 or 5 dive boats can be found at the surface dropping divers onto a buoyed rope that then takes them down to the ghostly sub. The conning tower is visible first upon descent with the pressure hull and the rest of the submarine appearing as you descend deeper still. The super structure provides a habitat for huge conger eels, cod and pollack while impressive shoals of bib, a species of palm-sized fish, flit about as you make your way round the dive site.
For those seeking the complete UK diving experience, Swanage is the place to hang out. Budding scuba rookies fresh out of the dive school often flock to Swanage pier, where their diving career can begin in just four metres of water and right under the pier itself. The pier provides a safe haven for many fish species, crustaceans and is home to the delicate snakelock anemone. Divers looking to take their experience further still can jump on one of the many dive boats that run a shuttle service to a wide selection of dive sites including the mighty Durdle Door, Old Harry Rocks and the Lulworth area. “Drift diving” is a popular way for scuba enthusiasts to cover a vast area in just one dive along this section of coastline and this involves being dropped by boat into a current and drifting with it - hovering above the seabed. This type of diving ranges from a very gentle bimble at leisurely pace, to a super-fast speedy glide in sometimes washing machine-like conditions. Drift divers hold a line connected to a buoy at the surface during the dive, this enables the boat’s skipper to keep track of all their divers in the water.
It’s often a surprise for many to learn that areas of the Dorset coast below the waves are of great scientific importance, with certain sections of this complex ecosystem protected from commercial fishing and dredging. Reef systems such as Tenants reef near West Bay are adorned with fields of delicate pink sea fans, sponges and soft corals. 60 square miles of seabed remains closed to commercial fishing activity, brought about to aid the recovery of an ecosystem we still know very little about. Many rare and yet unidentified species of filter feeders, sponges and marine invertebrate populate these areas and for visiting divers, it’s clear to see how this fragile environment can be wiped out in an instant by scallop trawling.
Dive centres and dive boat operators stretch from Lyme Regis to Poole, with most dive schools offering training through either PADI (the professional association of diving instructors), BSAC (the British Sub Aqua Club) or SSI (SCUBA Schools International). If you’re already qualified and fancy yourself as a Dorset diver, then many of these operations will offer refresher courses and even assist you with guided dives to some of the sites on offer.
For me, scuba diving along the Dorset coast is a privilege – a chance to not only explore a vast and hidden world below the waves, but also an opportunity to absorb some of the country's most spectacular scenery by boat, both to and from the dive.
For training, boats, air & equipment – from west to east Dorset ;
www.lymebaysubaquaclub.com Lyme Regis
www.westbaydiving.co.uk West Bay
www.divesouth.co.uk Poole & Bournemouth