Explorers Connect

How To... Explore Underwater Britain

How-toJames Hipkiss
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The UK still has huge potential for exploration, with about 20,000 miles of coastline, 10,000 miles of river and about 12,000 lakes (dependant on ones definition) and only a fraction of all this has ever been explored and observed by the human eye.

And of course this doesn't include all the waterfalls, mountain pools, bogs, marshes, fens, submerged tunnels, flooded caves, aqueducts, pond or any other source of submersible adventure you're inclined to dream of. The vast majority of this does not require the high levels of skill and expensive equipment normally associated with underwater exploration. In fact a great deal of it can be done with nothing more complicated than a snorkel. What to Take Mask: Better than goggle as it allows you to see better and stops the water running up your nose. If you dive deeper than a few metres you will have to feel the mask suck onto your face. This is caused by the increase in pressure, just breathe out through your nose slightly and it will dissipate.To find one that fits well get the candidate mask and place it on your face, without the strap on, and inhale through your nose.

If the mask sucks onto your face and hold there you have a good fit. Snorkel: This simple little plastic tube allows you to breathe while still looking under water. They come with all manner of gadgets these days but I still prefer the simple J shaped tube. Fins: These help to propel you through the water faster and with much less effort than swimming. They come in different sizes so get ones that fit. Wetsuit: Usually necessary in the UK. In summer you may get away with a 5mm wetsuit or you may require a 7mm depending on where you are and how long you intend to spend in the water. In winter you may require an extra 5mm vest and shorts combo which goes over your wetsuit to give 12mm of thermal protection around your core. Its also worth considering a wetsuit hood, gloves and boots. Torch: Handy for doing night snorkels or looking into cracks and crevices. They come in all shapes and sizes but for snorkelling a cheap diving torch will do. Weight Belt: Your wetsuit will be very buoyant and you will have to compensate for this if you want to dive under the surface.

Make sure your weight belt has a quick release buckle so if you have any problems you can easily ditch it and float to the surface. How much weight you will have to put on will depend on your size and how thick your wetsuit is. Float/SMB: Some people like to carry a float or SMB (Surface Marker Buoy). It shows people and boats on the surface exactly where you are, even when youre underwater, and acts as a little raft to throw your arms over for a rest. A friend: Its advisable to swim with company unless you are a very confident swimmer and know the area well.

Where to go - Rivers: You can snorkel any river (bone-crushing rapids notwithstanding). Slow moving shallow rivers with muddy banks and bottoms usually mean you cant see much below the surface. However, even these have merit. I spent 8 hours snorkelling the River Severn with underwater visibility akin to oxtail soup. But even this wasn't wasted. As I floated down I drifted, quietly, past the wildlife who took no notice of the little black blob (my hooded head). So close, I could have reached out and touched a myriad of birds and insects from pied woodpecker to dragonflies. Of course in deeper rivers, with steep sides and a rock bottom the visibility can be over 20 metres. My time snorkelling in the Rivers Dart, Dee, Orchy and Etive were all like that.

I shared the water with salmon, trout, pike, eels but didn't spot any otters yet. Lakes: We have a huge variety of lakes in the UK. I visited the highest loch in Scotland, Loch Coirre an Lochan. At 998m above sea level it required a 12km mountain bike and 4 km steep trek and scramble to reach and was still surrounded by snow in July. I snorkelled in Loch Ness whose dark, peaty waters is not unlike diving in coffee and you find yourself in complete darkness after submerging only a few metres a scary place to be as childhood stories of monsters and kelpies scream for attention. I swam around the wreck of a plane which crashed in 1940 in Red Tarn, Englands highest lake near Helvellyn and the bright green waters of the enormous Lake Windermere with otters, herons, cormorants and shoals of tiny fish hiding under the old wooden jetties.

Lakes give easy access for all competent swimmers. They may not have the visibility or wildlife of shore or river dives but the spectrum of colours and location from bright blues to dark greens and mountain tops to roadside pool make them an accessible option for a first step. Beaches: A snorkel off the beach is guaranteed to supply a view of wildlife. Rocky shores tend to have more life than sandy ones but the latter still have plenty of fauna if you know where to look. A great place to start is Kimmeridge Bay, a shallow, sheltered bay which has, thanks to the Wildlife Trust, the UKs first snorkel trial. For 1 a map and guide can be purchased from the hut on the beach. This takes you a round the 5 numbered buoys in the bay describing what you are seeing along the way.

Porthkerris Bay is another favourite in Cornwall. Its triple reefs teem with life in just a few metres of water and a few more form the beach makes it a great place to start. There are sites like this across the country and I had some fantastic snorkels in places like Anglesey, St Abbs, Torbay, Ilfracombe, Pembroke and Oban where the underwater shoreline was full of life. Piers: An alternative to a normal shore dive is to swim around a pier. These act like artificial reefs and attract much more life, especially fish than a snorkeler would normally see. The day, and night another great way to snorkel, at Swanage pier was one of the best dives of the project. Not only was a huge amount of wildlife on offer, a lot you would only see around wrecks normally, but the shafts of light and shadows as you swim under the pier makes it an enchanting place to be. Wrecks: There are a number of interesting shallow wreck around the UK that beginners can investigate.

The HMS Port Napier is a 150 metres long warship that lies in the Kyle of Lochalsh and is still fairly intact. But best of all its break the surface so you can swim in and around the wreck without leaving the surface. There are nooks and crannies to explore under water but be aware that swimming into wrecks can be dangerous for the inexperienced. But its not just ships. In the shelter of Falmouth bay in a metre or two of water lies five German submarines. Animal encounters: Where snorkelling comes into its own is the big animal encounters here in the UK. Often snorkelling is either better or the only way to interact with our marine giants. This summer I swam with grey seals, porpoise, blue sharks and basking sharks. The silent, unobtrusive nature of snorkelling means the animals are more comfortable with our presence and the surface is often the best or only place to see them, making snorkelling the best option and requiring no real skill. I have seen 8 year old's swim with basking sharks, which, at 25 feet, are the second biggest fish in the world and visit out shore in droves over the summer truly one of the best in-water experiences of my life.

Safety Considerations Tides: When snorkelling in the sea you have to consider what the state of tide will be. If its low tide the water will be shallower and accessing area of wildlife or wrecks may be easier, however, it can also mean a longer walk form the sea if your beach is a very flat on. Currents: Currents can be dangerous if you are inexperienced. They are always very localised so check before you snorkel in a river or the sea with someone with local knowledge. For river local canoe or kayak companies are great, for the sea local dive centres or sea-kayak centres are great. Clearly if its an area used regularly by swimmers you should be safe. Depth: You don't need to go deep to see some great stuff. The rule of thumb is the farther from the shore or bank you go the deeper it is and it will get deeper as the tide rises. Weather: The more sunlight the more you'll be able to see without a torch, and the warmer itll be on the surface.

The sea temperature doesn't change with weather but lakes and rivers can become colder. Wind will affect lakes, making creating waves, some quite large, and likewise with the sea. Wind also means you'll get colder when you leave the water so you don't want to walk far in a wet wet-suit in high winds. Wind can also churn up the sea making the underwater visibility poor. Fortunately rain has no affect on you snorkelling in lakes and the sea, however, on rivers be aware of heavy rain the day or night before as this can swell the river making it dangerous. Don't just consider the area you are snorkelling but also the weather upstream a lot of rain in the mountains means eventually your patch of the river, even in the sun, can flood. Work in pairs: When you are beginning its always a good idea to go with a buddy. Not only can you enjoy them experience together but you can keep an eye on and assist each other.

Resources to Use If you want to do a formal training course you can look here: PADI BSAC AIDA For information on tides and weather the government sites are good: Tides Weather So regardless of your level of proficiency, geographical location or committable time there is something out there worth seeing and plenty more unexplored sites. We dont need to spend months in the far flung corners of the globe utilising hugely expensive and technical kit or skills. There are still a huge number of accessible, unexplored places underwater on your doorstep requiring nothing more than the simplest kit and a few hours of your time. So, tell me, now whats your excuse? Written by Andy Torbet,Extreme Diver, Climber and Caver. Presenter of BBC's Coast series. @AndyTorbet www.andytorbet.com EC ANNEX: Also try Daniel Start's excellent Wild Swimming handbooks. Also from BSAC their brilliant list of UK snorkelling spots: NORTH BurnsallRiver dive; site approximately 0.5 mile north of bridge in centre of village. Dive site just below rapidsin bend of river, depth approximately 3m, good green meadow adjacent to site. Rapids provide greatfun, if care is taken, after dive.

Boggle Hole-sea dive; site on beach next to Boggle Hole Youth Hostle which is situated at southern end of RobinHoods Bay, between Robin Hoods Bay village and Ravenscar. Although this is the east coast the sitefaces North East, so a North or East wind can make this site undiveable, but a great dive in the rightconditions. Farne IslandsBoat Dive; launch from Beadnell Bay just around from harbour, several good snorkels dives areavailable depending on the sea conditions. The Long Stone is ideal giving good anchorage andshallow water in bay on southern end of island. Whitby BayBoat Dive; launch in Whitby harbour and venture out into the bay, again several sites give goodsnorkelling. Currents vary depending on state of tide, a 4 knots current can cause problems for theunwary diver. BeadnellShore dive: Dive from shore just north of village, good entry and exits afford the snorkeller a chanceto see the abundant sea life of this coast. NORTH WEST Debdale reservoir, Gorton, ManchesterLarge Pike and Carp to see besides shopping trolleys, abandoned stolencars, other dumped stolen equipment and golf balls by the bucket-full.

Coniston WaterLake dive; site on the east shore at the very northern end of ConistonWater, park in car park next to shore. Depth approx 5m in middle of lake, no boats with engines areallowed on the lake and the sailing boats do not come near the northern end. SOUTH Kimmeridge Bay, DorsetOrdnance Survey SY 909 789This bay has it all. Set in a marine reserve on the Jurassic coast, ithas a variety of good dives with an abundance of UK marine life.Kimmeridge is well known to divers as a launching point with access to many wrecks across Purbeck. However, snorkellers knowthere's no need to go further than the bay itself - Kimmeridge isshallow, ranging up to 7m on the edge of the bay.In addition to reefs and ledges of black shale, there are lots of interesting species of weed and kelp, which vary the envrionment and wildlife.

There are many fish, especially wrasse, blennies on theledges. It is fairly sheltered except from the south. The bay is so shallow it sometimes resembles ahuge rock pool, making it the ideal venue for snorkellers!Graham Griffiths Stair Hole, Lulworth CoveOrdnance Survey SY 822 798Stair Hole is a good spot for an experienced snorkel diver wishing to complete a more adventurousdive. Access can be gained by either climbing down the facing cliff - which can be a little challengingwith equipment - or in good weather by snorkelling around from Lulworth Cove. It is a famousgeological site forming a small lagoon area surrounded by cliffs, with a large hole in the outer cliffleading to open sea. To the left of the hole, there is a small cavern, St Clement's Cave, with a sandybeach at the far end. To the right there is a tunnel through which you can easily snorkel at low waterand it leads to the farthest part of the rock formation.If you have snorkelled around to the site from Lulworth Cove, you can easily swim on the outer wall of the hole, where lobster can be found, as well as dogfish and spider crabs.

Average depth isapproximately 4m in the lagoon area, descending to 15m a little way out from the hole into opensea. The site is protected from all winds other than southerly and visibility can sometimes be good,but on average is about 3-5m.Nick Stevens Swanage, Old and New PierOrdnance Survey SZ 036 788Both piers at Swanage can be rewarding sites for the snorkel diver. Access is obviously very easy -either by using the steps at the side of the pier or by a stride entry from the lower level of the NewPier into deeper water. The piers are protected from most winds, allowing a safe and calm area in which to snorkel, and abound with life, such as spider crabs and wrasse.Visibility can be up to 10m, with a depth of 7m on a high water, allowing the snorkeller to surveyfrom the surface before choosing a subject to dive down to. Under the New Pier, there are also manyunexpected things to find that have either fallen from or been discarded by the strollers- we recentlyfound a fisherman's deckchair. The Old Pier is very good for spider crabs as well as some colourfulanemones and soft corals.Nick Stevens Man O'War Cove, DorsetOrdnance Survey SY 807 802Next to the great beauty spot of Durdle Dor. Man O'War offers sheltered snorkelling but access isdown a long steep path.Park at the Durdle Dor camp site car park and prepare for a long hike down!Man O'War is to the East of the Durdle Dor sea arch, so instead of following the tourists take the pathto the left at the bottom of the cliff. There is good snorkel diving to be had inside the cove protectedfrom the open sea. At the mouth it gets deeper where you can practice surface dives. Moreexperinced parties can swim round from the Man O'War Cove to and through the Durdle Dor.Graham Griffiths Pondfield - DorsetOrdnance Survey SY 872 796Near the lost village of Tyneham, this pretty cove is sheltered and offers dramatic scenery and cavesto explore Park in the car park at Tyneham villiage and follow the path to sea. Pondfield is to the leftpast the anti-tank block-Worborrow Bay to the right.

Pondfield can be a tricky entry over some very slippery rocks, but can be negotiated with care and well worth the effort. It is excellent just diving in the cove visiabilty is often good due to its sheltered position, with lots of opportunity for surface dives. If the conditions are right and with boat cover, a good dive for the more experienced is from the most easterly part of Worborrow bay around Worborrow Tout into Pondfield and exit from there.Graham Griffiths SOUTH WEST Drawna Rocks, Porthkerris Cove, Cornwall Porthkerris Cove is popular with divers heading for the Manacles.However just to the north of this cove, you will find Drawna Rocks, a set of rocks breaking the surface which are superb for snorkelling.This is a very visual experience - seaweed grows thick on the rocks in deep greens, reds and even purple. Filtered by the light-greenwater, sunlight forms picturesque arcs through the water column.The beach at Porthkerris is black and rocky - so you get a clear seabed and decent visibility. The best snorkelling site is between the beach and the Drawna Rocks.There's lots of opportunity for surface dives here in relatively sheltered water. Fish tend to be foundalong the rocks, with dogfish on the sea bed.Graham Griffiths Prussia Cove, CornwallOne of the prettiest coves in all of Cornwall, this is actually made up ofthree coves - Piskies, Bessys and Kings. Prussia Cove can only bereached on foot, the nearest parking is about half a mile away - whichkeeps it fairly quiet. There is not much beach, especially at high tide, andwhat there is consists mainly of pebbles.The steep climb down from the car park will reward you with a beautifulexpanse of shallow water. There's lots to see in a rugged and stony areawith many gullies to explore.

The site is particularly notable for its jellyfish, which sometimes occur indense masses, saving you a trip halfway around the world to Palau to snorkel in Jellyfish Lake!Graham Griffiths Fleet Drift Dive, Weymouth DorsetOrdnance Survey SY 652 772We found this dive in the excellent 'Dive Dorset' book (It has a good collection of snorkelling sites aswell as SCUBA sites).Take the B3156 from Wyke Regis towards Chickerell.Turn left after the Church ,at the end of this road it becomes a track near an old military base and slopes down to the Fleet.If you get the tide right, you can dive along the Fleet towards the Ferry bridge where the Fleet entersPortland harbour. The tide will take you with little effort on your part. The dive is very shallow, butthere is lots to see, especially crabs, it goes along a nature reserve area. It's a pleasent walk backalong Chesil beach- providing you have dive boots - not recommended for shoe fins - you'll soon buyboots and boots fins if you have to walk barefoot back along the beach!Graham Griffiths SOUTH EAST Wraysbury Dive Centre, Wraysbury, MiddlesexPity the Londoner, bounded on all sides by that sea of misery known as the M25.

There is, however,life just beyond the traffic jams. This inland lake is set up for divers - which means you can alwaysget a decent bacon sandwich - but it has arguably just as much to offer the snorkeller.Ignore the crowds of tank carriers heading off for the training platforms and the bus: head for the farsides of the lake and you will enjoy a serene insight into the marine life that inhabit fresh waterlakes. Water beetles, frogs, freshwater crayfish and some monstrous pike can all be seen lurkingamong the weed.In late summer and early autumn, the water warms so much you could even comfortably do it in a5mm wetsuit. Visibility is variable - if you want clear water, visit in winter and during the week.Simon Rogerson WALES Trearddur Bay, AngleseyThere are some fantastic snorkelling dives around Trearddur Bay. The easiest one to find is the bayopposite the dive shop on Ravenspoint Road. It's a great snorkel around the island, with clear waterand plenty of marine life. Quite a number of bays in the area offer good snorkelling, however, someinclude an overland trek.Beware of the currents at both the inlets to the bay, especially when the tide is ebbing. It's great funusing the narrower inlet when the tide is flowing, and when you can go on the snorkelling equivalentof a drift dive: it saves a lot of finning when returning to the bay.A short walk through the caravan site to the right at the top of Ravenspoint Road will bring you ontothe foreshore, where more small bays can be discovered - quiet and too shallow for scuba divers, butteeming with marine life.

Many happy hours have been had by the young (as well as the young atheart) members of our branch here. It's much easier getting them in than it is getting them out andtwo two-hour sessions are not unknown - beat that, scuba divers!Bob Healey Abercastle, near Mathry (between St Davids and Fishguard), PembrokeshireAbercastle - A very narrow bay (deep vee), lots of local fishing boats and many shore lines secured toleft-hand side. A 5 minute amble round the coast path however brings you to a small pebble strewnbay which gets you past the mooring lines. Right-hand side of bay is free of mooring lines and has acut that floods at high water, careful however, RIBs use it as a short cut at high tide. Abercastle hastoilets but no shops (post office, Tea Rooms and a Pub in Mathry) and only room for a small numberof cars, but a beautiful spot.Glyn Powell Martins Haven, PembrokeshireMartins Haven at the end of the Marloes peninsula, is also a very good site in west Wales, but watchout for the Skomer shuttle and give the jetty a wide berth. It is exposed to the NW but other than thatis snorkellable all the time. There are tiolets and an information piont. It's a little walk from thecarpark down a steep lane. There is a camp site near by.Glyn Powell Dr Joanne S Porter St Brides Haven, PembrokeshireOrdnance Survey SM 802 109St Brides is an excellent location, both to the left and right. It has a sandy central bay area giving wayto kelp forest on either side. The site has lots of kelp forest and rocky reef areas. Spider crabs, Dogfish, Wrasse and Pollock are common, but lots of small life as well; light bulb sea squids and bluerayed limpets, well worth a camera + macro.The sediment is quite coarse so viz is usually good and the rock is red sandstone and is very pretty.The site is shallow, snorkelling depth up to 7-8m max but usually around 4-6 m.There are great first snorkel dives close to the beach and more adventurous dives to be foundfurther around to the North.This site can be dived at any state of the tide and is sheltered. The only time you would find it difficultwould be in an onshore wind (north-westerly) as there will be high surf on the beach in thoseconditions. It is a popular spot for shore divers and dive boat pick up (some launching), so dontforget your SMB.

There are a few fishing boats with mooring lines, but if you keep to the edges, noproblems, just keep an eye out if crossing from one side to the other.There are toilets and a telephone, but the car park is shared by the local church, so it can be difficulton a Sunday morning.Graham Griffiths - With thanks to Dr Joanne S Porter and Glyn Powell SCOTLAND The Caves, Loch LongI remembered from my diving days that there were plumose anemones on several pinnacles herethat were quite shallow at around 5-10m, depending on the height of the tides. I promised myselfthat the next time there was a very low tide I would search them out while snorkelling.Your choices for entry are either via a tunnel under the bridge, which marks the dive site - or by apath that requires careful steps down a steep, slippery, gravel slope using branches and small treetrunks as handholds. Easy enough for a snorkeller, but quite tricky when you are carrying all yourheavy dive gear!Armed with my SMB and camera, I made my way through the tunnel to the water's edge and donnedhood, mask, gloves and fins. I knew that the pinnacles I was looking for were about 50m to the left,so I finned off in that direction, keeping fairly close to the rocky shore where the sea bed was clearlyvisible. At low tide, the tips of the pinnacles were only about 1m below the surface, so I didn't have toduck-dive very deep in order to take my photographs.Carol Reid Conger AlleyOn the A83 between Succoth and Artgarten. Argyll.There are 2 old piers which are best snorkelled at low tide when the legs of the piers are alive withcrabs, mussels and starfish and the depth is only about 3m. Trail IslandNear Millport on Great Cumbrae in the Clyde.Wrasse a few crabs, evil-looking jellyfish as well as the possibility to see seals while many gullscormorants watch Snorkellers while sunning themselves on the rocky outcrops. Dunbar, West ScotlandFor those of you that dive around Dunbar Harbour (Castle Rock, Johnsons Hole, Yetts, off the oldbattery etc), you should note that the old lifting bridge to the north side of the harbour was removedin 2006.Why not try the old Victorian baths further west around the bay?

There are quite a few steps, but the walk is still considerably shorter and easier than the hill atPetticowick. Furthermore, the old baths fills at high tide (best at springs), located on a shelteredbeach, which makes an excellent rescue-training venue, and the shallow (approximately 10m) reefsaround the immediate shore have lots of critters and interesting gullies.Ian Todd Eyemouth rocks, BerwickshireThis snorkelling site is at Eyemouth rocks south of the harbour. The site can be found by drivingdown to Aquastars, dive school and then head over the earth bank on the sea ward side. Follow thetrack south along the sea to where the old pipeline goes into the sea.This site is best dived at high tide. Enter the water and head inland round a small island. There arelots of deep gullies whose sides are covered in seaweed and sealife.

Dave Crampton