When I learnt to dive in the UK, it wasn’t because I wanted to be a UK diver. It was because I wanted to learn to dive as cheaply as possible, and I figured that the answer was to do it through my university club. It’s taken me a lot further than I originally imagined.
This wasn’t a new ambition by any means – I’ve been a keen snorkeler since childhood, sometimes in the sea across the road on the west coast of Scotland, but more often on family holidays to the Mediterranean. When I was 10 my dad sent my mum and I on a trip to the Red Sea to swim with wild dolphins. Supposedly this was for Mum’s birthday, and I was going to keep her company but it definitely felt like a direct gift to me (thanks Dad!). We were the only snorkelers (that I recall) in a remote resort that catered to divers. I don’t think we missed much – we still saw dolphins, turtles, eels, bright corals and clouds of colourful fish – but still when I saw the divers heading down I viscerally wanted to be able to do that too.
I bided my time! Aside from a try dive in Greece with my family when I was 12, I didn’t learn to dive until I was 19 and in my first year of university. By this time I had snorkelled in Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Thailand and on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. When I thought about diving I still pictured clear, warm water, coral, bright fish, dolphins, turtles, and so on.
Heads up: learning to dive isn’t cheap. No matter how you do it. I trained with the University of Bristol Underwater Club, which is a British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) branch. It is cheaper because instructors are all volunteers, so you pay for the training pack (not expensive), any equipment you can’t rent from your club, and costs for trips you go on to complete your open water training. I was never bitter about the cost because a) I didn’t expect it to be less and b) this was the one thing I’d decided I was going to do at uni. In first year it was all I did… alongside doing my degree, working in a bar, and getting my driver’s license… but it was definitely my favourite thing.
Being my ‘one thing’, it’s not all that surprising that my best friends ended up being from UBUC. Training was slowly spread over the year, with theory lectures and pool lessons in autumn/winter and not actually going diving in the sea until March, most of the way through the academic year. So by the time I went on that first open water lesson at Porthkerris Reef in Cornwall, a lot had changed. I had spent six months making friends who dived all over the UK on amazing weekend adventures that I was desperate to be a part of, and already thoughts of tropical waters were fading to the back of my mind (although they did also go on a Red Sea liveaboard I was very jealous of).
I’m being a little loose with the truth, actually my first ‘open water’ lessons were in a quarry a 20 minute drive from Bristol, but I have as much to say about quarry diving as most people I know:
So, Porthkerris, or, more often, PK. The PK training trip is one of the biggest trips UBUC runs, and they have been running it since time began (though the earliest video evidence is 1997). It had been bigged up at the pub for the whole year so I was very excited. It’s a lot of things to UBUC – a big trip, a long running trip, and the trip where the current committee pick their preferred next committee and start persuading them to run for election at the upcoming AGM with a mix of flattery and gentle bullying (cheers guys). But even if it weren’t all of those things it would still be bloody good diving.
PK Reef is one of the best shore dives in England, and by the end of a week there people who hadn’t even been qualified at the start were pros at navigating it and confident to dive it with a buddy of equal [in]experience. (It should be impossible to get lost on PK reef, but generations of UBUCers including myself have disproven this theory).
Less than 5 minutes away on the club’s little Zodiac inflatables is the Volnay, a WWI wreck with impressive boilers housing conger eels, crayfish and lobsters, and lead shot and cordite scattered everywhere. This sits at a convenient 20m, the depth limit for newly qualified Ocean Divers, and is also a dive that more experienced members still enjoy. For those members, still within easy boat distance, are the Manacles, with many beautiful reef dives and the wreck of the Mohegan at around 30m.
So since I qualified at PK I have dived 5 times in Greece, and over 80 in the UK. It’s not the ratio I would have once expected! Here are some things I’ve learned:
It isn’t all about coral and fish
When we refer to reef dives in the UK, coral doesn’t really feature. These are rocky barriers on which all sorts of life has grown. The micro-life (often referred to as ‘squidge’) in the UK is exceptional. I’ve seen vast walls of rocks completely carpeted in tiny, bright jewel anemones on PK Reef and dives in the Manacles (PK reef is great and I love it, but when I finally made it to the Manacles two years after my first PK trip, I had to concede they’re on a different level). I’ve seen fields of dead men’s fingers around Skomer Island in Wales. Massive yellow sponges, sea squirts, nudibranchs (nudibranchs are the greatest weirdest things ever), sea slugs, anemones and starfish… there’s so much in British seas when you stop to look.
Seals are the bomb
That said, everyone loves some megafauna, and marine mammals are bucket-list toppers for many people. Dolphins and whales usually get most of the credit (I’ve had dolphins around the boat on the way to a dive site in Wales, but never seen them while diving). What we do have in abundance is seals, particularly the Farne Islands grey seal colony, which is the largest in Europe. I’ve been on two trips there now, and the first absolutely blew my mind. These amazing animals are so inquisitive and playful, and so graceful in the water. I was still diving in a semi-dry back then, and it was a freezing cold mid-October weekend in the north of England. Didn’t even care. My friend forgot her gloves and went on two 40 minute dives anyway. It’s that good.
Wrecks make amazing artificial reefs
The UK has more wrecks per mile of coastline than any other country, due to our history with trade and naval warfare. These are amazing to dive entirely for their own sake, because they look cool and you can learn about this part of history that you only experience if you put on some SCUBA gear and get down there. I’ve enjoyed wreck diving so much more than I anticipated. But since this is a zoology blog, I’ll add this – put something solid in the middle of the sea, and things will grow on it. Things will come to eat the things that grow on it. It’s not rocket science, you can see as much incredible life on a well established wreck as anywhere else in the sea, often more.
Sharks are everywhere
Okay, so what I mean is cat sharks (or dogfish). But they are sharks, and they do look like sharks! Just at only a foot or two long. I never get sick of seeing these awesome little elasmobranchs, which is great because you can see them on most UK shore dives.
PSA: Don’t order ‘rock salmon’ in fish & chip shops. This is usually cat shark, which is illegal.
Baby lobsters are really weird
If you’ve got your own boat the National Lobster Hatchery will let you go release their babies for them. It’s a new diving experience! There isn’t that much to do after the first 10 minutes of the dive but seeing them flail around is hilarious. Also, due to the tide times at Padstow Harbour you’re stuck out on the boats all day, which in good weather is really fun. Although it leads us on to:
Peeing off a boat is a massive faff
Especially if you’re wearing a drysuit. Especially if you don’t have a penis. It’s just another one of those annoying things. But nothing is impossible when you really, really need a wee.
Not being able to dive because of rubbish British weather isn’t always the worst thing
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s ridiculously annoying and upsetting. But just occasionally when you look out at a choppy sea in the driving rain and diving is definitely off the cards, you’re quite glad of the excuse to say ‘sod it’ and spend the day hiding in a warm pub, made warmer by the smug glow of knowing you tried.
Throwing spider crabs at your friends doesn’t stop being funny…
…or it hasn’t yet anyway.
The truth is that from the age of about 15, if you want to go to university, you don’t get to have hobbies anymore. What you get instead is ‘extracurriculars’ – that is, hobbies, but you have to make them sound good on your personal statement/CV. (All hobbies are extracurriculars, but not all extracurriculars are hobbies). This doesn’t stop at uni, the years of being told ‘universities want more than just good grades’ becomes ‘employers want more than just a degree’.
One of the best things about wanting to work in Zoology is that all relevant extracurriculars tend to also be really good fun, and involve going cool places and being outdoors. Getting involved with a dive club would be good for anyone’s CV – organisation, trip planning, and instructing can all be talked up in terms of ‘soft’ skills, but sometimes I get to apply for opportunities where it actually matters that I’m a qualified, experienced(ish) diver and boat handler. And that’s pretty easy to get excited about.