Divernet

Diving from a beach is something you do only while training - or so many qualified divers feel. Sure, if you are into wreck diving a boat is usually essential. But for the many divers interested in marine life, photography or simply enjoying the sensation of diving, it is not always necessary to venture far offshore, and far more relaxing to beach-dive.
Living in Cornwall I am blessed with a variety of beach-diving options, sites that all have something different to offer in terms of topography, habitat and marine life.
One of these I have visited regularly for 20 years, and never tire of it. This is a cove called Porthkerris, situated on the eastern tip of the Lizard peninsula close to the villages of St Keverne and Porthallow.
The cove provides excellent launch facilities and access to the fabled Manacles reef just offshore, but also offers one of the best beach dives in Cornwall. Once used extensively by the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm for monitoring weapons testing offshore, most of the beach is now privately owned. The Porthkerris Diving and Watersports Centre provides for the needs of the visiting diver. Access and car parking are excellent and the sea is only a few metres from your car, so there are no long hikes with your kit.
The cove nestles under high cliffs and is protected from all but east winds. So in the summer, when the prevailing winds are occasionally very strong from the south-west, Porthkerris is generally flat calm.
The beach drops away quickly towards a fringing reef at the northern end of the cove that breaks surface no more than 100m offshore, even at high water.
Behind these visible rocks, a submerged reef arcs out for a further 200m or so, accessing depths of 20-25m depending on the state of the tide. So you can explore everything from shallow inshore reef to deeper waters all within a 300m swim. The dive is good at any state of the tide, but be cautious of the stronger north-east/south-west currents on the seaward side of the reef during periods of spring tides - either stay inshore or time your dive for slack water.
I normally dive from the northern end of the beach, where I can leave the car and take the path down the rocks with a rope banister rail to help negotiate the steepest part.
Enter the water next to a group of rocks close to the edge (these rocks dry at low water) and opposite the largest of the surface-breaking rocks, perhaps 100m offshore. Surface-swim to the north-western edge of the offshore rocks.

During the summer this short swim takes you over beds of bootlace seaweed in the shallows and over other small patches of reef. I usually explore this area on my return swim. Keep looking down, because this is a favourite hunting ground for small shoals of large grey mullet, which can be seen darting through the weed forest below you.
From the large rock edge, dive and swim east and seaward, with the reef on your right shoulder. The seabed here is made up of heavy granite pebbles and shingle, so the visibility is often very good.
As you follow the reef the depth increases rapidly from 6m to 12-15m, depending on the tide. Getting below the kelp line reveals on your right the rockface and its garlands of jewel anemones, tunicates, sea cucumbers and sponges.
Dont ignore the seabed to your left, as this is home to all sorts of bottom-dwelling fish, crustaceans, tube worms, anemones and, in the spring and summer months, hordes of juvenile cuttlefish. Last summer I encountered a squadron of 16 cuttlefish shoaling together, showing off their camouflage skills.
The reef is bisected by a number of cuts and gullies crying out to be explored, though your first dive is best spent familiarising yourself with the topography and routes for your return. Continue seaward until the big reef wall terminates on your right and you encounter some large individual rocks, which are the beginning of the reef running further out into deeper water.
Here, again depending on the tide, you can either continue seaward on the low reef to deeper water and return the same way, or continue right along the seaward face of the reef.
Along here is a section of wall, slightly undercut in places, that reaches 4-5m in height before the reef forms a series of steps and ledges towards the surface. Because this face is exposed to tidal current it is covered with filter-feeding deadmens fingers, jewel anemones and sponges, making it quite colourful, especially in a torch-beam.

Maximum depth here approaches 18-19m at high water. This part of the reef is home to several varieties of fish: marauding pollack, the occasional bass, ballan and corkwing wrasse, cheeky cuckoo wrasse that peer right into your mask, and more unusual species such as red gurnard and john dory.
Following this wall you come to the end of the first main block of reef, which becomes more broken, though no less massive. This area offers more gullies and undercuts to be explored, and you can happily work your way along until the reef begins to rise on your right towards the gully between rocks 1 and 2 (see map). Either follow the gully or continue around rock 2 towards the shore once more. From here you can either follow the patches of rock and reef on the seabed on a compass bearing towards the shore (easiest if there is any tide) or surface and swim back. If you choose to follow the reef seaward, pick a slack-water period and ensure that you have a good compass bearing for your return, and enough air.
The reef peters out in 25m or so on a dark, sandy seabed where there is a healthy scallop bed. Even on a neap tide the current out here beyond the shelter of the headland can be quite strong, so be cautious and turn back with plenty of air. A surface swim can be extremely hard work!
If you make the swim offshore, beware of boats, either from the dive centre or visiting groups. The Manacles are a mere 15 minutes away and the wreck of the Volnay only ten minutes ride, so when it is busy these boats run a shuttle service to and fro.
Also, do not be too surprised if you meet something bigger than yourself out in the bay during the summer. Last year several basking sharks cruised within 100m of the beach and a pod of dolphins made regular visits, so you never can tell what might turn up.
Since the establishment of the dive centre the cove has grown in popularity, although it is rarely crowded except on bank holiday weekends. It is an ideal base for a club holiday with the tremendous variety of diving on hand for novice and experienced divers alike, and offers excellent facilities including a cafe/restaurant, boat-launching using a former US Army snow cat, and air and nitrox fills.
There is even a childrens adventure playground, a small zoo including caged monkeys, Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs and an adjacent ostrich farm. These and miles of splendid clifftop walks should keep your family amused while you dive!

  • From St Keverne turn left through the square past the White Hart pub and follow the road signposted Porthallow for about 1.5 miles to a road fork signposted Porthallow ahead and Porthoustock right. Follow the large Porthkerris Centre sign from here.
  • Launch and recovery costs£5, air£1.80 per fill, parking£1 per day.
  • Porthkerris Land and Sea Sports Centre, tel/fax 01326-280620.