The
The new lifeboat station on a fine day.


THERE ARE SOME DAYS when there is simply nothing to do. Some people go shopping, but thats not my thing. Others sit in front of the TV - thats not my thing either.
I like to dive, but living in London means that any dive trip requires planning and a fair bit of time dedicated to it. Im not big on getting up before I would normally go to bed in order to get to an inland site.
And Im not wild about spending more time driving somewhere than I do diving, plus the equivalent of a small mortgage on the petrol to get home.
However, nowadays I know I can simply head south to Selsey in West Sussex, and take advantage of its old lifeboat station.
Theres no need to pre-book a dive boat, no need to book accommodation and certainly no need for a plan to rival that of an invasion force. Simply get in, get wet and get home.
Oh, and have a wonderful time doing it, because Selseys old lifeboat station is shallow, current-washed and home to a good array of marine life.
It is located right next to the new lifeboat station, which is at the end of Selsey Bill, the peninsula south of Chichester, no more than an hour and a half from south London and perhaps a couple from north London.
The site is tide-dependant, and the best reading for slack is three hours after the tide at Portsmouth. Or if you are not sure of your hydrographical skills, do as I do and contact one of the dive centres in the area.
Working out whether the tide is still running is simply a case of watching the water around the legs of the current lifeboat station. They are also a good place to check the visibility. Its possible to step out along the walkway to the station and look down onto the legs above the dive site and beach.
Looking at the breakwater groins that run out from the beach or the legs going down into the water is a very good indication of the visibility.
Its not fool-proof, however, as I have dived here when reasonable vis sits under a cloudy layer that disguises the real visibility, and I have also seen the groins running out to sea and then not seen very much once under 3m.
Its a bit of a gamble, but which dive in the UK isnt
The best time to dive is on slack low water, which generally provides the best visibility. The water brought in by the rising tide is laden with deposits from further down the Channel and from within Selsey Bay.
A neap tide is also beneficial, as dive times can be much longer. Its not a deep dive - the maximum is about 6m - so to explore for as long as possible is an obvious benefit.
There is limited parking near the lifeboat station. Park on the road and you can kit up on the grass next to the seawall. There is also a public toilet, and a pub nearby.
Note that the beach is steep and made of shingle, which can be hard going.
There are a couple of ways to dive the old pier. My favourite is to swim under the current one until the end, then head east and pick up the fishing-boat mooring chains to find the main body of the old lifeboat station. At the end of the dive, I fin back along the old pier legs, which no longer break the surface.
Alternatively, its possible to pick up the old legs from the shore and swim along them to the old station. Both ways are good - I just prefer the former.
With a current that flows like traffic during the school holidays, the life around the area is based on benthic feeders and the marine life that relies on these for food and shelter.
Sponges and sea squirts coat everything that is not taken up by bivalves or anemones. Snakelocks are the most abundant anemones, and whenever I see their dark green tentacles tipped in bright purple I look for Leachs spider crabs.
The UKs smallest spider crabs, these live pretty much exclusively in symbiosis with snakelocks anemones. Certainly I have never seen one too far away from a snakelocks.
Leachs crabs are masters of camouflage. They encourage sponges and seaweed to grow on their shells, and can stay as well hidden as an SAS sniper in a war zone.
On my first visit my search for them proved fruitless, and I assumed that the species was absent from the area. Then I did a high-tide dive, when the visibility is sapped by the tide bringing in silty water from the bay, and saw my first Leachs spider crab, quickly followed by a second, then a third.
On the anemones found on the blocks and legs of the old pier they were as common as people-carriers outside a school at 3pm. Each one sat either within the tentacles of the snakelocks or close by, feeding on plankton drifting in the water as it passed its benthic home.
During the spring there are also lots of mating spiny spider crabs. These are the larger, more common variety and there can be hundreds here. Males fight for the smaller females and the victors drape themselves across them, enveloping their lover with a protective shield.
They remain as protective as a cornered cat, and launched themselves at me like crazed sex-mad BASE-jumpers as I swam by!
There are other crabs here, too.
Edible crabs are mostly found within the broken rubble of the old station, but velvet swimming crabs - the dark ones, with red eyes and paddles for back legs - are all over.
Yet if sex on legs doesnt float your boat, theres always sex in a skirt. From Late March to early May, Selsey plays host to one of the rounds of the cuttlefish international shagathon.
Males come here to meet females and make baby cuttlefish. Yet, as in many areas of the UK, fishermen have hit the population hard and numbers have, in the past two years, dropped significantly.
The fishmongers of France and Spain brim with UK cuttlefish, as there is no domestic market for them here. I hope the population crash is only a blip, because having the chance to see huge mating cuttlefish on full display is one of our most wonderful natural phenomena, akin perhaps to the Serengetis great migration; gatherings of feeding whale sharks; or the coral spawning events of the Caribbean and Great Barrier Reef. It may not sound that amazing to the layman, but go watch it and you will be changed forever. You may not order the calamari so quickly on holiday, either.
Other species a little further up the evolutionary ladder are found at Selsey Bill year round. Sea bass along with mullet, pipefish, pollack and bib hang out at the end of the new lifeboat station.
On the seabed, which is carpeted in slipper limpets, you can see gurnard and flatfish.
Around the legs and across the broken rubble-field of the old station wrasse are plentiful, and you can also find the odd conger and numerous juvenile species that are too small to identify.
But it really is the macro life most divers come to find. Selsey Old Pier is like a muck dive from the tropics.
OK, the life-forms may not be as numerous or quite so odd, but they exist all over the site, and you have plenty of time to look.
You could spend an entire dive on one set of legs and see nudibranchs, sponges, clams, sea squirts, tiny crabs, anemones and numerous small fish... and all in less than 6m of water, a couple of hours from London.

  • Wittering Divers and Mulberry Divers are the two nearest dive centres, and both are good for advice, tide times and air. Gavin Parsons is indebted to Wittering Divers for finding him a buddy on the many occasions his regular one couldnt make it. Visit witteringdivers.co.uk and mulberrydivers.co.uk

  • Spiny
    Spiny spider crab close to the main part of the old lifeboat station.
    A
    A red gurnard lies on the seabed.
    Another
    Another caught lobster
    Leach
    Leachs spider crab covered in sponge for camouflage.
    Pipefish
    Pipefish among the weeds .
    Mating
    Mating spiny crabs (over 18s only!).
    Sponge-
    Sponge- and life-covered legs of the old lifeboat station.
    Diver
    Diver and male lumpsucker found among the shattered remains of the old lifeboat station.
    Cuttlefish
    Cuttlefish resting in sand during the breeding season.
    New
    New lifeboat station.
    Divernet Divernet