|CONSIDER THE NUMBER OF LONG-DISTANCE EVENTS that run between Lands End and John OGroats. Modern cars, vintage cars, motorbikes, hiking, running, cycling, roller-skates, pogo-sticks... diving|
I have to own up to not having dived all the way from LE to JOG, but I have dived at both. Well, almost at both. But I dont think the almost really matters.
Whats so special about Lands EndIs it the westernmost point in Britain No, that extremity belongs to Ardnamurchan in Scotland. Is it the southernmost point No, that would be Lizard Point, also in Cornwall.
Lands End is just the end of the A30, or perhaps the first or last bit of English coast that mariners would see if they avoided running aground on the Isles of Scilly and Seven Stones Reef.
So I dont feel that its misleading to write about diving Lands End when what I really dived were reefs off Lands End.
Look out from the clifftop and the lighthouse a couple of miles to the west is Longships, standing tall towards the northern end of a jagged granite reef.
All round the reef is diveable, though given a choice my favourite part is west of the lighthouse and perhaps a little to the north.
Looking at the lighthouse from the seaward side, there is a round bay beneath the lighthouse jetty, and its southern edge is one of my favourite scenic dives in the south-west.
Play with an echo-sounder and find a depth of 10-15m. What you see is not a consistent depth of 10-15m but a maze of narrow canyons descending to 30m or more between blocks of granite. These rise to a depth that an echo-sounder shows as the seabed.
Some are just wide enough to squeeze through; others are almost tunnels, the tops are so close together.
Further out, the canyons widen as the seabed drops deeper.
On the walls are a riot of soft corals, sponges, hydroids and anemones in all shapes and sizes. The full spectrum of southern UK fish is in evidence, from wrasse to ling and pollack.
For macro enthusiasts there are also nudibranchs and sea hares munching on the sessile hydroids and bryozoans.
Ask me about slack water and I honestly cant tell. On the surface, the current can be from the north or the south. This current is often too strong to swim against, but its never strong enough to form overfalls on this part of the reef.
Under water the current is less predictable as it works its way through the maze, though I have never found it too strong to dive.
Go off the boat and straight down into the shelter of the nearest canyon. On any but the calmest of days the surge from the big Atlantic groundswell will be more of an influence than current.
As you would expect with that Atlantic exposure, underwater visibility is usually exceptionally good, though like everywhere plankton and algal blooms can spoil it with icky globs.
Even that can be a blessing in disguise when basking sharks and sunfish follow their lunch.
These added bonuses are more likely to be seen from the boat than under water, as are the seals hauled out on the rocks, then slopping into the water and popping up again to be nosy.
The seals are less accustomed to divers than they are in other parts of the country, so under water they are more likely to be just a grey torpedo that streaks along a canyon in the distance than divers playmates.
Having said that, its just possible that youll get lucky.
The nearest slip is at Sennen, and the next nearest is at Lamorna and then Penzance, with beach launches of portable boats possible at some of the coves on the way.
When conditions are good I like to make a day of it, mooring the boat in front of the lighthouse and climbing ashore with a picnic or even a barbecue between dives.
For a second dive there is the well-broken wreck of the Bluejacket further south on the reef or, for a group experienced at hanging on in currents, the Sharks Fin about a mile to the north. Otherwise, why not just play in the maze of gullies again
Deep and narrow gullies filled with anemones and dead mens fingers
While Lands End is a headland, the nearest town being Sennen in the bay to the north, John OGroats is a town in a bay. The northernmost point of the British mainland is Dunnet Head, a few miles north-west.
So all these endurance events could be more consistent and go from headland to headland or town to town - from Lands End to Dunnet Head, or Sennen to John OGroats.
I havent dived John OGroats but I have dived Dunnet Head. The vertical cliffs of the shore line are massively imposing although, like many cliffs, they don't drop vertically below the surface. The seabed slopes and shelves until half a mile or so offshore it drops from 25 or 30m into the depths of the Pentland Firth.
Further offshore and to the east, some of the strongest currents off the British coast stream round Duncansby Head and stir up tidal races that can be heard as well as seen in the distance.
Surface conditions permitting, drifting along the wall at Dunnet Head is more sedate. While I am intimately familiar with the canyons at Longships, Dunnet Head was a one-off dive and all new to me.
Members of the Caithness Club are the real experts here, picking a startpoint well back to the south-west of the headland. The current takes divers to the north and east so that they drift out towards Dunnet Head without actually drifting round it.
The wall was located with an echo-sounder, then we retreated to drop in safely back on the shelf. From a gentle slope at 25m we swam cross-current to the wall. A rounded edge of rock separated the horizontal from the vertical, the light-seeking marine life from that which preferred the shadows. Yet once past the sporadic kelp that made its way that deep, the predominant covering of everything, horizontal, vertical and overhanging, was big yellow dead mens fingers.
I drifted along with my SMB, sometimes above the edge, and at other times over it. Down the wall anemones get a chance to compete - patches of jewel anemones and tightly packed dwarf plumose anemones.
The water is noticeably colder and I wouldnt even contemplate diving this far north in a wetsuit. Save for the colour of the dead mens fingers, the marine life is the same sort of stuff as at Longships, only in different proportions.
Visibility can be equally good, and in the summer the plankton bloom can be equally vicious. The crawfish and lobsters are just as big.
For a second dive, try the shallow wreck of the Bettina Danica at the south of Stroma Island, so shallow that significant chunks of it are still on the rocks and even on top of the cliffs. Or go round the corner of Duncansby Head to find the Geo of Sclaites, a cut deep into the cliffs thats wide enough to drive a boat in and turn round at the other end.
Without any convenient lighthouse quay on which to soak up the sun, lunch is chips at John OGroats.
Beneath the cliffs at Dunnet Head, John OGroats
Jewel anemones and dead mens fingers on the wall at Dunnet Head
If Dunnet Point is the British mainlands northernmost landmark, what about the diving at its other true extremities, to the south, east and west The southernmost place to visit is Lizard Point. While there are rocks, reefs and wrecks to dive off it, the best diving in the area is further back on the eastern side of the Lizard Peninsula, at the Manacles Reef.
While Longships and Dunnet Head are dived occasionally, the Manacles Reef is one of the busiest diving locations in the south-west. On a busy bank holiday, hundreds of divers descend on nearby Porthoustock and Porthkerris beaches, with more RIBs and hardboats arriving by sea across Falmouth Bay.
The top dive site here is the wreck of the Mohegan, a 7000 ton Victorian passenger liner that went down in 1898. For those not content with a wreck, the rocks above leading east from Maen Voes or The Voices are home to all the usual Cornish marine life and some fun boulder caves.
A hundred metres or so further offshore, the Raglan has banks of hydroids and anemones and there are always plenty of fish, though in the competition for sheer splendour it is hard to decide whether the Vase Rock off to the north beats it or not. It all depends on the conditions on the day.
A drizzly day on the beach at Porthkerris
Anemones among the kelp roots in the shallows at Raglan
The genuine, and without pretenders easternmost point is Lowestoft in Suffolk, Lowestoft the town and Lowestoft Ness, the headland. Frankly its not the sort of place to go for scenic reef dives. However, it is a port of departure to access the dense concentration of wrecks at the southern end of the North Sea.
I confess to not having dived from Lowestoft. The closest was from Blakeney on the Norfolk coast, where I was able to dive some excellent wrecks in a good state of intactness without having to venture too deep.
Inshore visibility is very low and you need to get well offshore to have any predictable visibility. The good news is that, like Norfolk, the sea is so shallow that wrecks 30 miles or further out can still be within sport-diving depth.
Brian King from Kings Watersports & Leisure in Lowestoft says that when the viz does clear, there are plenty of wrecks to dive. As sand banks shift, wrecks are constantly being uncovered, while known wrecks disappear beneath the sand.
Two years ago a group from London spent a week here and, because the weather was so bad, decided to go home a week early, he said. Then again, last year a group from the East Midlands had a great week, good weather and the wrecks could be seen going down the shotline. On one dive they found one wreck lying on top of another and a row of portholes with the glass lying nearby from an old rotten timber wreck.
East Anglia cant compete with the other extremities for scenic reefs or viz - but strike it lucky and the wreck-diving is as good as any in British waters.
A lobster on the Kylemore
The marshes at Blakeney are typical of those that stretch around most of the East Anglia coastline.
Taking the claim from Lands End, Ardnamurchan is the true westernmost point, a headland that sticks out to the north of Mull and to the south of Skye. Here the cliffs descend below the sea into a scoured boulder slope.
It just gets too much of a hammering from the winter storms. Yet just a few miles north-east, the pinnacle of Bo-Fascadale is in the Longships, Manacles or Dunnet Head league.
Pinnacle is an understatement - this is a reef that rises steeply to 5-6m from a surrounding seabed at more than 50m. A sizeable groundswell picks up over the reef in all but the calmest conditions.
The south-west side is a gentle slope over which the groundswell rises to dump over the crest at 6m. Below, the north-east side of Bo-Fascadale is a jagged wall containing fine Scottish marine life, with yellow and white dead mens fingers; jewel, dahlia and plumose anemones; crawfish on the wider ledges and squat lobsters in the cracks.
The nearest place to launch is across Fascadale beach on the north of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. However, this is really suitable only for boats that can be broken down and carried up a huge shingle bank and down the other side, then out across flat sand to wherever the tide has reached. And all that is after negotiating a treacherous and steep muddy track in a 4x4.
A few years ago I was young and reckless enough to do it, even persuading other divers to do it with me. These days, I would opt for a 10 mile RIB ride and a much easier trailer launch at Loch Ailort or a hardboat from Lochaline or Oban.
On the way home, you and your dive buddy could try to set a new record for a three-legged race from Ardnamurchan to Lowestoft. But somehow it doesnt have the same ring to it.
carrying an outboard motor back across Fascadale Beach
A shoal of fishpass overhead
- Lands End, Longships: Lands End Diving, 01736 787567, www.landsend-diving.co.uk. Air from Bill Bowen on the pier at Penzance, 01736 752135
- John OGroats, Dunnet Head: The nearest charter boats are based in Scapa Flow. or take your own RIB. Air can be obtained from Caithness Diving Club, www.caithnessdivingclub.co.uk
- Lizard, Manacles: Porthkerris Dive Centre, 01326 280620, www.porthkerris.com. Dive Action, 01326 280719, www.diveaction.co.uk
- Lowestoft: Kings Watersports, 01502 730182, www.kingswatersports.co.uk
- Ardnamurchan, Bo-Fascadale: Lochaline Dive Centre, 01967 421627, www.lochalinedivecentre.co.uk