WHEN DAVID BELLAMY ASTOUNDED the assembled crowds and leapt fully clothed into St Abbs Harbour 25 years ago this month, he made a pretty big splash.
And very appropriate too, as his leap provided a memorable conclusion to a speech that had formally initiated the St Abbs & Eyemouth Voluntary Marine Reserve (VMR).
It was a bold and almost untried experiment at the time, but one that was essential, given the justified popularity of the area.
Back in the 1960s and 70s, there were no day-boats or lottery-funded RIBs. Diving was mostly done from the shore.
The harbour wall at St Abbs gives easy access to several excellent dives, including the renowned Cathedral Rock. A huge invertebrate-encrusted arch, big enough to drive a couple of 40-tonne artics through side by side, and with a unique, smaller arch above, this is a must-see for any visiting diver.
Its only a 50m swim out, and even the most hard-bitten individuals are impressed with the huge walls, beautiful light streaming through the arches, and the dozen ballan wrasse that seem to be a permanent feature.
Just another 20m or so to the south-west is another large, scenic rock, rejoicing in the strange name of Dons Bum. Its split into three, with deep, vertical chasms running straight through it. All can be done on one dive, unless youre greedy with your air.
With dives like this just a short stroll from the car park, weekends would bring throngs of divers from all round the UK. Conservation back in the day had a very low profile and, regrettably, many of the early divers carried lobster-hooks, spear-guns and bags.
As the principal employment in the village at that time was catching shellfish, this inevitably led to conflict.
There were threats of violence, and serious talk of divers being banned from harbour property.
Matters were kept just off the boil largely thanks to the continued efforts of the then Harbourmaster, George Colven, to whom divers owe a huge debt of gratitude.
Around that time, it was gradually being recognised that the whole Berwickshire coast was something of an underwater oasis in an otherwise fairly turbid, often steely-grey North Sea.
Relatively deep water close inshore, and no major rivers or industry to cause pollution, is a happy combination, leading to generally clear water and abundant marine life. The underwater topography of the area is also impressive, because the soft red sandstone that makes up part of the strata has been eroded and carved by tides and storms.
This has produced what must be some of our most accessible and dramatic underwater scenery, with vertical walls, swim-throughs, surge gullies and cracks, all of them covered in colourful invertebrate life.
The Black Carrs are a firm favourite of many divers, with their steeply plunging walls and banks of brilliant white and yellow soft corals, as big as you will find anywhere. There are so many of them, and they reflect so much light, that they appear to glow.
They can often be made out at 20m below as you start your descent. Flying over the top of them on a drift is an experience not to be missed.
The unusual bolocera anemone and the bottlebrush hydroid are present here, and without doubt this is the best site in the UK for seeing wolf-fish. I have seen as many as seven on one dive at the Black Carrs, but they are generally quite retiring, and a torch is required to look carefully into holes and under ledges below about 18m.

IT WAS REPORTS OF SUCH ANIMALS (previously considered Arctic species), combined with sightings of cup corals, john dories and leopard-spotted gobies (then thought to be of south-western distribution) that stimulated interest in biological circles and ultimately helped to put St Abbs on the short-list for Statutory Marine Reserve status.
The complexities of legislation meant that this never came about. However, recognising a need for some form of control to restore harmony for the future and manage the area for everybodys benefit, there was a concerted push by many people and organisations, including the British Sub-Aqua Club, Marine Conservation Society, divEr, the St Abbs Harbour Trust and the local authority.
This pressure eventually got the reserve off the ground in 1984.
It was established on a voluntary basis with a part-time Ranger. Dive writer and photographer Lawson Wood, who had earlier established the Barefoot Marine Reserve around his familys land at Eyemouth, agreed that this should form the southern edge of the VMR, giving the boundaries that apply today.
Apart from walls and gullies, there is one noteworthy wreck in the VMR, the Glanmire. A few hundred metres off St Abbs Head, this is a very popular 30m slackwater dive. Although now well flattened, the propeller and boilers are still in place, and this is a great place to see ling, pogge, conger and wolf-fish.
The Glanmire provided one of my most memorable dives. Descending in sparkling 15m vis, I remember being surrounded by the biggest shoal of fish I have ever seen, either in the UK or abroad.
They were big coalfish, each about 2kg, and they whirled around us in a huge vortex so deep and dense that we could see nothing else. I felt as though I was going down a plughole made up entirely of fish!
When we hit the wreck, the first thing we saw among the wreckage was a circle of glass. A quick flick of the hand to move the fine silt revealed a complete working compass, mounted in gimbals. It must have been 50cm across.
We went back the next day and couldnt find it, and I have never heard to this day of anybody liberating it!

THIS IS THE SORT OF DIVING that brings people from far and wide. Much has changed in 25 years, but only above water, and very much for the better.
The VMR has an experienced full-time Ranger, Liza Cole, and it makes a real contribution to the interests of fishermen, divers and the local economy. It is now recognised throughout the UK as a leading light in community-led marine conservation.
Fishing has declined here, as it has everywhere, but at the last count there were six day-boats at St Abbs and four at Eyemouth, so access to all sites is easy. Divers are very welcome and, with journey times mostly under 15 minutes, some boats do four trips a day at weekends, which keeps costs reasonable.
Visiting boats are welcome, too, and can be left afloat overnight at both St Abbs and Eyemouth. In fact the whole area is really well set up to welcome divers, so if you fancy experiencing some of the best diving in the UK, why not give it a go soon


MEET VMR RANGER LIZA COLE

FAVOURITE VMR DIVE-SITE
It has to be the Gullies. Fabulous ridges and steep walls, all carpeted with marine life. In the breeding season you may have inquisitive guillemots join you on your safety stop!

DOES VOLUNTARY WORK IS IT EVER LIKELY TO BE STATUTORY
Ive worked in both, and the key is to educate visitors so that they want to do their bit. The softly-softly approach works with the majority, but there are always some who dont respond, so its better to have it backed up with the law. Whether we ever get full protection probably hinges around the forthcoming Marine Bill.

HOW MANY DIVES TAKE PLACE IN THE VMR
No count is kept, due to the number of access points. We estimate it is about 25,000 a year.

IS CREEL FISHING SUSTAINABLE
DOES IT CONFLICT

The ethos of the VMR is to balance multi-usage, including diving, creel-fishing and angling, with conservation. There is no evidence of damage by creels which, unlike trawl nets, catch only what they are intended to catch - by-catch is returned alive - but we need to ensure that the number being fished is sustainable. Where there is conflict is when misguided divers go out of their way to maliciously damage creels, behaviour that is both illegal and against the Code of Conduct for the reserve.

IS THERE ANY EVIDENCE OF DIVER DAMAGE
No, but with more day-boats starting up, and so more divers coming to the area, it is something that we will increasingly have to monitor.

THE VMR HAS CHARITABLE STATUS, BUT HOW SECURE IS YOUR FUNDING
The VMR relies on grants and donations to fund its work. There is sufficient funding to employ a Ranger until early 2011, but we need to start fund-raising again this autumn. Our main funders are the National Trust for Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, The Crown Estate and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

WHAT DOES YOUR JOB INVOLVE
It is incredibly diverse, and includes: monitoring wildlife and human use of the Reserve; policing; increasing enjoyment and understanding; carrying out practical conservation work such as removing harmful marine litter from the shore; and getting people involved through volunteering.
The main thrust is education, using a variety of media to help people to understand whats so special about the area, why it needs protecting, and what they can do to help. This could be anything from taking a group of primary school


TRY THESE 15 DIVE-SITES
1 The Hurkers: Huge exposed reef directly out from Eyemouth harbour. Strong tidal flow ensures massive stands of soft corals, anemones and encrusting life.
2 Weasel Loch: An easy, scenic shore dive.
Like a swimming pool on a calm day, and ideal for training.
3 Ebb Carrs: Five minutes south-east of St Abbs, with remnants of the Alfred Earlandsen wreck right in the middle. Extensive area of reef dropping to high bedrock with sand gullies.
4 Harbour Wall: Numerous dives here
(including Cathedral) and its difficult to go wrong. Easy access, but not in a swell, when exit can be dangerous.
5 The Horn: Three minutes straight out from the harbour. A big, narrow area of submerged reef with terrific scenery, the top of which is at 15m.
6 Wuddy Rocks: Superb cracks - like an intro to cave-diving.
7 Black Carrs: Two big rocks at the north-eastern extremity of St Abbs Bay, with several sites or a superb drift over the lot. The best UK site for seeing wolf-fish.
8 The Craig: Directly under the lighthouse, plunging walls and great narrow gullies on the south side.
9 Tyes Tunnel: A tight entry to a tunnel through a rock promontory. Dark in the middle.
10 Glanmire: The only worthwhile wreck dive in the VMR, 30m depth and slack water needed.
11 Skelly Hole (aka the Barnyard): Circumnavigate Floatcarr Rock for an excellent, easy scenic dive. Great walls and a towering, atmospheric crack.
12 Anemone Gully/The Gullies: Several dives here, arguably the most scenic area of the VMR. Brilliant drift with tight gullies, plunging walls and the amazing invertebrate life. Good for wolf-fish.