LAST TIME I WAS IN SWANAGE, I was on a mission to do wrecks, wrecks and wrecks other than the usual Kyarra. This time round I am just here for an easy day out, though easy comes in different grades of easiness.
I still have an early start to join the queue of vans, pick-ups and cars full of divers by the pier gates at 7am, to make sure of parking my van on the pier.
I then reward myself with a couple of hours snooze to make up for the early start. Today is unusual; by 9.30 there are still a couple of parking places free.
I could have gambled and won, but the alternative of the civic car-park up the hill is just too much hassle, and on a weekend I dared not risk failing to get a convenient space on the pier.
There are plenty of anglers and general strollers on the pier, but I would guess that all the parked vehicles belong to divers. Through the day I watch them come and go, trying to work out what the various groups are.
Three are obviously dive schools, doing the open-water part of beginner-level courses, with a few other courses in between. Their vans are virtually mobile dive centres, with everything they need and more.
Another bunch of cars obviously represents a club. The owners have launched a pair of RIBs on the slip along the bay, past the lifeboat station, and now have them moored off the pier steps while they kit up and get ready for the early slack.
Other cars belong to groups preparing to board one of the charter-boats based on the pier, Mary Jo or Sidewinder, or the boats operated by Divers Down, the dive shop and air station.

SOME GROUPS LOOK LIKE NEARLY a full boatload, while others are just buddy pairs, and there are all sorts of group sizes in between.
Its just one of the nice things about diving from Swanage Pier; the charter-boats all take small groups and mix them together. Anyone can get a dive without having to organise a full boatload.
For now, I plan to put the minimum amount of effort into swimming to the end of the pier and back. Im in no rush, because the tide is coming in, and as the water gets deeper the dive gets easier.
My first conclusion is that reports of stunning vis from the previous week are well out of date.
Then, as I get away from the stone wall and further out among the legs of the pier, things improve a little; enough to make wide-angle photography possible, even if not that easy.
Last time I dived under the pier was when work was in progress to reinforce, repair and replace a number of pier legs. While repairs here never end, that phase is now long over. Legs that were almost squeaky-clean a few years ago now have their own covering of marine life. The older legs are as good as ever.

LIKE MOST DIVERS, I BEGIN close to the seabed, taking my time to investigate cracks and crannies among all the tat that has collected under the pier - toppled legs cast aside, old lobster-pots, scraps of girder and wood.
All provide shelter for small crabs, shrimps and blennies.
The other place worth scrutinising is higher up. The zone where the pier legs suffer most erosion is close to the waterline, so over the years many have been reinforced with additional timber (more recently with steel boxes).
However, the timber cladding does not reach all the way to the seabed but ends some 2m off the bottom. Between the cladding and the legs are upward stretching cracks rotted in the wood.
Rather than yo-yo, I save these for my return journey, peering up the skirts of the legs from below. By the end of the pier, a shoal of small pollack loiter in midwater, shaded from above by the decking. All those anglers on the pier must be pretty hopeless for this shoal to evade their hooks so easily.
With the decking of the pier now complete, the central area where it widens at the end is dark enough to require a dive light. Anemones, soft corals, bryozoans and hydroids that would normally have to compete with kelp for a home this shallow can live as happily as in much deeper water.
Bryozoans and hydroids may be an uninspiring brown, but they have wonderful macro textures, and are also the grazing ground of flatworms and nudibranchs that graze on them.

ONE OF THE CRITTERS I WANT TO FIND is a black-faced blenny. The male has a black head on a bright yellow body during the mating season. I saw my first under Swanage Pier several years back and always keep an eye out for them.
It isnt my lucky day for the bright yellow fish, but my buddy makes up for it by spotting a well-camouflaged female.
Back at the steps, one of the dive schools is having a rescue practice. Some appalling over-acting is in progress as panicked victims are towed towards the steps and calmed by their rescuers.
Supporters rush to fetch oxygen and first-aid kits and telephone the emergency services. Its easy to spot the real spectators from those who are part of the exercise and simulate crowd interference. No Oscars likely today.
I celebrate with a bacon sandwich, followed by an ice cream and a stroll along the pier, stopping to read plaques on some of the sponsored planks, and catching up with a few old faces.
Brian, Mary Jos skipper, tempts me with the wreck of the Aparima for some future time. He is just back with a full boat from the Kyarra. Mike Potts, who runs the diving school based on the pier, is thinking about a new rebreather, but busy today running open-water classes.
While most of my diving is on sites new to me, especially wrecks I have not dived before, sometimes its just nice to relax and catch up with an old friend.

Operators: Mary Jo, Sidewinder (www.kyarra.com); Swanage Diving School (www.mikepottsdiving.co.uk); Divers Down (www.diversdownswanage. co.uk)