I suspect that if divers from the southern half of England were asked where they made their first sea dive, Swanage would come out top. Just visit the pier any weekend, summer or winter, and youll see the dive-school vans parked in their regular places.
In-between will be cars and vans from BSAC clubs taking batches of budding Club Divers on their first dives.
Swanage Pier is also good from an instructors point of view. A nice shallow dive in a constrained and protected area with lots to see, and the added advantage of being able to catch a shuttle out to the Kyarra between taking trainees under the pier. Everyone is happy and the instructors dont need to miss a serious dive to help with a training day.
It was on such a trip that I made my first dive under Swanage Pier. All I knew was that it was a popular and easy shore-dive location. After an early Kyarra dive, I was half-expecting simply to concentrate on training exercises, using the pier as a teaching location as I would a swimming pool, but I soon found interesting bits of marine life to point out to my pair of trainees.
Under the shade of the pier, the usual shallow water-plant life is eliminated and the pier-legs are colonised almost exclusively by animal life: anemones, hydroids, bryozoans and tunicates. The best places to look are halfway up the piles, at the bottom edge of the jackets that protect them at the waterline - an ideal focus for practising neutral buoyancy.
Another attraction is wreckage: bits of junk ranging from decayed pier structure to old tyres once used as fenders for boats, and even complete park benches.
A horde of anglers on the deck above cast their lines for the small pollack and bream that hang out there, and perhaps the occasional oddity like a John Dory, but there are still lots of fish. Many, from small topknots and scorpionfish to the ever-smiling tompot blennies, are of no interest to anglers. Look carefully and you might even find such a rarity as a black-faced blenny.
Its a fair swim to the end of the pier, 196m past 45 rows of wooden piles. The grid arrangement of the piles makes it an excellent dive for the navigationally challenged. The only complications are a couple of turns the pier makes on the way out and the wider sections for boarding boats.
Over the past few years, most of my dives here have been while teaching photography courses. Shallow water with lots to see means that students can concentrate without being challenged by the diving conditions. Pier legs and wreckage offer wide-angle shots with divers, and there is plenty of small stuff for macro work.
Even the anglers come in useful. On one dive we were halfway along the pier before I found that a macro lens was not engaging correctly. Rather than swim back, I tied my kit to a pier leg and climbed a ladder to the deck. An angler kindly lent me a fishgut-stained tea towel to dry my hands and the camera housing, so that I could open it and sort the problem out.
The pier opens at 9am, though the gates are often open earlier, especially on summer weekends. Car parking is first come, first served, so on a busy day either be there early or hope to get a space as someone else leaves.
If you dont get a space, just drop divers and kit at the entrance and park in the pay-and-display on the hill.
There is a charge for parking on the pier and for diving. In some locations I begrudge such charges but not at Swanage, where I have seen the enormous amount of restoration work that divers have helped to fund.
Restoration of the pier is ongoing, with piles being surveyed and splinted or replaced. Chief enemy is the gribbleworm, which eats through the timbers. The 2000 survey found a number of piles that required replacing and reported that the gribbleworm seem to be very hungry.
Hide and seek around a pier leg at Swanage
the ever-smiling tompot blenny
GETTING THERE From Dorchester or Weymouth take the A352 to Wareham. From Poole take the A351 to Wareham, then continue on the A351 past Corfe Castle to Swanage and follow the signs for the town centre and pier.
AIR:Divers Down on the pier, 01929 423565.
ACCOMODATION:Many B&Bs, small hotels and campsites. A number are listed on www.kyarra.com. Also contact Swanage Tourist Information, 01929 422885, www.swanage.com.
FURTHER INFORMATION:Admiralty Chart 2172, Swanage Bay. Ordnance Survey Map 195, Bournemouth, Purbeck and Surrounding Area. Diver Guide - Dive Dorset, by John & Vicki Hinchcliffe.