| Barely a minute into the dive, Rob makes the sign for - triggerfish Pull the other fin, I think, this is Brighton Pier, not the Red Sea. |
But, sure enough, just a few metres away, there it is. Gnawing away at a pier leg, in the aggressive manner typical of its species, is a Balistes carolinensis, slate grey/brown, about 30cm long. And this triggerfish is ready to defend its newly acquired territory in the middle of Brightons Palace Pier as if Ras Mohammed is just around the corner!
Above us, summer pier noises percolate through the water; children scream with glee on fairground rides. The base notes of rock music, the manic jangling of amusement arcades and a slot-machine token reading Brighton Palace Pier complete the audio-visual picture.
The triggerfish makes a thuggish lurch at my fin. Have we met before, I wonder, somewhere off Hurghada But, déjÂ vu or not, this is no hallucination. This is the Channel coast and that is a triggerfish, an hour from London and 70m off the south coast of England.
Piers are FADs, as the Australians would call them - Fish Attracting Devices. Just like a wreck, piers, many over a century old, create shelter - the basis for the whole food chain.
There are 55 pleasure piers around the UK coastline. No other nation, says Gavin Henderson, President of the National Piers Society, has injected the briny as Britain has with a rash of seaside piers.
It is hard to explain the British love of them, but most were originally built as landing stages, as part of harbours, the construction of which may have been familiar to the Egyptians, Romans and the Greeks.
But not every pier is worth diving; boat traffic, access, fishing lines, current, estuarial visibility and closed concrete construction defy divers, however promising they might seem from above.
Piers tapped into the British love affair with the sea, first for the rich, then for everyone. Piers and jetties were often the best way to reach the seaside, by sea and latterly by rail, as well as to land freight. In the 1800s a pier construction craze overtook the country. Southend, built in the 1830s, is still the longest pleasure pier in the world.
World War Two took its toll. Some piers were intentionally sectioned or breached in the middle to thwart enemy landings. Others fell into disrepair and were damaged by fire; a number were lost. But a revival in the home tourist trade has rekindled interest, and with interest have come National Lottery and heritage grants. The tide is turning.
Of the piers still standing, I settled on five, constructed mainly of piles, with reasonable shore/boat access, regularly dived by local clubs, with good marine life and other promising diving close by.
Combine this with local attractions if you want to take non-divers with you and you should have a good recipe for a weekend away. So I set off on a tour of promising UK piers.
Trigger-happy in BRIGHTON
Brighton is Britains coolest seaside resort, according to Time Out. Its Palace Pier is 530m long and was completed after eight years work in 1899. In 1973 a drifting barge caused£100,000 damage to its theatre, which was demolished. The West Pier, arguably once grander, is derelict and unsafe for diving, though saved by a£30m grant.
An hour either side of high tide is the best time to dive the Palace Pier, when 6/7m can be achieved in slackish water. Its still worth doing at most stages of the tide. Access is simple on the ramp to the east of the pier, though summer parking can be problematic.
Alternatively, enter on the west side and follow the breakwater wall 100m out to sea before turning towards the pier to explore the central part. Either way this is an interesting dive, especially at night under the pier lights.
The Brighton Dive Company is enthusiastically run by likely lads Iain George and Rob Breskal, plus Awesome Amy. Our first dive, from BDCs RIB, was an hour-long exploration of the wreck of a barge 70m east of the central pier where, in 10m, we encountered half a knot of current and 4-5m visibility. Towards the centre of the pier pipefish, mussels galore, conger and common eels, ballan wrasse and cuttlefish lurked. Inanimate objects you might encounter include coins, mobiles and sunglasses!
The triggerfish sighting on the second dive was a high point. This rare specimen had probably come from the Mediterranean, caught in the Gulf Stream. It was probably a one-way trip; sadly, it wont survive the winter. BDC is consulting with Brighton Sea Life Centre about whether it should be captured.
We enjoyed a prolonged encounter with a cuttlefish, which eventually showed its displeasure by disgorging a sac-full of ink - all this in a maximum depth of 5m. The week before a pod of 12 dolphins had been spotted off the end of the pier, making the first week of September an interesting one for marine life around Brighton Palace Pier.
Southerly winds can whip up the surf and ruin visibility, so planning and patience is essential. There is plenty to see in the area, with wrecks from both world wars. Other good offshore sites include the Lougate Drift/The Ledges, still good in lively weather at 15m when the pier is inaccessible.
There is no slipway, but there are two free public ones at Shoreham, a 20 minute RIB-ride from the pier. A dearer option is for Brighton Marina to crane a boat into the water. It will do so at any stage of the tide book a week ahead (call 01273 609235).
SWANAGE, beyond the gribbleworm
A hundred miles east of busy Brighton, the laid-back atmosphere at Swanage Pier was a world away. My buddy Mike Keets shook his head with frustration as we geared up on an overcast August Monday. Easterlies had been blowing for days; the pier was still divable but visibility unpromising.
Gone were the holidaymakers and weekend minibuses full of divers, leaving the pier and the water to a few solitary fishermen and dedicated divers.
Swanage is a simple but charming pier overlooking the elegant sweep of Swanage Bay, which stretches from the spectacular chalk pillars of Old Harry Rocks to Peveril Point. No amusement arcades or big wheels punctuate the grey skies; just the white pier-end wind shelters. In early and late summer, the pier receives the stately Waverley, the worlds only remaining seagoing paddle steamer. Today the only boat traffic is a couple of dive and fishing boats.
Divers can enter the water via steps from near the pier gates or stride-entry halfway along the wooden part of the pier. We kitted up by the dive shop and waddled to the lower deck. Two recently qualified open-water divers joined us - four strides and we were in.
The already poor visibility was not helped by the mud-kicking students. Mike had been right; easterlies are best avoided at Swanage. But out of the gloom came the life - and lots of it - as we finned through the wide central section; we just had to look harder.
Hiding under a pipe was a tompot blenny. Velvet swimming crabs scurried up and down the pier legs; even those recently restored had been colonised by marine growth. We finned out into the light of the sandy bottom to the side of the pier for eelgrass, kelp and a much more open feel. Sea hares are sometimes spotted here, but not today.
Back under the seaward end the pier felt very enclosed and dark, making a torch essential. Windows of light silhouetted passing shoals of baby mackerel. We saw a lobster hiding in a pipe and another beneath the remains of a ruined pile. Rope and cable tangles lay on the bottom. In deteriorating visibility we finned back towards our entry point , and I recoiled in shock; a metre-high inflatable octopus, resembling Caspar the Friendly Ghost, blocked my path, left by some diver with a sense of humour. We had achieved a maximum 6m depth.
Three weeks later, August Bank Holiday had brought the crowds and the pier seemed to belong to divers; dozens prowled the decks, chilled out in the dim sun, prepared kit, headed for the lower deck or hardboats.
In better visibility, we explored the darker sections. Dead mens fingers like the shade and the nutrient-rich waters. We saw star sea-squirt, but no inflatable octopus this time. Cuckoo and ballan wrasse flitted skittishly just out of camera range. My X-ray-eyed buddy Gary spotted a dragonet partly buried in the mud; a butterfish lived up to its name by making a rapid departure.
The first Swanage pier, built in 1859 to transport Portland stone, is derelict, testimony to the relentless efficiency of the wood-munching gribbleworm. The adjacent new pier, 196m long, was constructed in 1897.
It had a chequered history until steamer traffic stopped in 1966, followed by dereliction, bankruptcy and the threat of demolition.
Since 1994 the Swanage Pier Trust, assisted by the National Lottery, has restored much of its former glory. Grants of£900,000 have been enough only to replace 50 of the 160 piles, leaving the rest the subject of a further grant application. The 200 divers a day who come through the pier gates at peak times (it is accessible on foot 24 hours a day, suiting it for night diving) represent a considerable income for the pier and the town itself.
Divers Down, run by Mike and Sacha Keets, is the oldest diving school in the country, and is situated where the concrete meets the wooden pier. It is also the only air station since the dive shop in town closed. Open for air and advice, is its motto; Divers Down has stayed open throughout the pier restoration works and says it intends to remain so indefinitely, subject to satisfactory renegotiation of its lease. There will always be diving on the pier, says Mike.
With a tidal range of only 2m between high and low spring tides, the pier is diveable at most stages of the tide. But within 15 minutes by RIB is some of the best diving on the South Coast. The Kyarra is always popular, but other nearby wrecks include the Carentan, the Firth Fisher, the Landing Craft, the Aeolian Sky and the Aparima. Good drifts can be had over the mussel beds and Peveril Ledges.
To launch any boat longer than 3m, head for the boatpark near the lifeboat station on Peveril Point Road. And if you want to park on the pier, get there early.
PAIGNTON: Down in cuttlefish country
Ignoring the boat- and car-ridden marina wall of Princess Pier at Torquay, we headed for the Victorian pier at Paignton, at the quiet end of Torbay.
It seemed a flimsy, almost temporary structure as we approached by RIB across the flat-calm sea. Three hours after high tide would barely give us 3m of water, but it would be enough.
Despite the perfect weather, few strollers enjoyed the Super Prize Bingo or the other amusements on offer, so as my buddy Chris Yates and I rolled in, we had the pier pretty much to ourselves.
This narrow pier with its sandy bottom is well lit by shafts of light; shifting shadows play on the piles. Most of the life is on the last six or so piles at the seaward end, encrusted with a century of evolution. An engagement ring was found here recently.
The seaward pier legs were covered with a soft coral-like growth, while kelp colonised parts of the sandy seabed; sea lettuce seemed to like the broken pier legs about a metre high; some of these, encrusted with mussels, sea-lettuce and starfish, resembled mini-reefs. Hermit and velvet swimming crabs popped their heads round piles to check us out.
Visibility was no more than 4m, but with the light reflected by the sandy bottom it seemed better. Knowing where we were made this a relaxing dive.
Lee Crabtree and Mark Storey run local PADI and IANTD instruction centre Divers Down (no relation to the Swanage outfit) in Babbacombe, with a well-stocked shop and nitrox fill station.
That evening, Lee and I kitted up on the pebbly shore by the pier head, to the amazed stares of passers-by, out in numbers enjoying the balmy weather.
Strollers and bingoists leaned over the pier railings to watch our progress as we finned slowly down the right of the pier in the setting sun. Little had changed except the light, but this made a big difference to the feel of the pier. Gone was the open feeling: now there was just the torch-beam of the setting sun, silhouetting the pier supports overhead as we finned towards the last pier legs.
The sand-eels and cuttlefish were camera-shy that night, but we enjoyed simply having the site to ourselves, the ease of access and the novelty of finning along this quaint, garishly striped Victorian pier.
Paignton was once the scene of a major skirmish in the battle of the sexes, as one of the first seaside towns to allow mixed bathing. The 238m pier opened in 1879, was partly destroyed by fire and sectioned in World War Two, but re-opened in 1995. Amusements, childrens rides, bingo, shops and a museum stay open until 11 in summer.
Summer parking is drop-off-only. The site is very exposed from the east, which can make for 2-3m surf, but easterlies are rare. Current is not a problem if you dive the pier close to high tide to get adequate depth and slackish water.
I found a good place to stay in the diver- and family-friendly Manor Court Hotel in Babbacombe. Diver Chris Yates owns it and this year bought the cafe and dive/air centre at Babbacombe Bay, two miles from Torquay.
This lovely, sheltered spot has 6-10m depth and is a prime UK cuttlefish habitat. Chriss 7m RIB is at the disposal of hotel guests. With rinsing and storage facilities, air to 300 bar at the beach, and a chef who doubles as a diving boatman, the Manor is justifiably popular.
Locally, Morris Rogue Reef makes a good night dive, while a drift off the Orestone, Tucker Rock and Thatchers Rock are also popular. Wrecks are numerous, from the bolt-upright Bretagne to the challenging Moldavia.
If youre planning to take your own RIB there are slipways in Torquay and Paignton Harbour.
MUMBLES: Between rock and soft place
Wednesday evening is club night for the Swansea Dive Club. Shortly after 6pm, two RIBs and a hardboat headed fast out across Swansea Bay.
We in the hardboat were bound for Mumbles Pier, the others for more distant destinations.
The pier was quiet; day-trippers at the cafe, amusements and helter-skelter having long departed for the pubs and restaurants. It would be different on a sunny day.
With 100 per cent cloud cover, this would effectively be a night dive. My buddy was the owner of the boat, Dr Mike OKane, a specialist in hyperbaric medicine who dives regularly on his closed-circuit rebreather. His hard boat is often used for club outings.
We were the first to stride in, hoping to get 20 minutes of clear water before the others came along. Mike talks through his rebreather; after a few minutes I could almost understand what he was saying. He knew the pier well, pointing out good crabs and lobsters hiding away under tyres and in pipes, though the hoped-for Father of all Lobsters failed to materialise.
Visibility was 2-3m, seeming worse in the gloom. Suddenly everything blacked out and I lost sight of Mike. Over here, came his rebreather mumble.
Re-establishing contact, I realised what had happened; the other divers had arrived. For a while all was chaos; Mike and I linked arms and headed out to clearer water, but the soft bottom mud, once stirred, stayed that way. All we saw were common eels scything away into the night, and a conger. It was fully dark when we ascended, the air still warm as we headed back to the lock and a few beers in the friendly club bar.
Perhaps because of the poor light and visibility, Mumbles proved the most disappointing of the piers I dived. Ideally it should be explored one pair at a time.
The area of Swansea Bay known as Mumbles is, strictly speaking, confined to the Lighthouse headland, the hill and two almost-circular islets which were dubbed by the Normans the Mamelles, French for breasts. The more practical Viking word muembles describes a stony place beneath a cliff. Whatever your preference, it is a very pretty place, one of the first designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The 254m pier opened in 1898 and was the terminus for the Swansea and Mumbles Railway (the first Welsh passenger railway), which closed in 1960. Sectioned in 1940, the pier has been repaired sporadically and now sports a traditional helter-skelter, an arcade and a lifeboat station close by.
The landing stage was temporarily out of use - good news for divers, as the boat traffic is minimal close to the pier, but beware of boats if you fin from the Knab Rock public slipway 300m away, one of the possible points of entry.
There is ample parking on the pier road. The closest shore access is by Cinderellas on the pier, down to the sandy beach on the lighthouse side.
Tidal planning is essential here. On spring tides there is a staggering 13m maximum tidal range, the largest in the world after Nova Scotia, so the pier can dry almost completely.
In the right depths, the pier tends to be dived when the weather is rough, as Mumbles Head shelters it from all but very rare easterlies. Three hours before high water is a good time; dive on the ebb and there is a good chance of being swept out round the headland.
Swansea divers tend to head for West Wales and better visibility. There is plenty of interesting diving in the area, including wrecks like the Strombus, a factory whaling ship from 1898.
We dived an interesting little wreck, the Solar, in Oxwich Bay, round the corner from Mumbles Pier. It partly dries at low water, but in just over 5m we saw a good selection of marine life - ballan wrasse, an orgy of starfish, lobsters and anemones. Variety is increasing as the wreck opens up.
TREFOR: Where they catch you later
All quiet on the Lleyn Peninsula. Two fishermen watched their rod-tips as three divers (instructor Jason Owen of Vivian Diving, his student Anghrad or Harry and me) got their kit out of their cars by the seawall. The stone-carrying steamers have long gone from this once-working pier at Trefor, which you wont find in any guide to pleasure piers; the nearest amusement arcade is 20 miles away. Today there were just the five of us, the sea, the Yr Eifl mountains and the sky.
We waved to one of the fishermen. Catch you later, he said, grinning.
Entering by the stone steps, we picked our way, finning slowly, past a few moored pleasure boats.
Where the wood began, we started descending. Immediately we saw a mass of prawns in holes in the harbour wall.
Beneath the pier, visibility was a good 7m. A tompot blenny looked huge in the macro lens. Jason pointed out a sea scorpion and found a well-entrenched lobster holed up by a pier leg. We became involved in a staring match, but the lobster refused to budge. From the corner of my eye I noticed Harry - on her first open-water dive - experimenting with her buoyancy. Obviously a natural.
Trefor, pronounced Trevor, is 30 minutes from Snowdonia and Llanberis and 10 miles south of Caernarfon. Surrounded by attractive hills, this was a working pier for stone-laden steamers and today makes a very safe open-water dive, ideal for students but with enough to interest the more experienced.
This pier is smaller than the others, with a compact, self-contained feeling. Growth on the footings abounds, with plenty of crab and mollusc habitats. Corkwing and ballan wrasse spiralled around the piles, and as we emerged from the shade of the pier, something brushed my cheek, too close to focus on. Suddenly it rocketed upwards, snagging and all but tearing my mask away.
Like the cuttlefish I must have been in a former life, I propelled myself back-wards; that close encounter with a number 6 fishing hook was a rude reminder of the fishermans promise.
We surfaced carefully, finning back for a surface interval. For the second dive we explored to the left of the pier, enjoying the jungle-like feel of finning through the eelgrass, seeing a lesser weever in the sand before returning beneath the pier.
Jason spotted a pipefish, Harry pointed out a common eel trying to prise a shellfish from a pier footing. Round the corner, a shanny gave a mussel a hard time. Plenty of interest in the day, and night divers can expect to encounter flatties, including the occasional ray, octopus, small cuttlefish and lobster.
The pier is best dived at least 30 minutes before high water; a sewage outfall discharges on the outgoing tide! Otherwise this is in a clearwater area with excellent visibility. We dived it both sides of the tide with no ill-effects.
North-easterlies are the worst winds for this pier; the prevailing south-west wind gives few problems. Maximum achievable depth is 7m on a spring tide, 4m at low water.
The range is not massive here, nor is there much current. The obvious and best entry is down the steps on the right-hand side of the harbour wall . The pier has a public slipway for launching.
Other good sites in the area include St Tudwalls, Bardsea Island and Criccieth, a number of shore dives , especially at Porthysgaden, and Vivian and Dorothea quarries not far away.
In Trefor, fills and advice may be had at the Plas Yr Eifl, very much a diver-oriented hotel. It has been refurbished by owner George Newsham who, as a diver himself, regales guests with tales of barely explored wrecks, huge conger and dogfish in the sea-trenches which run from the mountains behind the hotel.
BRIGHTON: Brighton Dive Company offers two dives from£30 a day, sales and courses (01273 622933). The Lanes Hotel offers B&B and sea views from£25 (01273 674231). Tourist Office: 01273 292599
SWANAGE: Divers Down on the pier runs PADI and BSAC courses and boat dives from£12 (01929 423565). The pier has its own website, including weather and tidal information - www.swanagepier.com. Divers are welcome at the Ingleside House hotel (01929 423005). Tourist Office: 01929 422885
PAIGNTON: Divers Down can be contacted on 01803 327111, website: www.diversdown.co.uk. The Manor Court Hotel costs between£14-20 a night, depending on season, with discount for groups (01803 327249). Tourist Office: 01803 297428
MUMBLES: Contact Swansea Yacht and Scuba Clubs Diving Officer Carl Dennis (01792 654863) or Dr Mike OKane (01792 204922). Fills cost£1.50 and boat charges are typically£3 per dive per person. Junes Diversified Services in Swansea provides fills (01792 579777). Tenby House Hotel has rooms from£25 per night (01792 360795). Tourist Office: 01792 361302
TREFOR: Vivian Diving Centre in Llanberis runs PADI and BSAC courses, hires out equipment and provides access to hardboat diving (01286 870889). B&B is available at Hotel Plas Yr Eifl, Trefor from£12-20 (01286 660781). Tourist Office: 01758 613000 (April-September)