Where do you go after a Portland boat dive if you haven't satiated your diving desires GAVIN PARSONS has the answer - Chesil Cove
ALL GOOD THINGS COME AT A PRICE. If you eat chocolate, you get fat; if you drink wine, you get a hangover; and if you dive Chesil Cove, you get out of breath.
That’s the price of visiting one of the best dive sites on Portland.
Portland, for divers who don’t know, is the lump of limestone that is technically a tied island that sticks out into the English Channel from the popular Dorset town of Weymouth.
Connecting it to the mainland is Chesil Beach, which stretches 18 miles from Bridport in the west to the Isle of Portland in the east.
And where this high bank of stones meets Portland, you find Chesil Cove.
To older divers, the site is familiar.
It used to be a popular training and novice site, but (and this may hurt, but it seems to be the truth), those heady salad days of diving southern Dorset seem to be over. The area doesn’t seem as busy with rubber-clad people any more. But that’s another story for another time. Back to the Cove.
It’s a shallow dive (although deeper than nearby Swanage, Kimmeridge and even Babbacombe). It’s gentle once you’re in the water, full of life and often offering fantastic visibility.
Chesil Cove, on paper, is awesome. It’s free, there’s an air station close by, easy access to parking, little current to worry about at most states of the tide, and it’s sheltered when the wind blows from the east and north.
However, if the wind has any westerly in it, Chesil Cove can turn and bite you like a Rottweiler on a bad day. The steeply shelving pebble beach can produce a dramatic surge and undertow that are not to be trifled with. They will spit you out like a toddler eating spinach.
And while we are on Chesil Cove’s darker side, what can never be avoided are the pebbles that make up the beach. Anyone who has shore-dived the wreck of the Royal Adelaide will scoff at the fuss some divers make about Chesil Cove, but the pebbles are awkward to traverse in heavy scuba gear.
With the absence of a chain of women to carry your gear on their heads like the ones in Bali, you may want to opt for a staggered kit-carrying to the beach. Most divers do.
A local porter system would be welcome, and I’m sure the extra cash would help locals afford one of the new, expensive-looking apartments that are springing up all over the place ready for the Olympics, but I digress.
If you opt to walk down or up the pebbles in full kit, expect a couple of things to happen.
Becoming out of breath is a given – even the fittest diver will struggle like a cow stuck in mud. You may fall over,
so unless you want a faceful of pebble marks, don’t carry too much stuff.
And you will look like an idiot, staggering down the beach dressed in a rubber suit with a large metal cylinder on your back. No one gets into diving to look cool, do they
With all this said, if you can overcome the pebbles and avoid diving the site when the west wind is blowing, Chesil Cove will be a delight. It’s just that it makes you work for its pleasures.
There are a few parking spaces next to Chesil Cove, but they fill up quickly. There are a few more at the bottom of the road, but during summer weekends you either have to come early or late to get a spot.
I prefer a late afternoon/evening dive, when beachgoers have gone home and the setting sun beams down on the water and gives divers a good geographic marker – if you’re heading towards the sun, you’re heading away from shore.
Changing in the car park is forbidden. That’s fair enough, because no one wants to see a hairy backside while they’re enjoying a peaceful walk on the beach, but the public toilets nearby are closed, so the changing options at Chesil Beach are somewhat limited.
To impose some more control over us, the council states that the entry point is from the concrete ramp and not over by the rocks in the far corner, which would actually provide a better dive location and be easier to reach, there being steps down to the beach there.
Anyone would think that the council didn’t like divers and their spending power!
Anyway, once at the water’s edge, life becomes much easier. From the ramp you can head straight out and drop down immediately, because the beach shelves quickly.
Within a few fin-kicks of the shore, you’re in about 5m of water. The pebble and stone seabed is barren there, and on calm days it’s a great place for skills practice, as you won’t damage anything.
A set of larger rocks starts in roughly 7m. From there I bear slightly left, which takes me into the Cove rather than straight out to sea.
IN SPRING AND SUMMER this section is covered in lustrous and wild oakweed, which is usually the algae on which cuttlefish love to lay eggs. But while cuttlefish are common predators at Chesil Cove, these cephalopods don’t favour it as a breeding site.
The weed is however home to lots of wrasse; mostly corkwing, although ballan wrasse are also seen regularly, including some massive males.
The rocks lose this covering as the depth increases, and at about 9-10m the remaining algae coating is more Bart Simpson than Side Show Bob (in other words it’s short, and easier to see where you’re going).
Some large rocks there provide shelter and a dining room for spider, edible and velvet swimming crabs. Rather than make this a list of critters you can see, just assume that you can observe all the common UK inshore marine species at Chesil, because you can. And at times you also come across John Dory, cuttlefish, common sole, sand eels and their nemesis – sea bass.
Sand eels use sand as a haven from predators and, not being true eels, they also go by the name sand lancets.
The sand at Chesil Cove is found in patches where the seabed flattens off and the large rocks run out. Swimming across the larger patches highlights a bit of an evolutionary flaw in sand-eel design, however. Rather than hunkering in the sand, when they see a large potential predator the skinny torpedo-like fish dart up and try to swim for it.
Like seagulls following a tractor, the sea bass swoop on the eels, as fast as a Spitfire diving on a Messerschmitt over the white cliffs of Dover.
Luckily for the sand eels, they were already moving at top speed trying to get away from me, and I didn’t see any bass make a kill.
They were certainly hunting, however, which would have been welcome news for the fishermen on the beach, although we were too far out even for a really good cast.
Bass are not the only food-fish to find Chesil Cove attractive. I have seen common sole (what restaurants call Dover sole) hidden in the sand on the clear patches. If you approach carefully and quietly, they will believe in their ability to blend in and stay still, but they can be wary, so you tend to see them only as they swim off when disturbed.
The same is true of topknots (a small flatfish) and red mullet, which are fairly small there.
Divers also report bream and triggerfish in the late summer, but both of these species have eluded me so far.
IN MY OPINION, the sandy patches are the best part of the dive. In summer clouds of bib (pouting) and small pollack gather and find shelter around the large rocks that flank the sand.
On the weed fringes lurk scorpionfish, large tompot blennies and several species of pipefish.
Lobsters utilise the gaps under the fringing rocks, and cuttlefish hide in the sand before moving into the weedy areas to hunt crustaceans.
The sand patches mark the turning point in my dive profile. I hang around them for a while, but the swim back is a fair way, and there’s often more to see if you follow a different reciprocal route.
I finish the dive looking for the old disused sewer pipe that gives an indication as to where along the beach I am heading.
I aim to be slightly to the left-hand side as I look at the beach from the water. This way I know the walk along up to the concrete ramp isn’t that long.
As I struggle to keep my balance on the pebbles heading up the beach, think about all the dives I have enjoyed at Chesil Cove. It is a beautiful shore dive if you put the effort in.
There follow a few minutes of struggle. I look like an arse as I slip over onto my knees, holiday-makers gawping as if I was some weird sea monster invading the land. Finally I reach the top, slip out of my cumbersome equipment and put it in the back of the car.
I settle into the seat, take a breath and reach for a chocolate bar, with no need to worry about the calories.
I have already burnt them.
|GETTING THERE: Chesil Cove is reached along the A354 from Weymouth south to Portland. Head towards Fortuneswell and follow the signs for Chiswell. Go straight on at the Little Ship pub and, as the road forks, take the right turn which is Brandy Row. There is parking at the top next to the beach or at the fork. You can offload kit at the top and head back down to park.|
FACILITIES: There is not much immediately around, but there is an air station run by Aquanaut Divers at Castletown, about a five-minute drive away. There is also a dive shop (Underwater Explorers) there. If you are staying in Weymouth, the Old Harbour Dive Centre also does air-fills.