The Dorset dive sites visited by Tim

Dorset diving is superb - lots of great wrecks in diveable depths, some superb drifts, great life, and good shelter if the weather gets bad and you still want to go diving. Swanage Pier at one end is 3m of pure magic down a few steps from the shore on a sunny afternoon, and at the recreational diver's other end the M2 is a superb 30m+ dive and a bit of a battle to get to in worse weather. There's great year-round diving, good infrastructure to support diving, and lots of good places to stay. Highly recommended county!

Dorset dive sites:

Wreck of the Hood

Unfortunately this is one of the dives which has since been banned. The Hood (not the famous one sunk by the Bismarck, the one before) was sunk as a blockship to close the south entrance of Portland harbour to large craft. Being a large warship it sunk upside down, the weight of the superstructure turning it over and then plunging deep into the Portland harbour mud.

The dive is ideally one to do at slack water as otherwise Portland Harbour is filling or emptying itself through the channel the Hood is sunk in, which whilst there's some shelter from the wreck isn't ideal as there can be unpredictable and strong currents to deal with. Whilst it was diveable the wreck was left shotted, but most of the dives I did ended up on a blob drifting off the wreck at the end. The wreck itself is inverted and seems to make more sense if from time to time you look at it upside-down; very visible are walkways, gun-ports, and entrances into the interior. Some did penetrations; I didn't, preferring to enjoy the festooning soft corals and ascidians on the walkways. The scale of the wreck is easy to fail to appreciate, dives generally being to 18m or so, often shallower on the wreck itself.

Unfortunately, and to significant opposition by divers and dive operators locally and nationwide, Portland Port Authority who own the wreck have banned diving on it, after what some regard as very short and insufficient surveys and consultations.

Wreck of the Countess of Erne

The Countess is, fortunately, one of the wrecks in Portland Harbour which can still be dived. A paddle-driven barge (I think!) which broke free from its moorings in a storm and was wrecked at the far side of the harbour, it's upright and remarkably intact, with very identifiable hull, holds, rudder, bows, etc. During the warmer summer months it's a very pleasant dive to little more than 15m (generally a lot shallower on the decks) and full of soft corals and fish. The open holds have some nice swim-throughs, and the remains of the deck structures tend to throng with fish and give interesting photos. During the winter months the wreck is a scene of chilly desolation, only ascidians really holding on to obvious life. The most interesting time to dive the wreck though is in my opionion at night. Make sure the lights on your boat are working, and motor across from Castletown at dusk to get to the Countess at last light so kitting up is a bit easier. It'll be fully dark on the wreck when you reach it, and everything seems more impressive and towering. Fish are half asleep and can be closely examined, and if you have a UV filter and a wide spectrum light then do look at the jewel anemones and Devonshire cupcorals which cover the wreck and fluoresce beautifully.

The most interesting thing, though, was spotted by a friend of mine who was playing with the particularly good phosphoresence one night and discovered that if he 'threw' the phosphoresence at the wreck it seemed to 'stick' and then throw off sparling paths of phosphoresence which sparkled off across the wreck away from him. I still have no idea what the mechanism for this is!

Quick addition - this year (2005, autumn) the Countess had a superb covering of jewel anemones, particularly around the starboard bow. Certainly worth a careful look there at the end of a dive!

Wreck of the Aeolian Sky

On a trip to the Red Sea I dived the Giannis D and other divers were baffled at my disappointment with the wreck. The reason was that earlier in the season I'd dived the Aeolian Sky, and to my mind in terms of the wrecks themselves there is no comparison - the Sky is by far the better wreck. The Sky was a ten thousand ton motor transporter sunk with a fairly full complement of Land Rovers and Artic cabs, containers, and drums and sank almost in tact, with just the damage to the bows confusing the lines of the wreck. Diving now, the wreck is still eminently recognisable and easily navigated round in a half hour, 150m long and tending in my experience to have great viz.

Shots generally seem to be put in on or just in front of the superstructure, and since the deepest interesting stuff is heading forward from there I've tended to start my dives looking at the big H-frame cranes and the large masts laid out away from the wreck on the sea bed. The wreck is flat on her port side and if the viz isn't great it's important to be careful not to get drawn into the cavernous holds and lose your way out. They are very big and open, but if the viz goes down they can still be confusing! Stick well out on the masts and cranes, working along and trying to make sense of the rigging, blocks, and chains still festooning the wreck. It's worth keeping an eye on the holds if viz permits as there're both Landrover and Artic chassis still visible. Head along the bottom at about 27m to the bows and when you get there (past a broken section) I'm told there's still an anchor there - I haven't seen it.

Heading back along the top of the wreck make good time as then you'll have time to look at the superstructure which is in excellent condition. I find it helps to turn yourself onto your side to recognise everything - the end of the bridge sticking out upwards is a good reference, then work back past the funnel area, looking at all the intact rails and to the aft deck where there's still a winch mounted. Apparently the engine room is accessable; I haven't tried. On the stern you should be able to read 'Aeolian Sky', though in Greek characters rather than English so don't worry if at first it makes no sense to you!

To finish the dive the rudder shouldn't be missed - no prop left (though you should be able to spot the end of the prop shaft) but the plate of the rudder hangs out in mid water and this makes a great place to stop and admire the stern of the wreck whilst setting off your SMB.

The Sky can be dived out of either Portland or Swanage, with regular hardboat charters and if the weather is half decent it's low double figures miles and quite reasonable to do in a club RIB.

Wreck of the St Dunstan

I've dived the St Dunstan a couple of times, once in the winter and once in the summer. It's a lesser-known wreck from what I can gather, being in the border zone between Lyme Bay and Chesil Beach and thus quite a long drive for a boat to get round from Weymouth or Portland Harbour. I dived the wreck both times from Skin Deep out of Weymouth who'll take you there on a decent day for the same price as the normal Weymouth wrecks. A benefit of the wreck's location, though, is that being tucked away in a corner of the bay it is diveable with minimal current on most states of the tide.

The St Dunstan is a great wreck for 'figuring out' though I think it's more fun if you know what's there beforehand as it's small enough that you can get round it in one dive with no problem. It's a dredger, and still has a lot of the dredging gear in place. Peculiarly, the boilers and the engine are at the front of the wreck as they powered both the dredging gear and the props, and thus peculiarity caught me out completely on my first dive in that I thought I was at the stern but wasn't! In poor viz it's worth sticking around this area, though watch out for the overhead bits of the wreck where the boilers and the engine hold up the hull. In decent viz (anything more than 4m or so) there're some great wide-open swimthroughs, between the engine and the dredging kit, between the engine and the keel (this one is a bit tight; I'd recommend just admiring from the side!) and through the keel forrard of the boilers.

When you get down to the wreck, figure out keel-side first (the side without lots of broken up wreckage) then head over to the dredging side of the wreck. If you're in the bow area you'll see two huge gears, two boilers, and lots of big upstanding wreckage held up by the boilers and engines. If you're in the middle of the wreck you'll get to the far extent of the dredging side and come to a long bucket chain. And if you're at the stern you'll find a couple of props, a rudder, a big section of stern, and a huge scoop out on the far side on the sea bed. With a reasonable map of the wreck in your head it's entirely possible to see all these sights in one dive on a single 12l tank and within the air no-deco limits - it's 30m to the bottom, but you can stick higher than that.

The one thing I failed to find which I wanted to see was the gearbox. As opposed to most wrecks which are direct drive from the engine to the prop this one allegedly has a quite complex gearbox to transfer power from the drive to the dredging, and there're supposed to be some bevel gears just aft of the engine. I looked whilst bimbling along the wreck and again in more detail on the way back and couldn't find any sign of this!

In terms of wildlife, there was a huge conger in the stern and, though I didn't see it, a John Dory was spotted by almost all the other divers on the boat, swimming around a winch near the stern.

Wreck of the M2

The M2 is the only submarine wreck I've dived (as in a sub, not as in wreck underwater!), and one of the most impressive wrecks of all. It's a military grave so needs to be treated with respect but for the careful diver it's a superb recreational dive. Sitting upright on a ~33m sea bed it's the perfect candidate for a cylinder of 32% and it's just the right size to see all of it on a 12l single cylinder.

Wherever the shot goes in it shouldn't be difficult to work out where you are. Head in any old direction - you'll either find the bows (pointy..), the stern (two props), or the conning tower (shallowest!) and since the sub is upright it's easy to work things out from there. If you're at the bows, which are very pointy indeed and a great place to just hover off to look at the wreck, head back down the vessel looking down along the side to spot the hydroplanes and then heading up to the top to see the unique feature of this sub - the airplane catapult and hangar. The hangar's doors were opened with the sub not fully surfaced which spelled the end for the M2, but apart from the plane being removed and the area silting up the wreck was left intact. The catapult is very visible as long tracks in front of the conning tower and hangar on top of the sub, often full of congers and tompots.

The conning tower has a couple of sonar spikes beside it - watch out, they're sharp! They also have some very nice pink sea fans around them, which if you spot please take care not to touch. Save the conning tower until the end of the dive, taking a look at the big gun on top of the hangar then heading back to the stern of the wreck where if you drop down below the stern you'll see the twin props. This is almost worth getting to as the first point of the dive if you can as it's the deepest point. Heading back to the conning tower from here can be an interesting experience as from time to time I've seen the visibility limited by the sheer number of bib thronging around the wreck. Very impressive indeed.

The wreck tour finishes nicely at the conning tower which comes up above 20m and is a good spot to admire whilst you set off your SMB at the end of the dive. The light tends to be excellent here too if the viz is half way good, so it's a good place to take photos.

The M2 is round the other side of Portland Bill from Weymouth and can be a bit of a battle even in a hardboat if the tidal race round the bill is running and the seas get up. On a nice day with the tides in your favour it's fine in a club RIB, but in worsening weather it's a bit of a challenge to get back round even if you can get there and it can be a case of waiting for the tide to slow. That said, in bad viz if you know what you're looking at it's still a great dive with no real chance of getting caught in overhead areas (apart from the hangar, which is tiny..) and fairly easy to navigate round.

Wreck of the Dredger

The wreck of the dredger is just outside Portland harbour, in the little bay formed by the harbour wall inland of the east shipping channel and the Bill itself. It's close up to the harbour wall, so entirely possible to dive the wreck for a while and then come off onto the wall for some ferreting around in the big blocks of stone.

I'd have trouble identifying the original ship in the wreckage, but there are some sections which stand well proud of the sea bed and offer nice open airy swimthroughs if you're so inclined. It's possible to circuit the wreck ina few minutes, but at the same time if you like detail there's enough to keep you busy for twenty.

The dredger is on a mixed sand/silt bed and can get quite murky if the silt is being knocked down from the harbour wall by waves. A metre or two of viz isn't unknown, but it can also clear very quickly compared to the harbour, from my experience, and give a much better visibility dive than the Countess or Spaniard so very much worth a look! The depth is similar - around the 10m mark.

Swanage Pier

Swanage pier is another of those classics of UK diving, quite able to turn out a thoroughly good and enjoyable dive in 3m depth on an otherwise blown out weekend. The dive is just that - under the pier, and accessable from the nicely restored pier which is open to the public for a fee (and you can take your car onto the pier for a fee, which is handy for kitting up). Once on the pier the normal entertainments of an ice cream shop, pies, souvenirs, and a really quite good second hand books shelf are on hand, plus a dive shop which will hire out just about anything a forgetful diver might have left behind (saved a weekend for me by hiring me a weightbelt).

Divers can choose their method of entry to get in for their dive, either swimming round from steps, a stride entry from the fairly low down landing stage, or a huge leap from the high end of the pier which tends to be the preferred entry for those seeking high adventure! A very pleasant hour can be spent diving out to the end of the pier and back again, examining the pier posts which are covered in life from anemones and weeds to spider crabs, tompots, wrasse, sea scorpions, John Dory .. you name it, someone will probably claim to have seen it under Swanage Pier! Of particular interest to underwater naturalists is the meadow of sea grass off to one side between the pier and the stumps of the piles of the old pier; this is a most interesting side excursion during the dive, appreciating the very vibrant green of the sea grass.

Here's a report I wrote after a particularly inspiring Swanage Pier dive:

On arrival the conditions were almost perfect with hardly a wave in sight and not raining. For those not from the UK, Swanage Pier is an extremely shallow dive under a well maintained wooden pier which extends perhaps a hundred metres out into a fairly sheltered bay in the English Channel. It's a haunt for a great variety of marine wildlife, and with the remnants of former piers and former wood structures from repairs to the present pier it's got more than enough for an hour's leisurely dive.

Today's dive was probably the best I've done at the site. Depths were between three and four metres throughout, and visibility was up around five or six metres in places. My attention was claimed by a new light for the first few minutes, tinkering around with focusing, clipping on and off, and admiring how well it lit the undersides of rocks and big baulks of timber.

Ten minutes or so into the dive my buddy was obviously feeling like having a play with the light, so I handed the lighthead over to him and started looking round and up as much as down, into the soft green shimmers of dappled sunlight. It was only then that I realised we were completely surrounded by fish! Swanage Pier has often been strong on the fish shoal front, but this was outside my experience of the site - there were four quite distinct populations of fish, some silvery (large and small), some with vertical silver and brown bars on their bodies, and a perpetually moving shoal of small fry over the sea bed. In amongst the sea bed shoal swam beautiful multicoloured Ballan Wrasse, and amongst the upper shoals swam big bib which looked as though they were predating on the smaller fish. Apart from the odd dive on the M2 and the Concha I don't remember seeing such a density of fish in the UK, significantly more than in the Red Sea dives I've done. This continued throughout the whole hour of the dive, shoals sometimes coming close, sometimes keeping their distance and shimmering like falling silver ticker-tape in the beam of my light.

The first half hour of the dive we spent entranced by the shimmering shoals of fish and the predatory bib, picking out the individual shoals as they merged and split again. When the dive turned at thirty minutes we turned back to the entry point, and started paying more attention to the sea bed.

What rewards that yielded!

Some of the old pier uprights looked like they were wood surrounded by a concrete jacket and lay fallen on the sea bed where the wood had decayed away leaving long holes. One of these had a family of five shrimps in, all beautiful delicate blues, sitting on the last of the wooden baulk. Below them was a large red and blue lobster, waving claws at us in a menacing fashion.

Further on, in a sandy depression, was a small cuttlefish, sitting very still and trying to fade into the background. Unfocusing the light so as not to disturb it and approaching slowly, it stayed where it was and seemed unconcerned by our presence as we admired the shifting colours, alien eyes, and the delicate fronds surrounding it.

Well camouflaged in some weeds near the cuttlefish was a long pipefish, very still, head looking very seahorse-like, long body mottled like a snake and with filmy fins moving slowly in the water currents. Again, with only the unfocused light on it it seemed unconcerned by our presence and let us examine it closely before we moved on.

These were highlights in one of the most diverse marine life dives I've been on in a long time. Snakelocks anemones waved gently in the currents, amazingly patterned sponges festooned everything in sight, and the red eyes of velvet swimming crabs peered back at us from holes. The comic expressions of Tompot Blennies made us laugh, sea grass made an emerald contrast with the sand on either side of the pier, and periodic breaks in the clouds let bursts of sun down into the underwater world.

After sixty minutes we'd come to the end of the dive but could have easily stayed there twice that length of time and not got tired of the diversity and beauty. Swanage Pier can at times leave me underwhelmed, but on this occasion it came up trumps in spades. 3 metres down for an hour can be and was an awesome experience.

Peverill Ledges

A very enjoyable dive close to Swanage is Peverill Ledges, which makes an excellent drift dive as long as you pick the right point in the tide. Ask the local skippers and dive shop for advice if you're not sure, as the area can be treacherous if the wind and the tide conspire to make a very confused sea. As long as you pick your time Peverill Ledges are a pleasant drift along a series of rock ledges under which live numerous lobsters, the stars of the dive for me. Look out for their antennae sticking out from under the ledges, then try to be as unobtrusive as possible looking under the ledge for them or they'll retreat back and you'll see nothing! The current can really run here so make sure everyone's in at the same time and you've got boat cover who can monitor (watch surface conditions..) a fairly large spread of drifting divers.

Kimmeridge Bay

For those lazy summer days when you want a long, leisurely, shallow dive with tons of life in the shelter of a beautiful Dorset bay, Kimmeridge is difficult to beat. There's an entry fee payable at the warden's hut as you drive into the area, and a launching fee if you want to boat-dive. Entry to the dive is, from our experience, best NOT over the rocks at the end of the car parking areas, but down the old slipway. This leaves you a short swim to the rocky areas to the southeast, but clambering over the rocks with diving kit on won't save you much time and is very uncomfortable. On a high tide we had depths to 5m, on the low tide we were often quite literally on the surface through the dive, drifting over the rocks and seaweed. Viz was excellent on our dives - a good 6-8m and on a sunny summer day the light was almost too bright. A profusion of seaweed, blennies, gobies, wrasse, crabs, and little shellfish gave more than enough interest to keep us busy for over an hour and a half, not to mention a fantastic large cuttlefish well out into the bay.

As well as the diving there's excellent clifftop walking around the area, good rockpooling, and an interesting marine centre down by the slipway where non-divers can find out what there is to see underwater and divers can find out what the wardens are particularly interested in getting reports of. For non-divers, the shallow depths make snorkelling a real pleasure and a snorkeller could easily help out with filling in seasearch forms.

A highly recommended dive site!

Wreck of the Binnendijk

I've had a few mediocre winter dives on the wreck of the 'Benny', and one absolutely top class spring dive in superb visibility. On the latter I had a 45-minute bottom time in mid-twenties bottom depths, starting towards the stern of the wreck and being awed by the scale of the wreck. Hard to get an overall impression on one good dive other than of large scale and many good upstanding sections. One to go back to.

Ringstead Bay

The bay is identifiable from the sea in that it lies just west of the point where sloping coastline on the Weymouth side gives way to the cliffs which characterise the coast along to Lulworth. It is also reasonably well sheltered at the western end from easterlies if you tuck well inshore, and my ~20m drift was tucked well in to the shore for that reason. We had a ~2kt drift, mostly over gravel and sand in long linear ripples broken up by infrequent low rocky outcrops. At first there seemed to be little life, but once you get your eye in the seabed is full of tubeworms, hermit crabs, scallops, whelks, and, to our surprise and delight, many Thornback rays. We saw four on our dive - two larger (~50cm across) adults, one smaller (~30cm across) and one very small (~15cm across) which we suspected might have been a juvenile. Others drifting in the same area saw one or two rays, and also spotted dogfish. The area also proved excellent for collecting scallops.