Thursday, 8 March 2012

Diving off the Cornish Coast

Amanda on the Great Barrier Reef
I recently had lunch with an old colleague of mine who, at the age of 60, has taken up scuba diving. He has a PADI certificate and was enthusing about his dive on the Great Barrier Reef. Both Amanda and I have dived at separate times on The Reef, and in recent years I have dived with Amanda on a coral reef off Thailand, and last November I experienced what is regarded as one of the world’s best reef dives off Madagascar.

Diving off Madagascar
All these dives were in warm tropical waters, with colourful coral and pretty tropical fish, but to me they all had one thing in common- I found them a little boring! Unlike my friend, and the divers that I spoke to in Madagascar, I could not really get excited about my experiences, and I assume that is because I have done most of my diving off what I believe to be one of the world’s finest locations, the south coast of Cornwall.

I have extolled the virtues of Falmouth and Cornwall many times on this blog, the wonderful walks, mining heritage, gardens, restaurants etc, and have never mentioned its rich underwater attractions, which I am sure will be of interest to many of our summer MEI Conference delegates.

I gave up serious diving in 1979, having logged around 200 dives along the whole of the south Cornwall coast, from Land’s End to the Eddystone Lighthouse near Plymouth. I had qualified as a diver in 1969, with the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC), training in freezing reservoirs in the north of England, but most of my dives were from 1975, when I formed the Camborne School of Mines branch of BSAC, and then later became Diving Officer for the Falmouth Branch. Looking back it is strange that not one of my dives was on the rugged North Cornwall coast, partly because to get there would have meant a very long sea journey around Land’s End, but also because the south coast has one very great attraction- a profusion of ship-wrecks. This coast is the entry into the English Channel, always one of the world’s busiest seaways, with treacherous rocks and reefs, and sometimes local inhabitants, inviting the unwary to their doom. Indeed stories of the Cornish ‘wreckers’ are legendary. Daphne du Maurier’s famous book ‘Jamaica Inn’ is a classic tale of a band of wreckers, who set up false lights to lure ships onto rocks so that their contents can be looted.

A dolphin joins us off Pendennis Point, Falmouth
It is indeed a treacherous coast, and Falmouth is one of the best locations from which to explore the reefs and wrecks. For novice divers there are great shore dives off Pendennis Point, a regular photo-stop on the conference walks. Here you can dive in steep kelp-filled rocky gullies, where wrasse, pollack and mullet swim lazily, as well as the occasional bottle-nosed dolphin.

Souvenirs from the Mohegan
Experienced divers can arrange boat dives into Falmouth Bay, which teems with wrecks. Perhaps the most famed region is the sinister sounding Manacles Reef, in the far west of the bay near the Lizard Peninsula. Here in around 30 metres of water lies Cornwall’s most famous wreck, the ‘Mohegan’ a 7,000 ton passenger liner, which struck the Manacles in October 1898 on only her second voyage to America, claiming 106 lives. With the reputation as Cornwall’s ‘Titanic’,  diving on her collapsed superstructure, with the massive boilers looming over you can be an eerie experience.

Well over a hundred ships have been wrecked and nearly a thousand people drowned on the Manacles, which stretch almost a mile out to sea, with depths ranging from 12m to 62m. The attraction for divers is not just the wrecks, however, as the deep granite gulleys, covered with anenomes and gorgonia coral, teem with life, including the colourful cuckoo wrasse, pollack and the elusive bass. If you are lucky you may also encounter the massive, but benign, basking sharks which are frequent summer visitors to the coast.

‘Modern’ divers may be interested in this picture, taken in 1976, at the Manacles. In those fairly early days of amateur diving we wore wetsuits, which provided inadequate protection from the cold, as the bubbles in the neoprene compressed with depth, greatly reducing their insulating properties. The modern dry suit started to appear in the late ‘70s, but many divers were initially wary of them and continued to wear their wetsuits underneath, as added security. Although we often dived to depths of over 50 metres, compressed air was always used to fill our bottles, allowing us only short dive times and long decompression stops. Nowadays amateur divers use gas mixtures, such as “nitrox”, which contain reduced amounts of nitrogen, reducing the risk of ‘the bends’ and nitrogen narcosis. I am in the right of the picture, and the large device on my right wrist is one of the earliest, and not very reliable, decompression computers, which are today incorporated with the depth gauge in the diver’s wristwatch!

If you are attending an MEI Conference in Falmouth, and would like to experience the diving, I would suggest that you contact Cornwall Divers, who can arrange dives for you and rent the necessary equipment.


  1. I'm afraid that I'm going to have to disagree with you here... my experience of diving the Great Barrier Reef (and also the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia) was one of the most amazing of my life.
    Leaving aside the fact that it was pure pleasure to be able to dive in such warm water, the sheer variety and number of species to be found on both reefs was breathtaking; it is estimated that 25% of all marine species live on coral reefs. I vividly remember entering the water on my first reef dive and spinning round and around trying to take in the magnificent sight before me - and spinning right into some coral which proceeded to attack me!
    I can't imagine ever getting bored of reef diving, there's just too much going on. From the infamous clown fish darting unharmed amongst the anemones, to the parrot fish nibbling away at the coral, to the moray eels hiding in deep coral crevices, to the reef sharks cruising around as though they own the place - it's just all going on!

    1. Thought you might disagree with me!! It's only a personal thing, and yes I do agree that reef diving has great attractions, but for me diving was all about wrecks- researching them, locating them and then diving on them.

      Warm water is great I know, but I did have my own method of introducing warm water to my wetsuit!

  2. Your method doesn't really help with the ice-cream head/brain freeze though does it? Unless.... no! don't go there :)

    1. Yes it does help. I was, of course, referring to pouring a thermos flask of warm water into the wetsuit- or hood!

  3. nice opinion.. thanks for sharing....

  4. I'm not gonna say if I disagree or agree with what you said. Each divers have their own preferences when it comes to diving spots.For me, I enjoy both diving in the tropical and cold waters. Each has its own attraction. What I love about Cornwall are its wrecks but aside from that I also love the deep granite gulleys and the basking sharks! :)


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