Meetings under the pier
With the new season getting under way, many southern counties divers will be heading for one of the most popular sites on the Channel coast: Swanage Pier (pictured above). Two fans of Swanage diving have different strategies for beating the crowds there. Kevin Cullimore recommends mid-week rather than weekend visits. Peter Tinsley dives at night
IT is undoubtedly one of the South Coast's busiest dive sites. On a typical weekend, all available parking spaces can be full less than an hour after the gates open. However, come down after dark and you can have the place all to yourself.
One reason why Swanage Pier is so popular is that it is ideal for novices. It is a shallow dive with easy access, and the life-encrusted superstructure forms a ready-made underwater nature trail, combining a navigation aid with marine biological interest.
You can get a bit confused as to precisely where you are under the pier, but would be hard-pressed to lose the pier altogether. These features also make it a perfect night dive.
As the waters warm up for the summer season, the prospect of a night dive becomes more appealing. I first tried it one calm even-ing in late September. This is probably the best time of year, as the water is warm, there is still plenty of life about and you don't have to wait until after the pubs close for it to get dark enough. It is also a good time of year for bioluminescence. I swam out to the end of the pier without switching on my torch, to better appreciate the trail of sparks I was leaving behind. I would recommend anyone doing a night dive to switch off their lights at some stage, sit back for a few moments and take in the natural lightshow.
Whereas fish dominate the daytime scene, crustaceans rule the night. During daylight hours I would expect to see wrasse, pouting, pollack, gobies, dragonets and blennies, among others, but now the only moving things were crabs, prawns and squat lobsters.
If you have never been night-diving, the preponderance of crustaceans can be surprising, but it makes you realise how effective they are at hiding away during the day. In particular, large prawns were very much in evidence, crawling up the pier piles or over rocks and fallen superstructure.
It was a real bonus to get a good look at squat lobsters. They were a bit wary of the light and tended to scuttle away, but they are never seen out in the open in daylight. The pugnacious, red-eyed velvet swimming crab was much less wary - I came across a pair halfway up one of the legs. The larger male was guarding a female about to moult, which might seem like very gentlemanly behaviour, until you realise that he has an ulterior motive. As soon as she moults, she is ready to mate - and so is he!
I moved out from under the pier onto a sandy area, and soon found the creature I had been hoping to meet - the cuttlefish. If you liken crabs and prawns to the small nocturnal mammals in a woodland, then the cuttlefish is the owl, swooping silently out of the darkness to grab an unsuspecting victim.
No matter how many times I encounter these creatures, they never fail to impress. When you look into the eye of a cuttlefish, you cannot help feeling that there is something intelligent looking back.
This one gave me the standard "two-fingered salute". I am not entirely sure what this means in cuttle language, but he obviously wasn't feeling too wary. As I backed off to get him in the camera frame, he kept moving forward, apparently confident that he was seeing me off.
Somewhat reluctantly, and while I still had some film left, I set off back towards the pier. I had hardly moved before I came across a close relative of the cuttlefish - the little cuttle, Sepiola. What the little cuttle lacks in size it more than makes up for in cuteness. Like its larger relative it can rapidly change colour, and it deploys a more colourful palette with a full range of pastel shades.
It turned one of its large bashful eyes towards me, then suddenly blushed darkly and began to flick sand over its head until only its eyes were visible. I was so charmed by this gesture that I was almost tempted to chase it out of hiding, just so that I could watch it again.
Moving on, the edge of my torch beam caught something hanging in the water, but soon it was gone. Sweeping round, I picked it up again - a somnolent sand smelt, suspended motionlessly mid-water. The combination of its silvery scales and translucent body lent it a ghostly, glassy appearance. It too half awoke, flicked out of the beam and into the darkness.
Halfway up one of the pier legs, I discovered a sleeping corkwing wrasse, tucked up among the turf with its head down, oblivious to the torchlight. Nearby was a perfectly still sea scorpion, curled up over a patch of bright red bryozoan.
Dropping down to the seabed I came across a rather lethargic pouting, and I accidentally lay on top of a dragonet without noticing. It scuttled off in a rather disgruntled manner before disappearing back into the sand a few metres away.
A small goby lying on the sand looked oddly familiar, but I could not quite put a name to it. It was only later, studying the photographs, that I realised what it was and why I had not recognised it.
It was a two-spot goby, the only one of the gobies that does not spend its life hopping along the seabed, but hovers in small groups over seaweeds and rocks. Its behaviour alone is usually sufficient to identify it, but I was thrown by seeing it out of context.
I began to notice increasing numbers of netted dog-whelks, all waving their noses excitedly in the air and ploughing along purposefully in the same direction. Moving ahead to see what the big attraction was, I came across a mound of struggling, writhing shells. The seemingly endless new arrivals were wrestling their way into the centre of the scrum to get a taste of a rotten piece of fish flesh.
To round the dive off, our final encounter was with a fifteen-spined stickleback. Like the rest of the fish we had encountered, it probably was also half-asleep, but these elongated sticklebacks are usually so laid back that it was difficult to tell.
Rather than swim all the way back along the pier, we climbed out via the thoughtfully placed ladders at the pier end, stowed the gear on one of the trolleys and trundled back to the car, with plenty of time to catch last orders at the Red Lion. n
Photo tips for the pier diver
Swanage Pier offers a wide variety of marine creatures to photograph; I have seen most common forms of sea life under its rusty stanchions, and also some rarer creatures.
Visibility is usually around 3 to 5m, which is quite acceptable for photographic purposes. A pre-visit phone call to the pier dive shop is always worthwhile and the staff will willingly nip out and check the viz over the handrails. I always call to check the local inshore forecast. The wind that kills viz within a few hours is any sort of easterly.
Weekends are best avoided for photographic dives. Swanage Pier is one of the most popular sites in Dorset, and you need to get onto it well before breakfast if you want to park there. I find concentration a problem with hordes of divers thrashing about, so a more enjoyable dive can be had mid-week, when a leisurely atmosphere prevails and underwater traffic is at a minimum.
It is amazing how the scene here can change at different times of day. I particularly like the evening sun in summer. At around 5 o'clock it streams through under the south side of the pier in spectacular shafts of brilliant light. A full-frame fisheye is the lens to use on such days; leave the flash in the car, because you will need only available light. n
Wide-angle, panoramic pictures like this require visibility rather better than 5m and I exploit clear days to the full, shooting from 6 to 10 rolls.
I like 100ASA film for wide-angle work but have been impressed recently by the fine grain of 200 Elite.
Corkwing wrasse (below)are a jewel of a subject, especially compared with those other wrasse which, being dull in colour, make poor subjects. Corkwings are especially good around June, when they can be easily photographed while engrossed in their nest-building.
Extending the gloom at the end of the pier
Peter Tinsley speculates on the effects of restoration work at Swanage
The restoration work currently under way at Swanage Pier has worried some divers, but fears that the work will deplete the pier's unusual assemblage of marine life have so far proved unfounded. In fact some of the changes could improve the diving.
What makes the pier such a special dive is the shade provided by the deck. In shallow water the predominant life on any solid surface, be it natural rock or wooden pier tiles, will generally be seaweed. This varies from dense kelp forest in the first few metres to a more varied cover of brown and red seaweeds at depth.
Usually it is only when you reach the gloomier twilight depths that you begin to encounter a range of plant-like animal life forms. In Dorset this transition occurs at around 15m and will be even deeper further west as the water becomes progressively clearer.
The pier deck, a firm floor for most strollers, is effectively a roof over a small area of the seabed. Under that roof it is as gloomy at 3m as it normally is at more like 15m and the life found there reflects this. Where else would you find a colony of dead men's fingers just below the surface?
The restoration work has seen the replacement of some of the old piles. Others may need replacing at a later date but staggering the replacement has greatly lessened the effect both on the marine life and the quality of diving under the pier. The new piles are rather bare but it will be interesting to watch as they are colonised.
More significant in the long term is the fact that the end of the pier is now completely decked, providing more shade and thereby increasing the apparent depth of a dive under the pier.
The second phase of the restoration work is expected to be over by this month, but the major seabed work should already be complete. The Pier Trust expects most of the access difficulties inevitably caused by such major restoration work to come to an end now, but the adjacent Wessex Water works are forecast to continue until at least 2001, so disruption should be expected for the next couple of years.
Appeared in DIVER - April 1998