I was lucky enough to get my diving certificate the year before I went travelling, so that I could go scuba diving unrestricted wherever I went – Zanzibar, Australia, Nicaragua… But whenever I came across anyone and mentioned that I had gained my certificate in the UK, they would give me a look of apprehension and ask me “why?”. I also have a coffee-table book called Fifty places to dive before you die, and the UK is in it, but only because of its former Caribbean colonies.
So, as the days pass and springtime is nigh, the prospect of being able to go diving again gets me quite excited! And this is diving around the British Isles, mind. So for those sceptics out there who think that diving is all about tropical waters and nothing but an abundance of turtles, manta rays and sharks will do, here’s a little summary about the perks (and downsides – shock, horror) of scuba diving at a latitude of 50 degrees North.
The main way people go diving in the UK is through club membership. As the majority of people aren’t located on the coast (I thought it was an island?) they join their local clubs with members that have different levels of certification, and together they organise group outings. It’s great fun, lots of comraderie, but which club do you join? This is the dreaded BSAC vs PADI issue. For avid scuba divers, this is always a point of heated debate, no matter which side you stand on. And I’m not going to argue one or the other – PADI has a bad reputation I think because of beach resorts and one-off open water certifications at holiday destinations. But equally, BSAC (British Sub Aqua Club) isn’t well known abroad – though the certifications are always recognised. There are several things to look into when joining a club – what kind of gear they can supply, what kind of trips they do/frequency/location/boats, and obviously what kind of people are in it. Dive sites aren’t designated are such as clearly as they tend to be abroad. Often clubs will rock up at a place to launch out from, but other than potentially other club divers, there may not be anything indicating that there is something to explore there.
Water in the UK is cold. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure that one out. But lucky for us the diving industry has figured out a solution – thicker wetsuits! Clever people.
Even though surfers can be seen in thick wetsuits, I wouldn’t dream of going in the water without wearing at least a semi-dry suit. This is a very thick wetsuit with a hood and boots, and what it does is that it lets in water but retains it longer to let the water warm up with your body temperature. Diving with a thick hood may be an odd sensation for some.
If that’s not warm enough for you – and trust me, going diving in April might have you agreeing with this – there’s the more technical option of a dry suit. This type of suit keeps you… dry! It seals in a layer of air to keep you warm and even the deeps of northern Scotland won’t have you saying ‘no’. Be warned though, mid-dive wees won’t be OK.
Finally, all suits will have you protect your extremities with thick gloves, making using tools slightly more complicated at the best of times.
It’s easy to understand why the BSAC (and PADI in the UK) qualifications are more stringent on safety diving in the murkier UK waters.
So now you know how to go about it. Where will it take you? All around the UK! The British Isles are quite unique in that they not only offer coastal diving but they have plenty of inland sites as well. Many of these aren’t completely natural and will be supplemented with things underwater just for divers – sites like this include lakes and quarries.
As for coastal sites? You can go diving off the coast of Wales, Plymouth, Northumberland and even northern Scotland where the Scapa Flow off Orkney Islands offer unparalleled wreck diving with real German warships at depths of over 40m.
Here’s a map with many excellent dive sites:
What to expect
So why go diving in the UK? Well, first and foremost the wrecks. Having had one of the biggest navies in the world means that there are a lot of ships, both local and foreign invaders, that have sunk all around its coasts. Diving along one of these ships with seaweed and moss growing over it, using your torch to navigate its chambers is a truly spectacular experience.
As for wildlife, there’s plenty to see! It might not always be as in-your-face as some tropical destinations, but we have lots of big creatures to try and see including seals and basking sharks (the second-largest living fish in the world), as well as kelp forests, colourful corals and or even some diving gannets that join you in the water. As for fish there are plenty of dogfish, cuttlefish, eels, lobsters and sometimes even sunfish to keep you preoccupied. Think of it as a treasure hunt, and you sure won’t be disappointed. If that still doesn’t do it for you, there’s nothing like a good old basket of cheesy chips to warm you up after a dive.