Coral reefs are just the best – but wall diving is something else.
There’s something magical about it. There’s that great deep bottomless blue below you filled with heaven knows what and the wall just sliding past as you float down. The feeling of hanging in space, neutrally buoyant, doing nothing more challenging than gazing in admiration, awe and amazement at the anemones, gorgonians, dead men’s fingers, crabs, lobsters and crawfish is hard to describe.
With kind permission from Photographer Keith Hiscock Copyright Keith Hiscock
It’s a deeply satisfying type of diving.
Walls don’t necessarily have to be completely vertical – a narrow bench just below the waterline is to be expected where waves and storms have cut into the cliffs. Some sloping sections, buttresses and ledges are okay too as long as there are not too many. But the more vertical the wall the more spectacular the dive.
There are some fabulous spots around the world to go wall diving: Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, Washington State, British Columbia, US Virgin Islands and the Egyptian Red Sea amongst them.
But you need go no further than the British coastline for some really good stuff … and in Britain you are never more than 72 miles from the coast! Miles in England, not kilometres… England’s marine environment can rival some of the best in the world. With cold water reefs, cave systems, wall dives, drifts, gullies and shallow bays, the UK’s marine life is as diverse as it is wonderful. And there are wrecks, tonnes of them, but more on that another time.
We’ll start with the South West Coast of England because not only does it provide some of the best diving in the British Isles, but the water is warmer and underwater visibility is often better than more northerly locations and we’ll restrict ourselves to a handful of spectacular wall dives: Runnel Stone, Raglan, Hat Rock, Hands Deep, and Wolf Rock. These 5 walls have a depth of more than 40m underwater. Its great when there is a cliff above the waterline too, but in Cornwall a lot of the wall dives are below water only.
Runnel Stone, about a mile south of Gwennap Head, West Cornwall, was formed of volcanic granite which has been eroded away until there is virtually nothing left leaving a hazardous rock pinnacle. The waves used to break on the remaining rock, but in 1923 the ship City of Westminster, knocked the top off and duly sank to end up resting against the west wall. The site is now marked with a buoy. All the soft rock at Runnel Stone has eroded leaving a vertical underwater wall of 42m. Needless to say, this particular dive is littered with wrecks. Sea tales claim that there is no rock at all – just wrecks! Not true of course, but it makes for some interesting alternative diving. With its fantastic visibility and relatively easy accessability, the Runnel Stone is known as one of the best dive sites in Cornwall. The wall is covered in jewel anemones of every shade and hue and countless numbers of plumose anemones in peach, white and green. Diving must be carried out at slack water, which is about one and a half hours before high water at Newlyn.
The Manacles Reef to the east of the Lizard has several wall dives, but only The Raglan is a really deep one. It begins 6m underwater with a narrow kelp ridge. It then has a vertical drop on all sides to a depth of 45m. Closer to the surface the ridge can be easily circled, but below 15m it becomes more complex and much wider. The area is extremely tidal and so is home to a great diversity of marine life including gorgonian sea fans, jewel anemones, dead mans fingers and plumose anemones. Boat access to the area is from Falmouth, Porthkerris or Porthoustock and there are several local dive centres and charter boats that cover the area. This virtual fly-over of the Manacles Reef (AtlanticScuba) gives you a good idea of the diversity of the region.
Hands Deep, East Cornwall, is good old Cornish granite whose rocks don’t come anywhere near the surface. It is about 8.5miles from Penlee Point and can be reached in about 35-40 minutes in a RIB. The reef begins at 9m underwater and then slopes to the north at a 45 degree angle to a depth of 15m. It then plummets vertically to 40m before a boulder slope continues down to a chartered depth of 54m. There is an amazing array of corals and sponges, seafans, crawfish, lobster, dogfish and crabs. Visibility is fantastic as, being so far off-shore, the site is constantly swept with clean water. Because the site is exposed, good weather conditions are essential, but it is important to note that this area is effected by strong currents so care must be taken. The depth component of the dive requires divers to plan their max depths and stick to them!
Further west from Hands Deep is Hat Rock. This is a wide turret of granite that rises vertically from a seabed 60m below water and peaks in a plateau at about 15m underwater. On the north side there is a sharp 90 degree edge where the flat reef goes vertical and drops away. This is one of the most scenic dives in Cornwall. Both common and spiny starfish can be seen throughout the dive along with dead man’s fingers, jewel anemones, pink sea fans, painted top shells and cuckoo wrasse.
Wolf Rock, so named because of the way the wind howls over the reef – and not to be mistaken with Wolf rock in Australia. It has a spectacular Cornish granite underwater wall which breaks the surface at a height of 3m. It is a treacherous rock and has been marked with a 41m lighthouse since 1870. It is 4 nautical miles (about 10kms) southwest of Lands End. Although remote it is well worth the effort although it is definitely a site for experienced divers. It is said that 7 tidal currents meet here which makes the area extremely unpredictable and is definitely the most extreme site under discussion today – certainly not a site for the inexperienced or the faint-hearted. The northwest side of the reef drops off vertically and visibility can be exceptional – divers talk of 30m+ on a clear day. It is a spectacular dive site.
Cairns-based marine biologist Chris Cook has a great quote for the difference between snorkeling and scuba diving: whichever you prefer “snorkelling is like watching a great party through a window, scuba diving is like being at the party!”