UK Diving with Prima Sub Aqua is the Most Rewarding
Richard Bull, Britain's Secret Seas dive supervisor for the BBC, explains why UK diving is the most rewarding in the World.
Where are the great dive sites of the world? Any diver heading for Heathrow with his kit and his sun-cream can probably rattle off a personal top ten. Ras Mohammed in the Red Sea would almost certainly be there, alongside Blue Corner in Palau, the Maldives and other exotic destinations. I bet the UK wouldn't feature on too many of those lists! Well it would feature in mine - probably at number one. Do I hear laughter and disbelief? I am serious, although I have to say that a diver needs to be committed to really reap the benefits of our native waters. I could never pretend that diving around the coast of Britain is easy but there are many things in life the demand a little bit of effort before the best is surrendered. That's where UK diving can be number one - it can be the most rewarding.
Wreck Diving in British Waters
The Rondo  The Rondo  Sound of Mull
Britain has the best wreck diving in the world. Think of The English Channel: how many sea battles have been fought over the centuries on this strip of water? How many ships fell prey to submarines during World War II? How many submarines themselves perished? The answer to all these questions is undoubtedly, lots. The Channel is still the busiest shipping lane in the world and to this day the ships are still doing what they have always been doing - bumping into each other and sinking. At the other end of the UK, on the bottom of Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, lies a scuttled German fleet: battleships, heavy cruisers - the lot. All around our coasts there are wrecks of mysterious historic ships and modern wrecks about which we know a great deal. Was it really the cook at the helm when the biggest ship ever to be wrecked in UK waters hit the Seven Stones?
Basking Sharks and Cheeky Seals
Big fish? We've got them too. The Basking Shark is the second largest fish in the world and there are certain times of the year when these magnificent creatures are a common sight around our western coasts. I have encountered marine mammals all over the world but by far the most intimate interaction has been with the seals in the Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast. They will want to play, and even if you don't want to join in you can be sure that your fins will be nibbled and an aquatic ballet will be performed right in front of your eyes.
Beautiful Locations
One of the joys of a diving trip is often the beauty of the location, whether it is a desolate Arabian desert or the lagoon of a Pacific Island. But let me speak up for Britain. The Farne Islands are a short boat trip from the mainland and as you approach them you witness a forbidding, sparse beauty that reminds you you're alive. Still, you wouldn't want to be out here in a North Easterly gale! The bird life is stunning; from the golden plovers to the gannets and the terns. Last time I was in the Farnes a white tailed sea eagle sat perched on a stone tower monitoring our arrival. Don't get me wrong, I like the odd palm tree, but the magnificence and majesty of the natural world that surrounds some British dive sites is truly inspirational.
Where the Tropics meets the Arctic
Britain is positioned where the weather and seas rising from the tropics bumps into the weather and seas that descend from the Arctic. The weather here is very unpredictable, and this is partly responsible for the great diversity of our underwater life. I am not a marine biologist but I am convinced that I see as many different animals and plants on a UK dive as I have done in any far flung resort. It's not "In your face" like it is on a coral reef and you do have to keep your eyes open - but it is all there.
Choosing the Correct Gear for British Diving
Forget the easy-to-get-on, don't-know-you've-got-it-on, very thin shortie wetsuit that's so popular in the Tropics. A dry suit with a thermal undersuit is the order of the day for most UK diving - and this is going to be cumbersome; especially as it's going to require more weight to get you under the water. Our diving is very dependent on tides but fortunately these are predictable and with a little bit of forward planning they need not be a problem. If you are going to dive all year round (some of my best British diving experiences have been on very still, crystal clear days in the middle of winter) then you are going to have to wrap up for the boat journey. Be well supplied with flasks of hot drinks.
Britain demands a bit more from the diver but if you want big fish, fantastic sea-life, spectacular scenery (above and below the water), historic wrecks and much more then it's all on our doorstep.
UK diving? For me it is the most rewarding diving in the World.


British Sea Creatures
By Tooni Mahto (Marine Biologist and Britain's Secret Seas presenter for the BBC)
Our small selection of islands that make up the British Isles are regularly celebrated as a centre for wonders of both the historical and natural kinds, most of which happen to be on terra firma. But get underwater and you're up close to the real stars of the show, and I don't just mean the big things like basking sharks, killer and minke whales, common and bottlenose dolphins, not to mention the grey and common seals and myriads of seabirds. If you're looking for fantastical peculiarities however, you need to down-size and accept that having a spine could be over-rated - evolution has resulted in some gems that just happen to be on the backbone-less side of the evolutionary spectrum.
So I thought I'd take you on a brief walk through the marine realm's taxonomic oddities. It's not all limpets and barnacles you know. But even the limpets and barnacles have hidden secrets to reveal.
Some of the most wonderful in their weirdness are also the smallest - if just a single member of the planktonic community was blown up to human sized, it would be the best-known eccentric creature on our planet. As it is, a microscope is generally required to fully appreciate the ugly majesty of some of these little bugs. Most of the species that attach to the bottom of the sea have larvae that drift in the water column, and there appears to be no physiological relationship between a larva and what it will eventually turn into - the caterpillar/butterfly equivalent.
Echinoderm larval appendages make them look like space pods set to land on some far distant planet, and from head-on, barnacle larvae look like disembodied horned and hairy cat-heads, but when they eventually weld themselves to the rock, they morph into recognisable barnacles that (to scale) have the largest penises in the animal kingdom. How else are you going to pro-create if you're stuck to the floor and your nearest hope to project your genes into the future is similarly adhered?
Some members of the plankton are lifers. Copepods cruise the shallows for their entire existence; these transparent, elongated bed bugs with frills are world-class, predatory speed machines, shooting around at about 500 body lengths per second. Admittedly, most are less than 1mm long, but there are few other creatures on the planet that can achieve those kinds of speeds.
Coccolithophores are tiny calcareous members of the plankton, but so beautifully tessellated they look like an Escher design. Collectively, a coccolithophore swarm can be seen from space as a creamy psychedelic swirl in a blue sea, which is a timely reminder of the massive importance this biomass of microscopic beings has to our planet - they're food for bigger beasts, but also a sink for our excess atmospheric carbon and the algal component produces about half of the oxygen in our atmosphere. Never under-estimate the power of plankton.
Sea Squirts
One of the strangest groups of creatures of all is the sea squirts. Their comical title belies the fact that although they are still invertebrates, they actually belong in the same phylum as we do - the chordata. Take, for example, the baked bean sea squirt. Looking like, well, a baked bean with two tubes sticking out of it, its larval phase has a notochord, the primitive back bone that makes these filter feeding invertebrates one of our closest marine relatives. After getting into the 'nearly a vertebrate club' during it's juvenile stage, it performs a volte face into true backbone-less existence attached to the sea floor, and then spends its existence inhaling seawater, exhaling seawater, inhaling, exhaling... you get the picture.
If pressed to choose a favourite phylum, and it has to be said that hasn't happened up to this point, I would have to go with the molluscs. Who can resist the strange charms of an iridescent cuttlefish, a bulbous octopus or a bug-eyed squid? They all glisten with certain intent, as though they know what you're thinking. Mind readers they may not be, but intelligent they are - although animal 'intelligence' is a hotly debated topic, octopuses that can use tools, figure their way out of mazes and are master escapologists and rate higher on the intellectual scale than many Homo sapiens I have come across. In fact those in the cephalopod class are given 'honorary vertebrate' status in the UK, meaning they're afforded the same legal protection as a vertebrate animal. Most species are the ultimate masters of disguise, spotting them whilst diving always proves tricky, but a flicker of movement gives them away and you can watch a cuttlefish manoeuvring like a stealth bomber, the tiniest ripple of its mantle turning it to any angle, until it shoots off, powered by water fired jet propulsion. I've often envied their millisecond swift ability to change colour and texture. Just imagine shifting from zebra stripes to glitter ball and the effect that would have, hence the mating ripples of most cephalopods tend to be rather dramatic. Who can ever tire of beings that have blue blood and four hearts?
Even limpets are pretty marvellous. I have always been touched by the idea of a limpet returning to it's home-scar at the end of a long forage session, to its own comfortable rock depression, nestling down like an old man into a well loved armchair. Although a limpet's carved rock face is the line between desiccation and living to graze another day. Once upon a time, Victorian scientists marched along beaches and expostulated theory as fact, deciding that limpets navigated according to the angle of the sun and moon, the polarization of light and recognition of the undulations of the rock. Impressive for something that on first glance appears so conically basic. As it turns out, they follow chemical clues left in their slippery trails, but they are specific enough to be able to pick out their own slime from all the other limpets that are busily going about their business, like using your sense of smell to navigate through London.
Curious creatures
It would be a very long read indeed to go into all the peculiar species around our shore, so I shall end with the most curiously named critters I could find. There's the sea hare that's more of a tortoise at cruise speed; with an internal shell wrapped in soft undulations of tissue, they're bizarre horned molluscs that take on the colour of the algae they eat. There's the sea mouse that is actually a hirsute worm, and whose genus name, Aphrodita, is inspired by the Greek Goddess of Love, Aphrodite, although looking at them the question 'Why?' does seem valid. The bloody Henry starfish is a deep, sanguine red starfish that inverts its stomach to digest its food outside of its body. Then there's the sea potato that is an urchin and the sea gherkin that's a sea cucumber that can shift its skin structure from gloopy flaccidness to the sausage-firm at a moments notice. The elaborately entitled By-the-wind-sailors are colonial organisms, with polyps making up a hard disc that sits above the water and catches
the wind, whilst propelling stinging tentacles to wreck predatory havoc on unsuspecting plankton. Their cousin, the Portuguese man o'war, employs the same eating tactics, but it floats on a large bubble topped with a purple mohican and has 20-metre long tentacles dangling ominously below. Both species are warmer water inhabitants, but an inhospitable wind results in mass standing's on the west coast.

British seas are the most magical of locations, whether you're by the sea, on it or in it. The diversity of differences never fails to astound me, and every time I go on the hunt for another peculiar beast I never am left wanting. We have an astonishing array of marine wildlife of all sizes, shapes, curious foibles and incomprehensible forms, and it's up to us to ensure there are safe havens for them all, from basking shark to barnacle larva.

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