Snorkelling in Kimmeridge Bay, Dorset

Just one giant rock-pool

By Angus Watson

Kimmeridge Bay, 12 miles west of Bournemouth, is one of the best snorkelling sites in the UK, according to the British Sub Aqua Club. Remembering the zero-visibility fruitlessness of British childhood snorkelling, I am sceptical. As accolades go, this one sounds on a par with “one of the highest points in Holland”.

kimmeridgebayNot true, says the Dorset Wildlife Trust. At Kimmeridge Bay, the water is clear, warm, safe and teeming with marine life. It’s so good that they’ve laid a “follow-the-buoys” underwater nature trail. Pensioner or toddler, they declare, just pick up a mask, snorkel and laminated guide from the wildlife hut, plunge in and be

Nevertheless, as I set out for a snorkel with Julie Thatcher, senior wildlife trust warden at Kimmeridge, I am prepared for disappointment. While good snorkelling is better than any land-based safari – a fantasy kingdom of swishing seaweed, towering rocks and coral castles – bad snorkelling is basically dull and cold. Also, having snorkelled in the Coral Sea, Red Sea and Galapagos Islands, I was going to be pretty hard to please.

On arrival at Kimmeridge Bay, we are informed by Thatcher that the bay’s geography is perfect for snorkelling: “There’s little tide and no current worth mentioning, so it’s safe for beginners. It’s shallow, so the water’s warm. With little sand, the visibility is often great, and the bare rock seabed is full of nooks and crannies for seaweed to root and animals to hide. We built the snorkel trail last year to show off the best bits.” Are there any dangers? “Only snakelock anemones, which give a very mild sting to sensitive areas of skin.”

And with that, we’re in. My head is too unpleasantly cold to notice anything straight away. Eventually, however, I realise it is clear and bright – like a proper, tropical sea. Visibility, says Thatcher, is about five metres (15 feet). It’s 10 on a good day.

We flipper-kick slowly through stage one of the trail, the Japanese Seaweed Garden. Vibrant blue snakelock anemones and seaweeds in various greens swirl in unison, anchored on purple algae-encrusted rocks (touch the anemones’ fronds – it doesn’t hurt but you can feel the stickiness that traps little fish). Rainbow-patterned male corkwing wrasses, colourful as any reef fish, flit about, eyeing us nervously. Pity the male corkwing wrasse – he weaves an ingenious seaweed nest each spring, then floats hopefully nearby. Female corkwings approach, lay eggs if the nest passes muster, then head off for another year, leaving the hapless male to fertilise the eggs and bring up their sprats alone.

“Sea hare!” Thatcher cries, breaking my reverie. There are, in fact, two, making love three feet below us. Sea hares are black, the size of a small Cornish pasty, with antenna-sprouting heads and flowingly skirted bodies – like snails crossed with flamenco dancers. I’ve seen similar things before, in pink, but that was in Indonesia, not

The fun continues. As we cling to a chunk of rock, blennies come to peer at us as anemone fish might in warmer seas. Large orange edible crabs run from miniature caves into seaweed copses and back again, waving claws aggressively. One tiny electric blue fish loiters a foot from the surface in a non-committal pose. It is about one metre deep all the way and sunny, so the water is brilliantly clear. At high water on the springiest of spring tides, Kimmeridge is never more than 3.5m deep. The bay is essentially one big rock-pool. It’s not as good as the world’s top dive sites, of course, but I reckon it’s on a par with Malta, which is meant to be the best in the Med.

An hour later, as Thatcher and I walk out of the sea like Honey Ryder and a let-himself-go-a-bit Bond, I am convinced. There is good snorkelling in the UK. We hadn’t found any spider crabs, which are common here, nor seen George the bottlenose dolphin, who visited last week but no matter, that gives me a reason to go back.


Copyright The Financial Times Ltd, photos Angus Watson and Steve Trewhella