All images © Shannon Moran

Calm clear waters. A phrase often associated with warmer climates but here in sub-tropical Cornwall we’re lucky enough to have conditions like this for much of the year! The average visibility is around 10m and the water is at its warmest between July and September reaching up to 17c. Where you choose to dive is heavily dictated by the weather, tides and wind direction especially during the winter months. Spring is when the temperatures start to rise and the conditions settle but that also means the dreaded algae bloom is on the way. Falmouth bay around to the Lizard peninsula is my local patch. My most dived site is Silver Steps in Falmouth, followed by the Helford estuary at a close second and regular trips to Porthkerris, Mullion Cove and Newquay when the weather allows. 

© Shannon Moran: Nursehound surrounded by Kelp at Silver Steps – EM1ii 8mm fisheye

 On an average year I dive Silver steps over 100 times, it’s safe to say I know that dive site like the back of my hand. Maybe I’m taking knowing your local patch to the extreme but it has served me well so far. This shallow shore dive always provides excellent photographic opportunities no matter what time of year, especially when you know where to look. An experienced spotted would have a field day exploring the rocky reef, kelp forest and submarine wreckage. Encountering multiple species of Stalked Jellyfish in the shallows, Leopard Spotted Gobies, Black-faced Blennies, Squat Lobsters, Common Prawns, Velvet Swimming Crabs and Snakelocks Anemones on the rocky reef. As you reach the kelp forest Catsharks, Cuttlefish, Corkwing and Ballan Wrasse can be seen along with Pollack and shoals of Sand Eels in the summer. Large Spider Crabs or Cornish King Crabs are they are now referred to are also common at this site year round but are more abundant in the summer. 

© Shannon Moran: Cornish King Crab at Silver Steps – EM1ii 8mm fisheye 

 The Helford is one of my favourite places to dive. A quiet, picturesque estuary with clear blue water, the visibility in the summer is often better at this site than in Falmouth unless there has been heavy rain! The site is a voluntary marine conservation area, the constant flow of water and shallow depth has created the perfect nursery for many juvenile fish species. Thick seagrass dominates the underwater landscape, below 8m the seagrass becomes sparse leaving sand, sediment and the occasional piece of wreckage. In the deeper areas Thornback Rays and Catsharks are common, the sediment is full of life with Peacock Worms, Masked Crabs, Scallops and lots of species of Anemone. The Seagrass is home to various species of Sea Slugs, Bobtail Squid, Snake Pipefish, Greater Pipefish, Fifteen-spined Sticklebacks and an abundance of Long-legged Spider Crabs.

Night diving in the Helford is arguably the best way to experience it, at night you will encounter free-swimming Catsharks, European Squid, Cuttlefish and huge Spider Crabs wondering on the edge of the seagrass. Diving here can be a challenge, you can’t always rely on a compass for navigation as there is a large amount of metal below the sand and the moorings that still remain tend to interfere. Aiming for high water slack or just before is the safest option. This is when the water is at its clearest and the currents are weak, lots of rain can drastically affect the visibility here but with the sheer diversity of life on offer it is worth waiting for the best conditions.

image © Shannon Moran: Orange Clubbed Sea Slug on Golden Kelp – EM1ii 30mm Macro 

The weather can be unpredictable here in Cornwall, when it takes a turn for the worse I find myself relentlessly scrolling through weather apps trying to make sense of the forecast and find an alternative dive site. If the south coast is completely blown out then the north coast is the best option, plus it’s never more than an hour’s drive away. There is a great shore dive in Newquay called “The Gazzle” where the friendly local seal usually makes an appearance and the remains of the old lifeboat slipway makes for a great artificial reef. Strong easterly winds cause the most problems for my local patch, meaning unfavourable conditions for Falmouth, the Helford and Porthkerris. Mullion cove on the west side of the lizard peninsula is always a good option during easterlies. Mullion is a small working harbour surrounded by steep cliffs, underwater the rocky reef, large boulders and shallow kelp forest dominate the environment. This site is best dived on high water, it is a working harbour so an SMB is essential here. The currents around the lizard can be very strong so stick close to the reef and aim to dive on slack. 

© Shannon Moran: Backlit Periwinkle on Seagrass in the Helford – EM1ii 30mm Macro 

I’d recommend speaking to local divers or dive schools in the area before heading to any of these sites, like many places in the UK, Cornwall has its fair share of unpredictable weather and tides. Local divers and underwater photographers spend their time assessing the conditions and diving in them, if you can dive with them then you will spend less time worrying about where the shore is and more time enjoying our incredible British seas. 

© Shannon Moran: Crawfish in the Helford – EM1ii 8mm fisheye 

© Shannon Moran: Shallow Kelp Forest in Falmouth – EM1ii 8mm fisheye 

My tips for diving in South Cornwall: 

  1. Spend some time learning to translate the weather forecast and tides into valuable information about dive sites. I wasted a lot of time driving to different sites only to find unfavourable conditions in my early days of diving, before I started paying more attention to the forecasts. 
  2. Consider using recent hashtags or locations on Instagram to see what the conditions are like at the site you plan to dive, visitors to the coast love to share there experiences on social media. It’s a free resource and can give you an up to date photograph or video of a sites conditions before you travel. Lots of beaches in Cornwall have webcams they’re also a great tool.
  3. Locals know best, ring the nearest dive school or club to the sites your planning to dive, find an underwater photographer or local diver who goes there regularly and ask them to join you on the dive. They have all the information you need and are probably willing to share it and pleased that you want to come and visit their local patch!