Pre-lockdown, Andy Torbet was in Cornwall, where he takes time off from classroom sessions for a bracing dip in a wintry lake.
We tend to use flooded quarries as training grounds rather than destination dives. Or at least I do. We have a great deal of them in the UK (which may have something to do with the unpredictability and severity of our coastal weather) and they are a huge asset, allowing us to introduce new divers, gain new skills, practise old ones, test equipment and just ‘get wet’ to keep the cobwebs at bay. But I’d never considered snorkelling a quarry to go and see things.
Pre-lockdown, in the eye of storms Ciara and Dennis, I did some freediving training in Cornwall with my friends Georgie Miller and Daan Verhoeven. Because of the weather, it was mostly pool and classroom-based but on the last day, Georgie suggested we pause the training and just go snorkelling for fun. Clearly, I was somewhat perplexed as to where we’d go, but they had a small, shallow quarry they wanted to introduce me to and assured me there was plenty of interest to justify braving the five-degree temperatures in a wetsuit.
The biting wind howled around us as I struggled to don my wetsuit as quickly as possible, hopping on the spot and grabbing the car door for stability, to minimise the time my bare skin was exposed to the elements. With 7mm of neoprene clamped over my body, head to toe, we made our way to the little pontoon on the water’s edge.
The ebony waters were just as ominously cold as they first appeared. But the visibility, as we squinted to make the best use of the dull sunlight filtering through the thick grey cloud base, was a respectable six to seven metres. The quarry is often used by local dive centres as well as freedivers for training but the winter weather had dissuaded them all. This meant the silty bottom had not been disturbed in some time and the underwater clarity was about as good as it ever gets.
Slipping into the cold waters was not as emotional as I’d expected, but the moment I dipped my face, my only exposed body part, the sting against my cheeks and lips revealed the true temperature. Most of the man-made lake is only 3-8 metres deep, and there was a surprising amount to see beneath the surface.
When the quarry was abandoned, various industrial structures were left there, making it an interesting mini-adventure for snorkellers. There are arches and gantries, a beautiful vertical wall and even an old smelting area, walled off (although without a roof so it presents no real hazard for investigators) and complete with chimney.
But around the edges and stretching to the surface like giant skeletal figures are old trees. For me, these were the most otherworldly feature of the lake-scape. Like a scene from Harry Potter, we played among the branches, desperately trying not to disturb the dusting of sediment that had gathered there over the still winter. The darkness of the waters and minimal natural light also leant themselves to interesting photographs with our dive torches.
Sometimes we can be surprised by a new site, which is why I always encourage snorkellers and divers to explore new areas. The delight can be especially notable when our expectations are so low. And it’s not only about venturing to places no one will go, but to places when no one will go. By braving the elements, we were presented with an underwater world in peak condition and all to ourselves. There are advantages to diving sites when no one else wants to, and rewards to jumping in when others are staying in.
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