Every weekend, scores of divers head for the sleepy fishing village of St Abbs in south-east Scotland to sample the submarine delights of the St Abbs and Eyemouth Voluntary Marine Reserve.
The reserve was set up in 1984 over 8km of pristine coastline. At the centre is St Abbs village, with a pretty harbour used mainly by local fishing vessels and the occasional pleasure boat. The northern limit of the reserve is at Pettico Wick, with a small car park and stunning views. At the southern end is the busy fishing port of Eyemouth, with a small slipway where inflatables can be launched over the beach.
The headland known as St Abbs Head offers fantastic cliff diving, and you can also explore the wreck of the Glanmire. These attractions tend to lure the more experienced divers offshore in their RIBs, leaving trainees to enjoy the shallow areas around the harbour. But if you think that these areas lack interest, think again!
At Cathedral Rock, a large arch forms a tunnel about l0m long, 5m high and 7m wide. Above is another arch, smaller at around 7m long, 6m wide and 2m high. There is usually some tidal movement here but it is never too severe.
The lower arch has a flat rocky bottom reaching 13m, guarded at the north-west end by a reef of large boulders rising 2m to 3m. As you approach, you will come across prolific numbers of friendly ballan wrasse, which may escort you on your dive, often swimming within inches of your mask.
At the south-east end there is an area of gravel bounded by cliffs on two sides. The two boulders that form the cathedrals altar appear to be important to wrasse courtship. You may notice the female rubbing her underside on the flat, weed-covered rocks, closely followed by the male, magnificently coloured in full breeding splendour. This ritual is repeated a few times, accompanied by much nuzzling. It is worth sitting quietly a couple of metres away to watch this unusual fish behaviour.
Very large pollack are also found around the lower arch, cruising about or hovering in the tide. You may see a large shoal gathering and swimming through the arch - a somewhat rare but very impressive sight.
Expect more water movement as you move to the upper arch. Marine life here tends to be smaller - mostly hydroids, smaller plumose anemones and deadmens fingers. Nudibranchs are common; it is not unusual to see four or five different types on one dive, resting alongside scorpionfish and squat lobsters. The upper arch is home to the reefs largest inhabitant, a 1.5m cod. It lives to the right-hand side of the arch as you come from a south-easterly direction. When you first look into the arch, all you see is a 10cm-deep crack in the right-hand wall, but as you swim through, it widens and you can see into the cods lair.
Last year I had the chance to photograph this fish and even managed to tickle its chin. Its head is enormous and it looked as if it could quite easily swallow my camera.
There are two ways to reach Cathedral Rock. You can swim to the highest part of the island known as Thistley Brigs, l00m offshore in line with the southern wall of the harbour. From this point, descend into 12m of water, swim shorewards with the cliff on your left, and within a few minutes you will be inside the rock.
Alternatively, you can take a compass bearing of 120 from the harbour entry point. Opposite you will notice the low, flat island that is known as Broad Craig. Enter the water here, keeping Broad Craig on your left, and descend.
Swim through the kelp and you will soon pick up the gully. Continue until the seabed drops, and when you reach the boulder-strewn sea floor, follow your compass bearing until you reach some angular rocks. Heading left (east), you reach a solid cliff, which is the underwater rampart of Thistley Brigs. Swim along the cliff until you reach Cathedral Rock.
Swimming through the lower arch you arrive at the back, or south side, of Cathedral Rock, with an open, boulder-strewn floor and patches of coarse gravel in between. Be aware that the tide does move more swiftly here, so it should be explored only in ideal conditions.
This is a good place to find wolf fish over a metre long. These are seen quite often throughout the reserve; a fairly tame one often appears to pose for the reserves annual underwater photographic competition, which is held over the August bank holiday weekend.
On the sandy patches between the boulders, you may come across an anglerfish, camouflaged and waiting for a meal to come by - they can grow close to 2m. Also expect to find octopus, which are hard to spot but, once found, are quite inquisitive. If held gently they will probably attach themselves to you with their suckers.
Although not as grand as Cathedral Rock, this area boasts tunnels, caves, gullies and reefs, all covered in life. Swim south-west away from the arch (with the cliff on your right) and you come to a cave in a recess reaching all the way up the cliff. If conditions permit, swim up and over the cliff, which reaches to within 3m of the surface.
Drop down into a gully, and head west. Within 5m the wall forms an overhang under which there is a tunnel. It is a bit of a tight squeeze, but once you are through, turn east into a shallow kelpy area, and soon you will drop down onto a coarse, sandy seabed.
Keep the cliff on your left and do not swim up any of the small gullies. At the end of the cliff, make a 90 turn northwards. The base of the cliff is heavily undercut, so you certainly do not want to be here on a stormy day or when a full spring ebb tide is running.
Now turn up into the gully, which has a wide sandy floor at 15m and vertical walls reaching up to the surface. There is a good covering of life and the nooks and crannies are home to large lobsters or edible crabs. Lobsters grow to a large size in the reserve as divers are not allowed to remove them and they are not fished commercially.
Swim up the gully, and on the left-hand (west) side you will come to a cave. Directly opposite, the cliff wall becomes heavily undercut and forms a 5m-long tunnel known as Dons Bum, after a local diver.
Once you swim through the tunnel, you will find yourself in another gully. As you turn right (north-east), the gully flattens out and the bottom becomes rough, with broken boulders and gravel. Veer north-west and you have completed a loop ending up only 20m from the back of Cathedral Rock. To finish off your dive, swim up the main gully back to the harbour entry point. The whole dive, from descending at Cathedral Rock to surfacing at the harbour, will take about 50 minutes at a gentle pace, so make sure you have enough air.