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World | UK | England | Diving Scilly Isles:

Scilly Isles overview


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Scilly Isles dive site map


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Scuba Diving Scilly Isles, England, UK, Europe


Water temperature:

8°C (46°F) in January to 16°C (61°F) in August

Suit:

A drysuit is highly recommended

Visibility:

Visibility can be 15 metres + (50 feet)

Type of diving:

Wreck, reef and wall dives

Marine life:

Seals, lobsters, conger eels, jellyfish, crabs, sea urchins, starfish, sponges, anemones

When to go:

June to September

How to get there:

The Scillonian III ferry leaves Penzance or there are light aircraft and helicopters landing at the small airport on St. Mary's


Yacht, diving the Scillies, England - courtesy of Tony Gilbert
Coastline of the Scillies, England - courtesy of Tony Gilbert
Coastline of the Scillies, England - courtesy of Tony Gilbert
Boat in the Scillies, England - courtesy of Tony Gilbert

Lying nearly 30 miles WSW of Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly lie directly in the path of the Gulf Stream, which blesses them with warm moist weather and mild climate, dipping to 8°C in winter, allowing early flowers and semi/sub-tropical ones to thrive. The 56 islands and hundreds of rocks are made of granite, one of the hardest rocks known to man, containing quartz and mica, which sparkle in the sun. This results in clean sandy beaches, a bright seabed and clear green water. Only 5 islands are inhabited: St. Agnes, Bryher, St. Martin's, Tresco and the largest and main island of St. Mary's, all only a few miles across.

The water temperature can be cool, 16°C in August, but still possible to bathe and dive in a wetsuit - if you want to! St. Mary's is the destination of visitors, although tourists do go on to the other islands. Resources and accommodation are limited so the islands self-catering apartments, B&Bs and hotels can become full, and early booking is recommended. There are few amenities, just enough for the islanders and finite visitors alike. Getting to the islands can't be easier; most people go by sea on the ferry Scillonian III, although there are other smaller boats, light aircraft and helicopters, the latter two landing at the small airport on St. Mary's. Islanders are the only people who have vehicles on the islands (there are few roads), a motley collection becoming even more so on the sparsely populated islands.

The Islands

The islanders treat St. Mary's and the off-islands as one island, as we would treat towns. Commuting is done on a very regular basis by a plethora of water taxis, small boats such as Kingfisher of St. Mary's. With the exception of St. Agnes, the waters in between the other islands are shallow; so much so that the Scillonian III can only navigate the shorter northern route of St. Mary's at high water, where at one point a sand bar leaves 2m clearance!

During lowered glacial sea levels these islands were one (except St. Agnes); even today it is possible to walk between some at low water - if you know where. Being granite, soils are not that deep, and many wild flowers abound. Hedgerows are chocked full of ripe blackberries in August, and there is much heather & bracken. The best way around is by hire bike, and it seems on St. Mary's Hugh Town (the main town), there is one shop for each function! Think nothing of booking a table in a pub-restaurant on another island (like Turks Head on St. Agnes), many do then commute across in a water taxi, have the meal and then get the last taxi back.

The Scillies are administered by their own island council but owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, although Tresco is leased privately. Scilly has been designated as "An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty", its coastline as a "Heritage Coast", and the waters "Marine Park". I can see why!

Lastly, there are many sights around the islands, with Cromwell's Castle and Tropical Gardens on Tresco, Neolithic settlements all over and outstanding views, Star Castle and surrounds. It's a great pleasure to walk around and just enjoy the countryside, coastline and seabirds. Many people sign on boats and visit the outer islands, or for seal watching, or to Bishops Rock lighthouse.

Travel / Need to Know

Described below are things that you may need to know during your visit. This is based on staying on St. Mary's. For diving purposes, it's best to book well in advance, as there are few operators. We dived with Jo Allsop on Moonshadow, from St. Mary's and Moroven is run usually out of St. Martins.

If you are travelling by ferry, the Scillonian III leaves Penzance. Bear in mind your travel time to the ferry, ferry sailing and check in times. It may be necessary to book accommodation in Penzance (or surrounds) overnight, first and/or return night. We sailed 10am Saturday morning, diving the week, returning 7pm the following Sat evening. Island-wise, accommodation should be booked well in advance, and confirmed. It is certainly preferable for a group to stay in self-catering apartments, because this gives much more flexibility. We stayed in Hugh Town, sadly with two excellent pubs not 1 minute walk away, a "real" fish & chip shop van so close you could cook-i-y, Porthcressa beach 20m away, and did I mention the real-ale beer festival one of the pubs had on - gutted!

As resources are limited, it's best if possible to bring a few food supplies of those things that you find scarce on the mainland. The Co-Op in Hugh Town is stacked full of food, produce and wine, and the regular supply ferry ensures this is kept stocked, although the shop can run out of things until tomorrow. There are a few other shops (such as in Old Town), a fresh meat butchers & vegetables, and a delicatessen. The islands maybe at the end of the UK, but it's not world's end.

Usually for the ferry, a container is reserved for diving gear per dive boat. Another ship-wide container is reserved for personal bags. All bags and gear bags should be labelled ("If it ain't labelled it's going nowhere my son!") with either the name of the boat or the name of the accommodation. Accommodation bags are delivered to your door for one pound, and taken away at the end of your stay. Usually the dive gear container stays on dock for you to unload onto the boat. None of your belongings will be touched, and when we stayed we never locked our doors once. I believe there is no crime on the islands, which is brilliant!

Cash machines are limited but available, always have some initial money to purchase your supplies as you arrive, the ATM(s) could be broken. If you are using loads of batteries, make sure you bring your own supply these are not readily available in large quantities. There is a fresh water point on the harbour near the harbourmasters office, and water is a mixture of de-salinated and natural. Take a minimalist approach with belongings, certainly during summer months, and if staying in self-catering its likely to have full facilities, like washing machine, cooker, microwave etc.

Recommended Reading & Reference

  • Dive The Isles of Scilly & North Cornwall, Underwater World Publications
  • The Scilly Guidebook, Isles of Scilly Standard Guidebook
  • O/S Landranger Map 203
  • Scilly Diving: www.scillydiving.com

The Diving

With the plethora of sharp, jagged rocks lying east and west of the main islands and drying rocks, it's not surprising that hundreds of wrecks have foundered over the centuries. There are around 1000 recorded and estimated to be 3000 wrecks. Be aware that you may be diving protected wrecks, and as with all wrecks, nothing should be touched or taken.

As can be seen above water, granite stacks are left after weathering, and these are sometimes quite tall. All the rocks and much of the coastline is vertical granite, and depths can go to 40m or 70m straight at the shorelines! This means many wrecks are usually found deeper, like Cita 15-40m, Italia 13-40m, Plympton and Hathor 17-48m. Reefs surrounding wreck sites provide the diver with multilevel profile opportunities. The Western Rocks, near Bishop Rock Lighthouse are the least dived as long slack periods are infrequent throughout the year and when it is slack the weather has to be good, with light prevailing winds. Many dives are located close around the outer edges of the islands. Reef rocks plunge wildly to depths, and provide stunning vistas chocked full of marine creatures. Seals can often be seen on sites, and many have close encounters with them. Dolphins and porpoises frequent the area, as do occasional basking sharks. On the recent visit Aug/Sep 2007, there were reports of a pod of nearly 100 dolphins north of the islands, and of several hundred basking sharks between the islands and Cornwall.

Dry suits are preferable as the water can be cool even in high summer, probably due to the cold Atlantic depths nearby. Air temperature can be hot because of the locale and when on beaches sunlight is reflected by the white granite sand. Air is used as nitrox wasn't available, which means diving profiles have to be more carefully planned so no decompression limits are not reached as quickly. Usually there are two dives a day with a 2-3 hour surface interval. The islands provide many lee shores when the weather is inclement, and travelling between the islands doesn't take long.

Replacement diving equipment can be difficult to find, having had first hand experience of this, so it is best to have plenty of spares within the group. If the need arises, things can be couriered from the mainland using Parcel Force (or similar), who will send it usually across on the supply ferry, and items can be collected at the local post office. There is usually an extra day delay to get to the islands and everything comes into St. Mary's Hugh Town. Make sure items are addressed correctly to your accommodation, but it may be necessary to sign for them!

Tony Gilbert


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