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Diving off Sark

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Imagine cave diving in the British Isles and it’s impossible not to conjure up visions of cramped, dark places deep underground and murky, lifeless water. Expand your picture to include sea caves and you’ll probably add a strong surge to the already un-appetitising image of somewhere you’d rather not dive. Down in the extreme south though lies a system of underwater caverns which may just change your mind about cave diving. In fact, I’d describe this as the best five metre dive in Britain.

The caves in question are in Sark, one of the smallest Channel Islands. At just three miles long and little over a mile wide, the island has more than forty miles of coastline. It’s a rugged mixture of sheer cliffs, tiny bays and rock stacks littered with offshore reefs and half submerged pinnacles. Faults in the granite and the constant pounding of the sea have combined to riddle this spectacular coast with caves. Many are dead ends and others too high above the low tide line to make them interesting dives but then there’s the Gouliot Caves. Weaving through the western most headland of the island, they form a complex of tunnels from narrow slits and gullies to enormous boulder strewn caverns. Most importantly, the caves are open to the sea on both sides of the headland so water sweeps through with the ebb and flow of the tide. With a tidal range of up to ten metres in the waters around Sark, that’s a huge movement of water. This magical combination of geology and tide has created the perfect habitat for a wealth of sea creatures normally only seen in deeper water and the walls of the caves are smothered in sponges, anemones, sea squirts, giant barnacles and even soft and cup corals. (The near uniqueness of the site within Europe was recognized in 2007 when the caves and headland where designated as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.)

Since Victorian times an expedition to the Gouliot Caves has been a must for the more intrepid visitor to the island. Photographs remain of groups in woolly bathing suits and rubber swimming caps shivering in the caves and today they’re still visited on foot on the lowest spring tides. The scramble down the cliffs isn’t for the faint hearted and the marine life exposed is closed up and dripping; to my eyes, not at its most attractive. For those of us lucky enough to dive, by far the best way to experience the caves is from underwater but, as with any dive in Sark, timing is essential.

The dive begins on the north side of the headland a couple of hours after high water. The tide will still be running from the south but slowing as it nears the half tide slack. (At full tilt it runs at ten knots through the nearby Gouliot Passage which separates Sark from the islet of Brecqhou.) I prefer to dive while the tide’s still running slightly to make best use of slack water in the caves. There’s nothing to see of the entrance above water, just what appears to be a corner of solid rock, but underwater a triangular opening begins a couple of metres below the surface. Ten metres or so in the ceiling lowers and the pebbly seabed rises slightly to give the impression that the way forward could be too narrow but there’s plenty of room without scraping your equipment from above or below. It’s here that I’ve often encountered a shoal of grey mullet startled by my sudden appearance. It’s hard to say who jumps the most! This is the Sponge Cave, the darkest part of the dive and where you’ll most need your torch. The walls are covered in anemones and oaten pipe hydroids but, as it’s name suggests, the most dominant creatures here are the sponges. To your left rays of sunlight reveal a second opening to the north side of the headland which would bring you out close to where you entered. Instead, carry on ahead past a patch of fluffy peach-coloured plumose anemones, a common species around much of Britain but something of a rarity this far south. The cave is wider now with plenty of room for two or more divers side by side and the walls are dominated by red, orange and green beadlet anemones. Look closely and you’ll see the string of iridescent blue ‘beads’ just beneath the tentacles. Ahead there’s light again, glowing greeny-blue around either side of a rock column reaching up to the surface. It doesn’t matter which side of it you go, both ways take you into the beautifully named Jewel Cave, the highlight of the dive.

By now the tide should be slack although there’s nearly always a certain amount of surge in here making photography something of a challenge. From now on you’re in about four or five metres of water with air above you as the cave opens out into a large crevice rather than an overhead environment. Above and below water the walls are plastered in anemones in every shade possible, spot lit by sunlight shafting in from above. Pink, white and orange elegant anemones crowd the base of the rock column along with patches of jewel anemones in every shade of the rainbow. Everywhere else there are beadlet anemones and it’s worth floating up to the surface to see them all hanging from the walls above like thousands of giant fruit gums. Back underwater explore to your left where it darkens again and you’ll find another expanse of plumose anemones before the water becomes too shallow. Going back the other way the tide gradually begins taking you through the Jewel Cave towards the exit. Jewel anemones take over in force now, the only place I know where you’ll see them this shallow. In between are grey lobes of elephant hide sponge, swathes of oaten pipe hydroids and bright yellow masses of boring sponge. Ballan wrasse and shannies are the most common fish in this part of the caves and there are often spider crabs trundling along the pebbles below. By now the light and tide are getting stronger. Fluffy fingers of soft coral emerge from the walls which widen towards the exit. All too soon you’re swept through an archway of kelp and washed out into Havre Gosselin, the bay on the south side of the headland where your boat will be waiting. If you’ve timed it right you’ll have enjoyed at least half an hour in the caves and your depth gauge will barely have touched five metres.

The Gouliot Caves are just one of many fabulous dives in the waters around Sark and being an island means there’s nearly always somewhere sheltered if the wind picks up. To the south lies L’Étac, a cone of rock rising more than thirty metres above sea level and a breeding site for Puffins and other sea birds. Beneath the waves it’s equally dramatic with boulder slopes and walls dropping to more than fifty metres. Sea fans, jewel anemones and red fingers soft coral are a feature of this and many other sites in Sark once you’ve passed through the waving green fronds of the kelp forest. Here at L’Étac there’s a wall at about 25 metres spattered with bright yellow sunset cup corals, a southern species rarely found in British waters.

About half a mile away lies the Vingt Clos reef which only reveals its kelpy head on the very lowest spring tides. It’s a stunning dive with walls so sheer that swimming along them feels like exploring the sides of a huge shipwreck. Around thirty metres below the bright shingle seabed slopes down to a jumble of boulders where crabs and lobsters peer from their holes.

The east side of the island offers more fabulous reef diving in the lee of the prevailing wind. The Grune du Nord and Ecrillais are both great scenic sites with pinnacles and gullies. Further north lie Pavlaison, Pécheresse and Sardriere, not quite so dramatic but just as scenic and rich in marine life including the occasional crawfish. My favourite reef is Guillaumesse, off the west coast, which is sheltered from the tide four hours either side of low water. Here you’ll find everything that’s best about diving in Sark, all in 25 metres or less. There are walls, boulders and gullies covered in jewel anemones, soft corals, sponges, urchins and sea fans and more cuckoo wrasse than anywhere else. They live in harems of several females and one male. The girls are colourful enough, peachy-orange with natty black and white bars along their backs, but it’s the boys who steal the show. Vivid turquoise marbled with electric blue and streaks of almost luminous orange, they draw even more attention to themselves in spring by displaying a brilliant white patch on their head which dazzles then fades in seconds. What makes these handsome chaps even more interesting is that they all begin life as females. At the age of at least seven years some change sex and colour and become fully functional males. Exactly what triggers this change of heart, or rather sex organs, isn’t known for certain but it may well happen if the group’s existing male is lost. Both the males and the females are hugely inquisitive making them excellent subjects for underwater photographers. In fact it can be tricky taking a picture here without a cuckoo wrasse in it. There are also at least two pure white sea fans at Guillaumesse, a southern version of the normally pink coral. The huge variety of marine life here and long period of slack water made it the obvious choice for Sark’s underwater nature trail. A laminated sheet shows the location of ten numbered points and illustrates the key species at each one, an excellent way to identify some of the wonderful creatures living here.

For those already familiar with British marine life, Sark’s mild climate and southerly position offer the chance to spot a few species rarely found on the British mainland such as the black-face blenny, soapy starfish and purple-striped anemone prawn. Conservation is taken seriously with divers only allowed to take scallops, and even then only with a local license. Dredging isn’t permitted and scallop diving and potting for shellfish are banned from the end of October until the end of March, in effect making the waters around Sark a marine reserve for almost half the year.

If metal’s your thing there are wrecks along the coasts of nearby Guernsey and Jersey and in the deeper waters around Sark, mostly dating from the Second World War. For me though, the best diving here is on the reefs and through the wonderful Gouliot Caves. I can think of few other British dive destinations to compete with Sark but then again, I’m rather biased. I live there!

When to visit

This is a tricky choice. Diving starts around May when the water temperature is just in double figures. The visibility can be affected by the usual British spring plankton bloom but it’s the best time for nudibranchs and breeding seabirds. On land there are fewer visitors and the cliffs and woodlands are swathed in bluebells and other wildflowers. Later on in the summer the water tends to be clearer and up to a rather pleasant 19 °C but the puffins, razorbills and guillemots have left by the middle of July.

Written by  Sue Daly.

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