THERE’S NOTHING QUITE LIKE that first stroll down the jetty on your long-awaited dive holiday. You’ve just arrived at a charming resort and are heading towards your day-boat or liveaboard. The view of bright skies and deep blue seas is simply glorious, the sense of anticipation is strong, and all you can think about is what will happen once your boat sails off to that first dive-site.
But how often do you wonder what’s directly beneath your feet? The structure you’re walking can be a haven to a wealth of marine wildlife in its own right; an artificial reef of sorts that can be far more rewarding than you might expect.
All over the world there is potential for diving on or around these structures, although in some places the operations that own them may be wary of having divers below.
This can be because there is too much boat traffic, or even foot traffic, which might make it an unsafe environment for divers. In other places, such as dedicated dive-resorts, the pier becomes the standard for a night-dive, because once all the boats are tied up the area becomes very quiet.
Jetty and pier dives tend to be shallow, so are also regarded as good for training, check-out dives and testing equipment.
The surrounding area is often murky, as boats coming and going stir up the water. There may be signs of rubbish and other unmentionable items in the water as trash is dropped overboard by thoughtless crews, or simply swept inwards by changing tides.
Despite all this, these conditions are often what attracted the marine residents in the first place. Many will take refuge in an old bottle or drink can, build a nest on a rotting rope or find some bit of natural detritus, like a wooden plank or coconut shell, to call home.
You might think that etiquette means: “Hey you up there, don’t drop your garbage on my head!” In fact it’s more about being a super-careful diver and being respectful towards your dive-buddies. Those who rush about disturbing the silty seabed can make the often-low visibility far worse.
Keep your fins up and your buoyancy steady, so that even positioned inches above the sand you are less likely to disturb it.
Diving in such a small area can also mean that quite a few other divers will be there at the same time, and some may start competing to see the animals.
Most creatures that live in these environments do so permanently, and will not swim away. Or, if they are disturbed and nip off their home spot, they return.
Remember, it’s always a good thing to play nice and share the toys!
Although your dive-team has given you the thumbs-up to be beneath the boardwalk, you still need to be very aware of what might happen above your head, especially if you’re only a couple of metres down.
An unexpected boat arrival, a fuel spillage from one that’s refuelling or even kids dive-bombing into the sea – such things can affect your safety in a quayside area, which is more than just a dive-site. Keep listening for both human activity and boat traffic above, and glance upwards often. And when you do decide to ascend, take extra care.
Even though jetties and piers are man-made environments, huge numbers of marine creatures are attracted by the shelter, foods and prey animals they offer.
Adult fish species will come in because the tides and currents, being less extreme, allow them to use the area as a nursery ground. Later, they leave the juveniles and return to open waters.
Other fish may come in to prey on the babies, which are easy pickings.
Crustaceans and molluscs find shelter in the detritus while sponges, corals, algae and aquatic plants latch onto pylons to take advantage of the plankton and zooplankton that settles in the protected water.
Another aspect of diving beneath a pier is that sometimes a dive to a reef will start there, or vice versa. There is a tendency to bypass these unique environments in such circumstances, but by doing so you can miss masses. Also, being shallow, piers are great for off-gassing at the end of a dive.
No matter where we go, we always hope for a pier to dive. For some reason, certain countries seem to be more open to allowing this style of diving than others. Here are some of our favourites, in no particular order:
Our first ever open-water dive was on Bandos Pier. We were only part-qualified, so an instructor held our hands as we descended from the jetty to the small drop-off to encounter a whitetip reef shark. This was without a doubt the adrenaline rush that got us hooked on diving for life.
The jetty at Bandos has since been extended, improved and has a cafe on top so that you can watch the sunset.
Of course, few watch it – they’re too busy peering into the shallow waters to see hordes of baby blacktips in less than a metre of water.
The divers glance back longingly before finning to the wall a few metres away to see the whitetips that still pass by.
Nearly all Maldivian resorts have jetty dives, because they make perfect night-dives. From some, you enter from the beach and swim across to the jetty; for others, it’s a giant leap over the drop-off into a cloud of colourful fish before slowly working your way back beneath the structure to see juvenile fish and tiny crustaceans.
Police Pier, Lembeh Strait: As with many piers, diving here is restricted by the activities that go on above, so divers are not allowed beneath the structure itself.
However, the surrounding seabed is coated in sponges and seagrass, and it’s here that you can see more frogfish and seahorses in one place than you ever thought possible, in all styles and colours.
The base of the pier is also famous for Banggai cardinalfish. These are indigenous to the Banggai Islands, but one day the police pulled in a fishing-boat to the pier. They had been tipped off that the crew had an illegal cargo of fish destined for the tropical-fish trade. The boat was confiscated, the crew arrested and the fish dumped into the water, where they proceeded to have a happy life and spread right through the area.
There are many pier dives in Lembeh Strait, but there are also fantastic jetty-dives all over Indonesia. The pier at Banda Neira is famous for its colonies of mandarinfish, while jetty pylons in Irian Jaya are coated in soft corals and crustaceans.
Papua New Guinea
On the remote eastern coast of New Guinea Island, Tufi Resort sits above a narrow bay with Tufi Pier at the bottom of a steep hill. This was once a US army base. Just below the jetty are decades of detritus, from soft-drink crates to old beer-bottles and tyres. As you kit up on the timber jetty, dozens of juvenile batfish ascend to watch the human activity.
After you enter, no matter what ugly old piece of rubbish you look at, there’s a curious critter to discover.
Several species of ghost pipefish huddle around old nets, crates are climbing frames for nudibranchs, and blennies reside in old bottles. There is much more here, so it’s a good thing you can do this dive daily if you want, day or night.
There are only a handful of dive-resorts in Papua New Guinea, but they all have jetties. The Walindi Plantation Pier is another notable critter-dive, where you might see mimic octopus or schools of juvenile bigeye trevally.
The Oil Rig, Sabah is a massive oil derrick parked just off Mabul’s shores. It may not be a jetty in the strictest sense, but get beneath it and it has exactly the same dive style. Being just that bit deeper than a boat-pier means that the pylons are swarming with jack and snapper.
The seabed is studded with detritus, where many creatures have colonised ropes and old building materials. There are many permanent residents, including a giant moray called Elvis who lives under an old cage. Flying gurnards and crocodilefish carpet the sand; lime-green frogfish hang out in old tyres, and a pile of metal sheets and pipes host more frogfish in a variety of colours.
The island of Sabah has several amazing jetty dives. Lankayan Resort sank a wreck just off its jetty to add to the fun, while the jetty steps at Kapalai Resort lead beneath the boat-dock to the coral-encrusted pylons of its wooden water-bungalows. The famous Sipadan Jetty is home to turtles that lead the way to a massive drop-off.
At the front of the resort at Zabargad, Hamata, is a rickety old jetty that extends over the sea. The leap in can be a big one, depending on the tides, but the drop below is about 16m.
Anchored in the seabed is an amazing conglomeration of struts and metal posts. Nothing is symmetrical, but every surface either sprouts small corals or has a fish perched on it.
Hawkfish hover, schooling two-bar sea-bream hang around in the filtered sun-rays and at the base of the posts are monster-sized grouper that come to greet divers. Octopuses are often seen at night, peering from holes in the sand.
From top to bottom, the Red Sea coast of Egypt is littered with diving resorts, and pretty much every one will have a jetty. In Safaga, the protected bay is ideal for learning and night dives. Sharm’s lively Na’ama Bay can be too busy for day-dives on the boat jetties but at night you can dive from them – or even snorkel – to sites close to shore.
Flying Fish Cove, Christmas Island is a small, pretty bay and the island’s only year-round mooring point – the massive pier is in constant use by shipping vessels. However, just to the side are the remains of the original wooden pier, which is awash with marine life.
Starting from shore, fin between the two structures to find another treat, the wreck of a World War Two-era supply ship. There isn’t a lot of coral because of the centuries of industrial use, so octopuses, mating pufferfish, hawkfish and nudibranchs take refuge in the collapsed pier.
At night, and around the old wreck, it’s easy to spot critters such as pink leaf-fish, lionfish, crustaceans and sleeping parrotfish.
Two of the world’s most famous pier dives are in Western Australia, the Navy Pier, Exmouth, which is host to sharks and big shoals of fish as much as tiny critters, and Busselton Jetty, which is a 2km walkway with wooden pylons coated in corals.
Dating as far back as the 1860s, Swanage Pier in Dorset has won a dual diving reputation – sometimes it’s good, sometimes not, but when it’s good it can be amazing.
Like all piers the vis is quite low, but when the sunlight filters down over the submerged structure it highlights swaying kelp, feeding barnacles and crabs waving their claws. There are bigger animals such as cuttlefish in season, and colourful blennies and wrasse in the rocky areas.
On the days that you head down there and the inland waters are murky, there is a range of wrecks not far from shore.
Pick a British seaside town and there’s likely to be a dive centre with a jetty nearby, from Selsey and Brighton on the South Coast to the island of Coll in Scotland, where the pier gets great visibility and – if you’re very lucky – there are basking sharks in the water.
La Ceiba Pier, Cozumel is a hotel boat-jetty a short distance from one of the cruise-liner piers, yet it’s a great site for novices, critter-hunters and night dives.
At night there are parrotfish hiding in their mucous bubbles and small morays nestled in the rocks. Octopuses, hermit crabs and shrimp are out and hunting.
The wreck of a small passenger aircraft was sunk there deliberately as a film prop. It is fairly broken up, but the scrap-metal provides shelter for a range of fish.
A current often sweeps the bay – not too strong – and pushes divers along towards the next pier, so currents and tides limit diving here.
Mexico’s Yucatan coast is one long march of modern resorts and hotels. Almost all have dive-centres and almost all have piers. However, boat traffic means that only a few allow jetty dives. Cozumel and Isla Mujeres are better options.