Into the blue

Portsmouth & Southsea railway station by Andy Cooper

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Film and television has often glamorised the image of scuba diving, making it seem as simple as strapping on an oxygen tank and jumping into whichever body of water you want to explore.

However, life beneath the waves requires a very specific set of skills and knowledge to make the most of your new playground.

Bill exploring the Canyon, a dive site in Dahab, Egypt.

Bill exploring the Canyon, a dive site in Dahab, Egypt.

The Cockleshell Divers, based in Eastney, are a local scuba diving club who have been sharing this exciting knowledge for almost a decade.

Club chairman, Bill Lawless has been diving for 28 years and formed the Cockleshell Divers to share his love of exploring the deep.

‘I formed the club nine years ago and I’ve dived since 1986. Diving is addictive, I tell everyone that before their first dive. I was in the navy and did some of the ship diving training and I got hooked. I decided to do a course and I’ve been doing it ever since.

‘I’ve been on trips all over the world. I’ve done a few trips to Egypt. It’s amazing there, 30 or so metres visibility and warm water.

‘I’ve also dived in the Scilly Isles where you’re diving with seals and on historic wrecks. The seals are all over the place. They are very friendly, playful and inquisitive.

‘They come up and look in your mask but they’re not looking at you, they’re looking at their own reflection. They pull at your fins and play hide and seek with you.

‘The weirdest thing I’ve swum with is a sunfish. It’s like a big bin lid with a tail and a head.

‘They float up to the surface and seagulls come down and peck off their parasites. They are dark grey and some of them are bigger than camper vans. You see them in nature programmes but I saw one of them in Dorset!’

‘I dived with a whale shark in Egypt which was about 26 feet long – they don’t come much bigger that that. You’re in awe of them, the excitement and adrenaline takes over.

‘When I saw the shark I just turned around and it was bearing down on me, I was completely safe but the size of it gave me the fright of my life!’

Despite the lure of foreign waters, Bill still thinks the Solent has a lot to offer divers.

‘The diving here is as good as anywhere. People who don’t dive here don’t know what they’re missing. The Solent has some of the best diving in the world.

‘There are plenty of wrecks in the Solent like the Luis – an ex-American Liberty Boat in Shanklin Bay, the Camswan in Sandown Bay and the HMS Boxer which is also near Shanklin.

‘It’s great diving on a wreck. It’s more advanced diving, it’s not on a basic course. You can get up close and touch the wrecks. They’ve all got a story and it’s exciting touching and looking at history.

‘HMS Ulysses is 300 years old and that’s the oldest wreck I’ve dived on. You can see the pins sticking through the timbers and all the cannons.’

The Cockleshell Divers are closely linked with the Cockleshell navy family centre and take their name from Second World War Heroes who trained in the very pool that the group now use for their training sessions.

‘The Cockleshell club is a navy family centre. It supports families of navy people who are on deployment. The name comes from the Cockleshell Heroes, who put limpet mines on the German ships in France. They were Marines, who were trained in canoes.

Bill explains: ‘I came to the Cockleshell Club being ex-navy and local and asked if I could start a scuba club and they’ve supported us ever since.

‘We’ve got about 15 or 20 members at the moment and that includes some serving navy members. We’ve all got nicknames, I’m Tsunami Bill and there’s Depth Charge Chalky, Deep Stroke Bob, Tidal Wave Dave and Marine Girl. Some members have got more than one.

‘Tidal Wave Dave is also called One Fin because he lost a fin once as he rolled off the boat on his first boat dive, so I got two dives that day because I had to go down and get his fin back!

‘To be a good diver you need a love of the sea and confidence, but the confidence grows. It helps to be good at swimming but you’ve only got to be able to do four lengths of a pool.

‘A lot of people don’t know much about scuba, but once they come to a club and find out it’s not so expensive, they become more interested.

‘We supply all the kit while you’re training and then you get your own when you’re qualified. It should take 11 weeks to get the basic qualification, but you can do it in four to 10 weeks. There are theory lessons, pool sessions and then two water dives.

‘We spend four weeks of theory before you hit the water. You get taught about metabolism, the effect of diving on the body, the bends, decompression, how to stay safe, air compression and first aid.’

Once you’ve passed basic training the underwater world is your proverbial oyster and for Bill, there’s no where he would rather be.

‘I just love being in the sea, it’s tranquil. I love the history of the wrecks. Were they torpedoed or was it weather?

‘Also some of the reefs are just like your back garden with all the colourful plants. I definitely feel at home there.’