Up Temperate Diving » HollandMay08

This was our best planned trip to Holland yet, and so only right that it should go off the rails straightaway... we missed our ferry and had to sail the next morning rather than overnight. It cast a bit of a shadow which wasn't lifted when the vis turned out to be poor on a couple of the sites. The usually entertaining De Kabbelaar 'house' reef was like soup - perhaps due to recent work on a new walkway - and the Zeelandbrug was filthy and pretty much free of cuttlefish.

 It was all grim news until we tried some of the other sites and found they were just as packed with animals as before, phew! Another interesting twist was that the regional tourism gods had started to update the facilities around the Oosterschelde - Eastern Scheldt - National Park, the largest in the Netherlands, and now there were toilets even in the middle of nowhere!

Update: Now there's an article about diving in Holland below the gallery links!

We stay at De Kabbelaar whose 'house' reef is the equivalent of Stoney Cove with a steady stream of eager new divers to be dunked. There are training platforms (which we've never seen) but also a cluster of reef balls and plenty of shallow coastal wildlife.
Het Gamal 2Het Gamal 2
None of the sites we dive are very deep, so rather than move on we decided we'd have another dive on the same site after a short lunch break. Both concentrating on macro this time.
Dreischor 1Dreischor 1
Drieschor is one of the more remote dive sites on Schouen-Duiveland but another where reef balls have been planted. The site has a shallow shelf at 1-2m before an oyster covered reef slope down to 8-10m where the reef balls are.
Den OsseDen Osse
Den Osse is close to Scharendijk, it used to have one of the most awkward rocky entries but has been madeover with a new pontoon like Scharendijk. This is another reef ball site, similar in layout to Dreischor.
The Zeelandbrug is THE site we go to dive... at roughly this time of year cuttlefish gather to breed and lay their eggs. The roughly bit is right, the gathering lasts for about two weeks peaking for a few days. We were on target in 07 but we missed in 08
Dreischor 2Dreischor 2
Dreischor often has the best vis and so we chose it for the last dive of the trip. We were rewarded with displaying gobies and more slugs!
Het Gamal 1Het Gamal 1
The Dreischor site is actually two in one, as well as the reef balls there's also the outlet of a land drainage pump which is marked will a wooden tower. This second site is known as Het Gamal - The Pump.
Dreischor 2Last Year's Cuttlefish
We're as sorry as you are that we missed the main cuttlefish orgy. Here's a link to the ones we saw last year :-)

Air fills, toilet and free parking... obviously not the UK! The bridge on a quiet day.

Most sites have a briefing board

De Kabbelaar  dive centre

One of the new walkways

Aeolidiella glauca
There are lots of slugs about

Pipefish too

Zeeland's Far Sighted Dive Planning

We've made a trip over to The Netherlands for the last 3 years, initially we went just for the annual cuttlefish breeding but now we enjoy it as a relaxed low stress break as well. When we arrived at the De Kabellaar dive hotel this year and thought a gentle stroll would be a good way to ward off DVT after our drive we were in for a surprise! The simple rock wall of the dyke which had been a bit of a hazard – but fun for all of that :-) - had been supplemented with an amazingly impressive walkway. All the way from the dyke to the end of the basalt mole there was a wide, non-slip covered, timber walkway... no mean feat. Nearly 200m long this installation was clearly expressly for divers as at the end there were some of the best looking fishbone ladders I've ever seen. These embodied the serious intent of the whole installation, made of welded aluminium wide enough for any fin, continuing high enough out of the water for any diver with a large square platform to stand on at the bottom. No dive boat ladder I've seen has been constructed to such a standard.

For a second we wondered if the dive centre had made these changes, but it seemed way too grand for the level of business it could do - and mid week it was as sleepy as usual. In fact the local tourist development agency had made the investment, not just in Scharendijk but at other sites and they still weren't finished. Indeed there were improvements to the steps up the dykes going on while we were there. For an English diver where parking always costs money, local businesses often bar them in favour of 'normal' customers and even the best – perhaps Swanage pier – is a dive site only as an afterthought.

Civilised diving in Zeeland

In Zeeland the general tourist maps include the dive sites, clearly numbered, even though those sites are primarily for divers. To top it all the car parking is free! At each there's an information board describing the site, the wildlife you might see, along with a cheerful request to dive considerately and wait for it... toilets! Last year the bigger sites had simple 'festival' portaloos which were serviced regularly but his year they were being upgraded to proper (green of course) flushing toilets in even the most remote of the 30+ sites. If that weren't enough the new buildings include showers!

Another surprise for UK visitors are the self-service air stations. There are two of these and they both work! One is outside a dive centre but the other is completely isolated and containerised by the Zeelandbrug. Can you imagine that in the UK? Would they even survive our hostile youth or Health and Safety culture? In Holland they are another stress reliever, open 24 hours and dispensing 400 litres for half a Euro so you only pay for what you need. This is great for a top up and most of our 'fills' cost less than a pound. You simply connect your tank to the hose, open the valves and feed in coins until you're done. The fills don't go much over 200 bar, after cooling, but few of the dives are deep so its not a problem. It's so simple, I wish we could be trusted to have some here.

Rip off Britain?

We dive a lot on the Norfolk coast's shore wrecks. These aren't really remote and those beaches attract hoards of normal visitors but neither the Vera at Cley or the Rosalie at Weybourne are known to them. Although they break the surface at low tide there is no indication of what they are and no hints as to the wildlife they harbour. Neither has any 'facilities' - making wetsuit diving markedly more convenient :-) but the busy car parks harvest cash from the visitors on the basis that it is their chance to contribute to the upkeep of the area.

This seems to be the underlying problem. There is no recognition that the people throwing themselves into the sea and watching the birds already bring considerable quantities of money into the local community. Zeeland has tourism but nothing near the scale of the North Norfolk coast where thousands of caravans and chalets supplement the less plebeian hotels, hostels, camping and homestays. This is an area where tourism is genuinely on an industrial scale but still insists that its guests pay around £1 an hour to park before enjoying the sights they have come to see.

The Dutch have taken a step back and are already considered the long game. For example, some time ago some sites were supplemented with the addition of concrete reefballs. This provided extra artificial habitat for wildlife in an already man-made environment and has conspicuously worked. The underlying properties of the Oosterschelde and Grevellingenmere are not those of a diving Mecca. The body of water is constricted, inclined to be murky and little warmer than the North sea but the cuttlefish, macro wildlife and benign diving conditions make it popular with Europeans.

If you've got it, dive it

The jewel in Zeelands diving crown, and it must have been a very lonely gem for a while, is the annual aggregation of breeding cuttlefish. This has drawn crowds to the carpark under the Zeelandbrug on scale which would rival the heaving worst of Stoney Cove on a summers weekend. These divers needed other options and these have been provided and supported. Although a small industry by comparison with the English South and particularly South West coast we have seen it expand even in the last 3 years we have been visiting. The 4 major dive shops on the Island have been growing and although we normally frequent De Kabelaar (since we are stay there) dropping into the largest was a humbling experience for a British diver – a vast range of every dive item. Not stopping at the simple stuff either but including displays of the most obscure pipework and more exotic torches than we'd see at on a diveshow stand. Clearly the visiting divers are a great market to support this bounty. The superstores like Divers Warehouse approach this kind of range for national business but these Dutch shops are 'local' shops for 'local' trade. Clearly there's something in the water!

In truth Zeeland has a number of simple to understand attractions and has made the most of them. It has recognised that its inherent attractions might pale for regular visitors and taken steps to bolster them. Hence the major works which greeted us this May. The walkways and pontoons were installed on three of the sites we visited this year and a further site had been created for disabled divers providing a wheelchair path from car park to waters edge. The upgraded toilet facilities were spreading while we were there too. A conservative estimate of the cost of works completed would be more than £250,000 which will double if the rest of the popular sites are treated in the same way. The proprietor of the dive shop was upbeat and pleased that 'there would be fewer broken ankles'... which got us thinking that if there was a similar 'hazard' in the UK we would have been banned from it on health and safely grounds and left to stared mournfully at an expensive barrier erected to keep us away rather than a safe access produced at similar cost.

Think it through

There's a depth of vision needed, an acceptance that tourists and divers can coexist and that they are already contributing so that it would be more polite to invite them in than fleece them at every turn. What should it matter if the money is spent on a car park or a meal? The money spent on enjoying an area rather than simply being allowed into it produces much warmer memories of a trip than the battle to feed change into an unattended ticket machine in a lumpy gravel car park. I know that when I think of Zeeland I think of the ease of diving but when dive in the UK my plans often include ways to minimise the costs of getting to the water.

As a final thought, I endorse the Dutch take on cuttlefish too. Their emphasis has been to foster both the creatures and 'tourist' access to them. Zeeland is now part of a national park with protection and controlled fishing – each cuttlefish endures some voyeurism but is a valuable asset in its own right rather than a crop to be shamelessly harvested as they are in Babbacombe Bay. Why can't we look past short term gratification and accept that past abuse of fishing grounds is no justification for it to continue. If something is wrong it should be addressed and the potting of Babbacombe is just an ugly illustration of self interest. If we want our position at the top of the food chain then we should only do so sustainably.

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