On the Lighthouse Road – Part 1 – my dives in St-Pabu

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In my quest to dive deeper into local diving, I searched for the best places to go scuba diving in Brittany, my home region. I discovered there was a corner I had never set foot on, even less a fin in. Before every trip, I’m always tempted to cram a little bit too much in a 2-week itinerary. After hours of research, I finally narrowed it down to an inspiring itinerary along Finistere northern shore: the Lighthouse Road.

On the first week of my road trip, after checking out the first three lighthouses, I settled for a couple of days in Saint-Pabu, in the Abers area. Both names I had never heard about before. Adventure is often closer than you think. Indeed, it came as a total surprise to discover such an excellent spot for all ocean sports lovers, from kite surfers to scuba divers. I was warmly welcomed by the managing couple of Korejou Plongée and got wisely paired up with a dive buddy who loved underwater photography too. Here is how it went…

The Abers, the fjords of Brittany

Aber Wrac'h Lighthouse

It’s never too late to learn new things. In this case, I learnt a new word in French. Well, not exactly French. Brittany has 3 “abers” on the Northern Finistere coast: the Aber Wrac’h, the Aber Benoit and the Aber Ildut. The word is coming from the Breton language and exists in Cornish too.

The abers are river beds flooded by the ocean. In a way, they are some sort of fjords, but due to the low elevation of the land around them, I see them more like the sea lochs of Scotland. They cut deep into the land and offer shelters for boats and a favourable location for farming oysters with their high tidal range.

The Aber Benoit offers a fantastic location for scuba divers who can go diving in the aber or further out in the ocean, depending on the conditions.

This is how I found Korejou Plongée in Saint-Pabu on the south shore of the Aber Benoit. They have a modern and fully equipped facility on the Stellac’h Harbour. When diving in colder water, inevitably with rain at some point, knowing you’ll have a changing room, a warm shower and even a covered area outside to gear up makes a huge difference.

Don’t be surprised after diving how far the water came out the aber with the tides. You may have to walk in muddy sand to the quay fully equipped in case of a high tidal coefficient (No need to go to the gym after that!).

After your dives, head to the exit of the Aber Benoit, at Corn ar Gazel, where the kite surfers and windsurfers play in the waves. After walking for a few minutes through the wilderness of the dunes, you’ll get to vast pristine white sand beaches.

Saint-Pabu is not a party place and is extremely quiet, so stock up on local Breton craft beers in Lannilis (the closest town) and savour them while looking at technicolour sunsets. “Yec’hed Mat!’ (Cheers in Breton).

Scuba diving in Saint-Pabu, Brittany

scuba diving Saint-Pabu

As diving in Brittany is according to the tides, The schedule may vary. Scuba divers usually leave at high tide, a bit before slack tide. The first morning, the meeting time was 9 am, and the next day, 9.15 am. As usual, I had all my scuba diving gear, including my drysuit, so I “only” needed a tank and weights. For information, Koréjou Plongée is an Aqualung dive centre, so you can get top-notch rental gear.

Note if you are a drysuit diver, you’ll need to bring your own. I haven’t found yet a dive centre in France offering rental drysuits. But surprisingly, the water wasn’t that cold (15 to 16°C), which means it is at the same temperature at this time of the year as in Marseille or Toulon.

I got paired up with Mickael, a scuba diver from Northern France, who often trains in the cold water of quarries in Belgium. When I saw he had an underwater camera in hand, I knew things would go fine. And it did so well that he decided to follow me on two other dives.

My schedule was two dives on my first day, morning and afternoon, and one dive in the morning of the following day. The weather was sunny on the first day, but it was raining cats and dogs on the next. Well, who cares when you go diving (especially in a drysuit)? Due to the conditions, I couldn’t go to a new site on the second day, but I got to see a different side of the dive site I explored on the afternoon of the first day.

Dive #1 – Al Houet

My dive parameters: max depth 22 m – dive time 55 min – water temperature 15°C

If you have been following my diving adventures in France, you know we rarely have a divemaster guiding us. Certified divers are expected to be autonomous and manage navigation by themselves. This is why you’d better follow the briefing carefully and picture the dive map in your mind. Knowing the visibility can sometimes be reduced in Brittany, I made sure to remember all the key features and their depth.

I noticed most divers wear a compass in Brittany, but I’m more a natural orientation person. However, checking the depth greatly helped to confirm I was at the right place. In any case, wearing an SMB for both dive buddies is a requirement, as you may not be able to find the boat again. Chances are it will happen, more than once.

But in the case of this dive site, it had so many notable features that my dive buddy and I had no problem finding the boat right on time at the end of our allocated diving time (55 minutes). The first shallow part of the dive consists of large granite rocks covered in purple sea anemones. It was a first for me to see such large colonies of sea anemones in cold waters. It proved later, on this dive and the following ones, that these sea anemones are present in more significant numbers in the Aber area than other locations in Brittany.

Then the central part of the dive was along a wall no longer than maybe 20 or 30 m. The maximum depth was 22 m on the sand at the bottom of the wall. Said like this, you might say it doesn’t sound exciting. But as you go back and forth while ascending a bit more at every U-turn, there is an extraordinary number of marine species hiding in the cracks all over the wall.

At the bottom of the wall, it’s the kingdom of the larger species such as lobsters, edible crabs, conger eels and spider crabs. The latter always amaze me by how curious and not scared they are. They are often the only ones to walk the sandy bottom in daylight. Good for me, I love taking a portrait of their intrigued faces.

At mid-depth, we found a collection of sea anemone species. This is when my dive buddy kindly showed an anemone shrimp. I couldn’t believe my eyes; I thought these were only to be found in the tropical waters of the coral triangle of South-East Asia. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take a decent picture as I was all set up for wide-angle shots. However, I noted that thanks to the large pockets of my drysuit, it could be an idea to bring my macro lens just in case.

Dive #2/#3 – Poul Doun

My dive parameters:

  • max depth 20 m – dive time 57 min – water temperature 15°C
  • max depth 19 m – dive time 53 min – water temperature 15°C

The dive briefing was relatively straightforward: follow the edge of the kelp forest on your right shoulder until you find the rocks. Then find the crack where the marine critter party is! We were warned, but indeed, as we immerse ourselves, we faced a pretty strong current. I almost felt I was fin kicking for nothing. At least it would be a cool drift dive when coming back.

The atmosphere of the kelp underwater forest is so relaxing. The long leaves of the kelp gently follow the movement of the waves at the surface. But keep away to get inside as you can get lost and potentially entangled. Everything is so lookalike once inside. And honestly, this is what happened the next day when we visited the same dive site on the other side with reversed currents (oops!).

The numerous spiral tube-worms, peacock worms and twin fan worms were the indications to make a turn on the right to the rocks. This is how I found the crack Jeff of Korejou Plongée told us about. As promised, they were all there: the lobsters, the rockpool shrimps, the spinous squat lobsters and the leopard goby. I marvelled at how curious they all were, not running away and letting me take some detailed close-up portrait (I had brought my macro lens this time). Other interesting finds on this dive site included a colourful sole fish, a baby tompot blenny and Devonshire cup corals (named “dog tooth”,” dent de chien” in French).

To fully enjoy your dives in Brittany, you do need to carry a dive light. It will reveal all the colours of marine life and help you identify species in the mostly green water. In addition to my video light which has a large beam to avoid seeing a white spot on videos, I brought the new Seaflare dive light by Aqualung on this trip. It proved to be helpful to have an additional light with a tight beam of light and hence an extended range. I could decide if it was worthy or not to get closer to an area. It saved me a lot of time and effort.

As expected, the way back to the boat was speedy, thanks to the current carrying us. Even if the visibility was between 10 and 15 m, the kelp made it impossible to know precisely where the boat was. Everything looks so much the same. We launched an SMB on both dives, just to discover at the surface we were just a couple of meters away from it!

What to do in the Abers area?

Corn ar Gazel Beach - Saint-Pabu

Beyond enjoying the superb wild beaches of Corn ar Gazel, Erleac’h and Les Trois Moutons, there are two areas worth visiting. By staying a couple of nights in St-Pabu, you will have time to log more than one dive.

First, about 25 minutes driving north, don’t miss a visit to the Virgin Island Lighthouse (“Phare de l’Île Vierge“) in Plougerneau. With a height of 82.5 m, it is the highest in Europe since its construction in 1845. You don’t necessarily have to take the boat and hike up its 365 steps. There are 3 viewpoints well worth checking out, 2 in Porz Grac’h and the most famous in Kastell Ac’h. After your tour, take the opportunity to taste the delicious oysters of the abers at Huîtres Legris oyster bar.

About 12 minutes driving west of St Pabu, you will find the charming harbour of Portsall. Since Saint-Pabu doesn’t have much to offer from a restaurant point of view, this is where you will find way more options, including delicious fish and chips (best lunch I could hope for on a rainy day!).

The fisherman town is infamously known for being where the disaster of the Amoco Cadiz, an oil tanker that sank in 1978, creating the first massive oil spill in Brittany. The anchor can be seen on the harbour, and there is a small free museum about the disaster which is worth the visit. For information, the shipwreck is diveable with a maximum depth of 30 m, so not that deep. You can ask Korejou Plongée about it. Personally, I can’t, because this story makes me too upset (I personally witnessed the oil spill of the Erika in South Brittany in 1999.)

Last, even if it rains, walk to the megalithic site of Guilliguy. While the dolmen is in great condition, here, it’s all about the view. Located on a hill, you will get a 180° overview of Portsall harbour and its colourful houses. You can see it from the harbour, there is a cross on top. It requires just a 5-minute hike, but the trail’s start is not necessarily easy driving across narrow roads (I wondered if I was entering a private property; hopefully, I wasn’t). But maybe, I should have walked there directly from the harbour…

Where to stay in Saint-Pabu?

Stellac'h Harbour - Saint-Pabu

For my 2 days of scuba diving in Saint-Pabu, I cheated a bit on the dive & camp part of my itinerary by booking a cabin at the local campsite near the beach. Beyond the fact I had received last-minute assignments and could work in good conditions, I was glad to have a roof over me when it heavily rained the second night.

However, if you want to remain flexible, be aware that these cabins and mobile homes can only be booked for less than a week (but a minimum of 2 nights) in the low season. In, the high season, from July to August, you need to stay at least one week.

If you want to have more flexibility, there are cosy B&B guesthouses in Saint-Pabu with a superb view over the Aber Benoit and at a reasonable price, from 60€ a night.

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Posted by Florine

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