Purbeck & Southeast Dorset


Reaching from Ringstead Bay in the west to Old Harry Rocks at the east end of Swanage Bay, the Purbeck Coast Marine Protected Area (MPA) covers some 280 km2 of seabed

This coastline changes drastically by the mile. Steep cliffs are home to nesting seabirds during spring and summer whilst the numerous eroding rocky stacks and archways are testament to the power of the sea.

Hidden rocky coves are scattered along the shoreline, some accessible only by boat. More popular beaches include Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door and Man O’ War Bay, Kimmeridge and Swanage – all connected by the Southwest Coast Path.

Out to sea the MPA is full of similar underwater cliffs, ledges, overhangs and colourful rocky reefs. The reefs are protected by the MPA status due to their excellent quality and the many seaweeds and animals they support.

The Purbeck section of the Jurassic Coast is hugely popular with sea users of all types. This includes divers, anglers, commercial fishermen, sailors, and those on land who walk, run or cycle the coastline to enjoy dramatic sea views and watch the local wildlife. Over the centuries the Purbeck coast has drawn artists and writers to take inspiration from its scenery.

This page offers a glimpse into the underwater world off the Purbeck coast. It provides insight as to how the MPA is managed to both protect it for future generations and to enable people today to continue to enjoy it, explore it and make a living from its productive waters.

Lulworth Cove







The Purbeck Coast is full to the brim with iconic landmarks. From Old Harry Rocks and Dancing Ledge to Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove, this dramatic coastline is a visual feast for all those who use it whether from the land or the sea.

Image: Matt Doggett 




Protected Features

Dorset’s Purbeck MPA is designated to protect the different reefs over all depths, as well as areas of coarse and mixed sediment. A number of specific seaweeds and animals in the area are also given special protection.

Given the wide expanse of the MPA, the list of protected habitats and species is long.



An aerial view of Kimmeridge Bay shows the rugged nature of the seabed, full of ledges, gullies and walls extending out from shore. All along the Purbeck Coast the seabed geology is filled with impressive rock formations.

Image: Matt Doggett



Seabed Features

Above water the Purbeck Coast is bursting with geological eye candy, providing epic scenery and clues into life in the past. Complex layers of ancient fossil-rich rocks dating back 185 million years define the Purbeck coast and are displayed in all their glory on cliffs, stacks and sea arches like Durdle Door.

Below the waves the seabed also changes continuously along the coast and out into deeper water. Layers of chalk, limestone, shale, siltstone and sandstone extend outward from the shore as series of rocky reefs and ledges. Perhaps the most significant of these is St Alban’s Ledge where depths remain as shallow as 15 metres some 4.5 miles out to sea but can plunge to depths in excess of 55 metres either side of the ledge just a few hundred metres from shore.

Ledges like these with vertical walls, overhangs and steep inclines rising up from the depths create strong, turbulent currents and overfalls with each tide and dictate which species can live on the seabed. The areas of turbulent water between Portland Bill and off St Alban’s Ledge create unique areas of ‘double low water’.

In other places, both close to shore and in deeper waters, the seabed is punctuated with huge boulders, some the size of vans. Of these boulders, some boulders are isolated, standing proud on flat bedrock whilst others exist as adjacent blocks of limestone pavement separated by gullies and fissures big enough to swim through.

Between the reefs, ledges and boulders is a variety of different sediments comprised of cobbles, pebbles, gravel and coarse sand. These areas support different species to the rocky habitats. In exposed areas the sediments may only be thin veneers which shift and move with tides and storms. This means different areas of seabed may be covered or uncovered across the seasons and years.

A rocky ledge full of life near Lulworth Banks
A small, vertical cliff in shallow water off Worbarrow Bay.

Even on a calm day the sea churns with white water in the tidal race off St Alban’s Head. Strong currents and overfalls create a high-energy environment exploited by certain species able to thrive in such conditions.

Divers and sailing vessels must take care to pay close attention to the tides when venturing into the area.

Image: Matt Doggett

The Dorset Integrated Seabed survey (DorIS) mapped the Dorset seabed using sonar technology. DorIS provided accurate pictures of the local seabed features within the MPA – these can be explored on the map along with the other incredible undersea formations around the Dorset coast.

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Seabed maps showing the reefs and other habitat types off the Purbeck coast and based on available survey data can be viewed via the European Marine Observation and Data Network.

Purbeck’s varied undersea landscape provides a huge number of different places for plants and animals to make their homes. Underwater cliffs, reefs, boulder fields, sands and gravels all combine to create a productive sea area full of life which attracts tourists and supports the livelihoods of local fishermen.

Image: Matt Doggett


Habitats and species

Both Purbeck’s and Portland’s reefs are considered a ‘hotspot’ for marine life. They contain significant populations of important species like crabs, lobsters and wrasses whilst high numbers of pink seafan corals can be found around St Alban’s Ledge. Mussel beds occur on the seabed out of Swanage whilst other patches of seabed are home to a rare calcified alga called maerl.

Purbeck’s productive reefs support local commercial fishermen and draw recreational anglers, spear fishers and divers to the area. Popular commercial species include scallops, crabs, lobster, bass, pollack, mackerel, plaice, black bream and cod.

The productive reefs create a wealth of wildlife in the MPA which in turn supports breeding colonies of puffins, razorbills and guillemots in the spring and summer months. Dolphins and porpoises are frequently seen along the coast, particularly off Durlston Head.

The galleries below provide a glimpse into life on the seabed off the Purbecks whilst the word cloud provides links to some of the more commonly recorded species inside the MPA.

Our seas always have something new to discover, not least due to warming temperatures and more changeable weather patterns. Divers willing to explore new sites and pay close attention to the plants and animals that live there stand a fair chance of making new discoveries.

One such example is that of the snakelocks anemone shrimp, Periclimenes sagittifer. The first one recorded along the UK mainland coast was at Swanage Pier in 2007 and the species has now been recorded throughout Dorset and west into Devon. It is usually found in warmer climes such as the Mediterranean and Azores.

A snakelocks anemone shrimp beneath Swanage Pier.
A snakelocks anemone shrimp beneath Swanage Pier.

Shallow seas

Most life in the oceans exists in the top few metres of water. Here, light levels are strongest and drive high productivity through the growth of plankton and algae which in turn, provide food for other species.

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Kimmeridge Bay Marine Reserve is a voluntary ‘no-take’ zone with an  visitor centre run by Dorset Wildlife Trust to educate people about the wonders of our seas. These videos by local divers Colin Garrett and Matt Doggett show the diverse and colourful marine life within the shallow bay by both day and night.

Dorset has numerous seagrass beds along its coast. They are important nursery, feeding and breeding areas for many different animals. The roots stabilise the seabed, providing natural protection from coastal erosion.

Seagrass is actually a flowering plant, not a seaweed – to find out more, see the gallery for the Fleet Lagoon MPA.

Image: Matt Doggett

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Deeper waters

Away from the surface, as light levels drop so algae find it progressively harder to survive. Green algae disappear first, then brown algae, until only a few hardy red algae remain.

As the types of algae present diminish with depth so animals begin to colonise the seabed in greater numbers. Sponges, corals, hydroids, seasquirts anemones and more begin to dominate the seabed.

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This gallery shows some of the colourful creatures that life on Purbeck’s wonderful reefs

In 2012 a reminder of the immense creatures that reside off the UK’s shores washed up on the Purbeck coast close to Kimmeridge.

A huge fin whale carcass was stranded on a relatively inaccessible stretch of shore during autumn. Not posing any risk to human health the whale was left to decompose. It provided food for birds and numerous insects. Some of its bones are now available to see at the visitor centre in Kimmeridge Bay.

Image: Matt Doggett

Maerl beds

Maerl is slow-growing, calcified algae. There are several species and most form distinctive rounded nodules which live unattached to the seabed. It can occur in vast beds forming a ‘living gravel’. Live maerl is pink, dead maerl is white, yellow or brown.

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Brilliant black bream

Black bream is a popular commercial and recreational fish species that attracts many fishermen to Dorset’s coast each spring and summer. Despite the species’ popularity, until recently no-one had documented the incredible story of how they build nests and reproduce. The Black Bream Project changed that.

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This video gives an insight into the lives of black bream during the spawning season off Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. It features just a fraction of the incredible behaviours captured by the Black Bream Project which has been monitoring the fishes’ breeding behaviour since 2015.

The famous geological formations of the Jurassic Coast have been formed by slow processes over millions of years since the time when dinosaurs roamed the land and swam in the seas.

Today it is still possible to find creatures that have barely changed since that time. Sharks and rays have evolved little compared with other species and are perfectly adapted for a life aquatic.

Image: Matt Doggett

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The videos below show some of Purbeck’s spotted and undulate rays.

The last video shows divers from the Undulate Ray Project taking a DNA sample from a ray near Kimmeridge. The Undulate Ray Project website provides further insight into the lives of the rays in Dorset.

The Purbecks’ rich marine life and varied seabed make the area a productive fishing ground for anglers and commercial fishermen like potters and netters.

Divers, watersports enthusiasts, wildlife watchers and coastal walkers and ramblers all visit the MPA to enjoy the views, marine life and fresh sea air.

Image: Steve Davis

People and the Purbecks 

The rich coastal and marine resources off the Purbecks have been exploited for millennia. Evidence of early human settlement includes ancient clifftop burial tumuli, hill forts and medieval strip lynchets (fields) on steep hillsides. The high concentration of ship wrecks off the coast reflects the fierce conditions faced by mariners over the centuries.

Rich fishing grounds for lobster and crab potters as well as bass, bream, flatfish and rays for net fishermen make it unsurprising that people have always chosen to settle in the region.

With much of the Purbeck Coast dominated by towering cliffs, some up to 160 metres high, fishermen are limited as to from where they can operate. Both historically and today, inshore vessels operate from Kimmeridge, Lulworth and Chapman’s Pool while others travel further from Poole or Weymouth Harbours.

The fishing methods used by inshore potters and netters have changed little over the centuries with exception perhaps of the materials used in the construction of the gear. Even into the latter part of last century lobster and crab pots were made of willow as opposed to those of plastic, metal and rubber construction in use today. In the video below, local fisherman Alan Lander describes his life as a potter on the Purbeck Coast.

This video from the South Devon and Channel Shellfishermen provides a great insight on fishing around the Purbecks from Alan Lander.

Alan is an expert withy pot maker. Willow, or withy pot making is sadly on the red list of endangered crafts. But you can still learn how – with Sue Morgan.

This album, courtesy of the South Devon and Channel Shellfishermen shows images from Alan Lander.

Alan fished for lobster at Chapman’s Pool for 52 consecutive summers. Fishing in the summer and quarrying in the winter was the way of life for many generations before him – but his son is now a full-time fisherman.

This album, courtesy of the South Devon and Channel Shellfishermen gives a view of the life on the sea for potters around Swanage from 1954 onward – photos are courtesy of Joe Miller, a Lulworth fisherman.

Tommy Russell on Jessica Lynn, a potting and netting boat from Poole.
Sea angler in Kimmeridge Bay

Fishing today

Weymouth is one of the region’s major fishing ports. Commercial fishing activities relevant to the Purbeck Coast MPA include potting and trapping for lobster, crab, pink prawns, cuttlefish and wrasse, as well as scalloping on Lulworth Banks and whelking. A small number of recreational pot fishers also use the site. In 2018, over 4,000 tonnes of fish and shellfish were landed in Weymouth, Lulworth and Kimmeridge worth approximately £11,000,000.

Other fish targeted by both recreational sea anglers, charter boat anglers and commercial fishing vessels are caught using rod and line, longlines or nets. These fish include bass, black bream, sole, plaice, rays, brill, turbot, grey mullet, wrasse and mackerel.

Scallops are hand caught by commercial and recreational fishers whilst diving. A section of the MPA south of Lulworth Cove and Worbarrow Bay remains open to bottom-trawling for rays, sole and plaice. The remainder of the MPA is closed to towed gears.

Recreational anglers fish from shore or from private and charter vessels operating from Weymouth and Poole.

Owing to a mix of the site management by Southern IFCA, the rugged seabed and local fishing history, the vessels that fish the Purbeck Coast are generally small in size – potters and netters in particular use relatively low-impact methods. Use of towed trawl nets and dredges is also banned throughout most of the site. Consequently only a few further management measures need to be in place like the application of European and Southern IFCA minimum take sizes (MTS) and Southern IFCA’s Wrasse Fishery Guidance. More details on these are provided below.

Other sea users

Coastal recreation and tourism are strongly associated with the Purbeck Coast. Its scenic qualities and natural heritage entice people to visit from all over the country. Much of the coastline is rural giving a feeling of isolation and tranquillity whilst certain ‘key’ sites like Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Recreational anglers and spear fishers use much of the accessible coast for their activities. As new conservation management measures start to take effect, fishers and divers should hopefully start to notice tangible benefits by way of increased species abundance and diversity.

The Purbeck Coast is particularly popular with divers who participate in the Seasearch program. Seasearch is a volunteer program whereby both amateur and professional marine biologists gather records of marine life around the UK’s shores. Seasearch divers have been instrumental in increasing our knowledge of the marine life throughout Dorset and reporting on the condition of the reefs.

Due to the rugged shoreline, most diving occurs from boats although shore diving is possible from Ringstead, Kimmeridge, Swanage or for those feeling particularly energetic, from Durdle Door. Swanage Pier remains one of the most popular dive spots on the south coast whilst charter vessels take divers to deeper wrecks and reefs.

Other popular water sports include sailing, paddle boarding, surfing and kayaking.

Land-based visitors to Purbeck come to watch for wildlife around the shores, walk or run the coast path and enjoy the fresh sea air and panoramic views. Artists and writers have drawn inspiration from the Purbeck Coast for centuries and the annual Purbeck Art Weeks continue a close association with the sea.

No specific value has been put on these activities but tourists bring money to the local communities and the value of MPAs for physical and mental well-being is increasingly recognised, as described in this report from the United Nations Environment Program.

Kayaking through Durdle Door
Paddleboarders in Kimmeridge Bay
Walking the Southwest Coast Path.
Diving into Purbecks' clear waters!
Diving beneath Swanage Pier
Running the Southwest Coast Path

The snorkel trail in Kimmeridge Bay guides visitors around some of the highlights the marine life has to offer. 

Colourful anemones, charismatic fish and much more await those who venture into the bay’s waters.

Image: Julie Hatcher

Peering into a rockpool in Kimmeridge Bay


The importance of enthusing both the present and next generations about the marine world, its the wildlife and the processes that drive it, or are driven by it cannot be understated. At Kimmeridge Bay the Fine Foundation Wild Seas Centre tries to do just this with organised events throughout the year, a snorkel trail to follow and aquariums full of local marine life for those not willing to brave the seas themselves.

Just up the road the new Etches Collection, Museum of Jurassic Marine Life offers a journey into the past when dinosaurs ruled the waves.

Management in a nutshell – DRAFT plans

The reefs of the Purbeck Coast Marine Protected Area are considered to be of national and international importance and support an abundance of marine life. The MPA was established in September 2017 under the EU Habitats Directive which aims to protect animals, plants and habitats that are rare, special or threatened within Europe. Additional species were added to the protected list for the site in 2019.

The MPA is used by a range of commercial and recreational fishers described above who target shellfish and finfish with nets, pots, rod and line, hand-gathering and spear fishing. trawling is permitted in only a limited part of the MPA. Charter skippers make a living taking divers and anglers to the area to watch or catch the abundant sea life.

As with the Portland MPA, fishery management mainly comes under the remit of the Southern IFCA with the Environment Agency responsible for migratory fish like eel, salmon and sea trout around England. Effective fishery management requires collaboration between Southern IFCA, the Environment Agency and Natural England who monitor the MPA.

The mostly low-impact fishing methods mentioned above mean only a small number of management measures are needed in the MPA – these are summarised below.

Net fishing

Net fishing around the Purbecks takes place mainly between Ringstead and Worbarrow although it does occur around Kimmeridge, Broadbench and Chapman’s Pool. Netters target bass, bream, sole, plaice, rays, grey mullet and mackerel.

Net fishers must adhere to the MTS for these fish outlined in European legislation and Southern IFCA byelaws. These include a larger local minimum size for grey mullet species.

Pot fishing

The MPA’s reefs support strong populations of crabs, lobster, cuttlefish and whelks which are caught with baited pots or creels by commercial and to a lesser extent, recreational potters. All potters must obey the MTS and the national restriction on the prohibition of removing berried (egg bearing) lobsters and crawfish.

More recently, fishers have begun to target wrasse species, particularly ballan and goldsinny wrasse for transport to Scotland to use as cleaner fish on Scottish fish farms to control lice numbers. Given the vital role of wrasse in coastal ecosystems and the lack of knowledge on their population status the area’s wrasse fishers follow ‘Southern IFCA’s Wrasse fishery Guidance’ – a voluntary code of conduct to ensure sustainable wrasse fishing. This includes a number of no take zones, MTS, a pot limit and seasonal closure. The IFCA’s response to the wrasse fishery is a good example of its ability to respond to changes in fishery practice that were previously unregulated.

In the Purbecks MPA the wrasse no take zone is between Broadbench and Durleston Head and extends between 1-3 km away from the shore covering all the shallow reef areas.

Sea angling

Recreational anglers fish from shore for fish like mackerel, cod, pollack, bass, rays and plaice. Charter vessels target similar species as well as black sea bream. The MPA is very popular with anglers and it is important that angling remains sustainable – the pastime has important social and economic value for the local communities and for those to travel to Dorset’s shores.

Commercial angling occurs mainly for bass in the tidal race of St Alban’s Head although anglers also now target wrasse for commercial purposes.

All anglers must obey the MTS set out under Southern IFCA byelaws.

Dredge and trawl fishing

Fishing with towed gear is prohibited throughout most of the Purbeck MPA to protect the fragile reefs. Trawling remains permitted in a limited area of the MPA south of Lulworth and Worbarrow Bay by vessels fishing for sole, rays and plaice.

The Purbeck Lobster Company off to work
A good catch of brown crabs.
Southern IFCA on patrol off the Purbecks
An Officer for Southern IFCA helps a local net fisher sort his catch during a routine inspection.
Sunset over Kimmeridge Bay.

Looking to the future

Natural England monitors the MPA and its protected reefs every six years. The reefs are presently considered to be in ‘favourable’ condition. Any new evidence of potential impacts to the reefs from commercial or recreational fishing are assessed by Southern IFCA who then consider any necessary management responses. A recent example of this is the guidance on wrasse fishing to avoid over-exploitation of the species.

Southern IFCA works to improve awareness and understanding of fishing regulations via active engagement with all fishery sectors. Compliance with the regulations is monitored during patrols by Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Officers (IFCOs). The catches, landings and fishing gears of commercial vessels, recreational anglers and divers can be inspected. Non-compliance can result in warnings, financial penalties or prosecutions.

During patrols and inspections IFCOs can update fishers on any regulatory changes. Patrols also provide opportunities for fishers to discuss the status of local fisheries with IFCOs and to make their own management suggestions. This approach keeps fishery management as a two-way dialogue rather than a top-down approach.

Meetings through groups such as the Dorset Coast Forum, Dorset and East Devon Fisheries Local Action Group (FLAG), Dorset Wildlife Trust and Southern IFCA continue to ensure that stakeholders and regulators engage with one another on a regular basis. The MPA Community Planning project funded by the Dorset and East Devon FLAG is one such project which held initial workshops in 2018 to engage with the various groups using MPAs and help shape the future management plans.

The prohibition of trawling and dredging throughout most of the MPA can only lead to positive changes in the future for the seabed communities. Leaving them relatively undisturbed will allow them to flourish and become even more productive areas for marine wildlife and successful fisheries.

The on-going monitoring, enforcement, informing and stakeholder discussions aim to ensure clean, healthy and productive local seas are secured and improved for future generations.