Water world: Swim with the fishes at a former coal depot

Summary

From coal treatment plant to subtropical dive centre, TODI at Be-Mine in Limburg is unique

Underwater love

The only sound is my breath as I fin slowly through a school of vegetarian piranhas. My mask may magnify how close they really are, yet the grey creatures loom large as they swim centimetres from my face. As I descend the maximum 10 metres of this underwater world, I spot paroon sharks circling the deepest point.

Despite the eeriness of diving solo in 6.5 million litres of water in the company of more than 2,500 freshwater fishes, I’m in an almost meditative state as I explore every nook and cranny of the giant TODI dive centre at Be-Mine in Beringen, Limburg, a former coal depot. Whether indoor or outdoor, saltwater or fresh, scuba diving is always a therapeutic escape.

Down here, there’s an aquatic adventure park to discover: soaring columns, one toppled, suggest the ruins of an ancient city; stone walls provide more contemporary landscaping; barnacle-encrusted rocks reinforce the marine theme; and a mine tunnel complete with railway tracks recalls the site’s industrial heritage.

Caves, platforms and even an underwater bar with a beer tap are additional fun. This being the industrial heartland of Flanders, three cars from the nearby Ford plant have been sunk into the pool, windows missing and doors askew for divers and fish to explore. 

Not alone

I’m not entirely alone. Video cameras record all activity in the pool and are relayed to screens in the adjacent brasserie and bar as well as to staff for security purposes. The sides of the basin also contain small windows from which visitors and diners can watch.

This unique diving site is the result of a complex refit, which has transformed a disused relic of the coal mine that closed in the late 1980s. Opened in October last year, the TODI dive centre is the largest subtropical diving and snorkelling centre in Europe.

While divers can pursue their sport in lakes and quarries in the summer, outdoor diving is almost impossible in northern Europe in winter as it’s too cold. The Nemo 33 pool in Brussels may be the second deepest in the world, but this new facility provides an alternative all-year-round practice facility for divers, snorkelers and free divers.

Owners Dirk Heylen and Wouter Schoovaerts spent 12 years developing the project, including finding a suitable site. “We knew the Be-Mine site had a plan for reconversion, so we proposed this idea to use the existing basins,” says Schoovaerts. “We also knew we could receive a subsidy.” From the outset, the pair wanted to combine an indoor pool with an aquarium. “We have decor and fishes to focus on a sensation experience,” he adds.

The €9 million investment involved converting and extending the existing two concrete basins. The larger one, with a 36-metre diameter, had been used for washing coal. A new, raised roof with wraparound windows now allows natural sunlight to fill the pool. An annex contains the reception, brasserie and bar with outdoor terrace, and ground-floor changing rooms. 

Whether indoor or outdoor, saltwater or fresh, scuba diving is always a therapeutic escape

Crystal Clear

A lift delivers visitors to the fourth floor with access to the pool and dive equipment area. The material is all new; bottles, weights and buoyancy jackets are all provided, and all other equipment is available to rent.

The centre provides jackets to guarantee they are properly disinfected. Ensuring the perfect health of thousands of tropical fish – 30 species – requires stringent measures. They are quarantined when they arrive at the site and divers are not allowed to feed them. The infrastructure’s smaller basin acts as a filtration plant to treat the pool’s water, keeping it crystal-clear.

Despite the water temperature of 23 degrees, wetsuits are mandatory, even for snorkelers, to maintain the centre’s status as a diving facility. The pool can hold up to 90 people, but the number is capped at 60 to keep the experience pleasurable and the owners recommend that divers reserve a time slot. Don’t forget to bring your diving certificate, proof of insurance and dive buddy.

If you want to learn to dive or simply experience breathing underwater and the sensation of weightlessness, there are initiation classes in scuba diving, free diving and surface diving, and it’s accessible for people with disabilities. There’s even a mermaid school.

The site is an attraction in itself. Be-Mine is an award-winning urban renovation project; a mix of commercial, residential and tourism development. Two slag heaps overlooking the spaceship-like dive centre have been transformed into adventure parks, one for mountain bikes, the other for hiking. Coal mining may have come to an end in 1989, but Flanders’ industrial legacy is proving to be highly successful and diverse.

This unique site is the result of a complex refit, which has transformed a relic of the coal mine that closed in the late 1980s