Fair Isle Expedition 2016

The last time I saw Fair Isle, I was in an air ambulance being flown down to the hyperbaric chamber in Aberdeen at the time, but that is a different story! And can be read on a different blog here… It only took seven years to visit the island by boat.

A line of rebreathers!
Steve checking his rebreather.

Our group met up at the Aberdeen ferry port on the Saturday afternoon having travelled from across the UK, and with a pile of Dangerous Goods Notes to cover our cylinders sought out our specially booked Diving Equipment Container. This turned out to be a horsebox which the occupant had just left; damp dive kit smells bad at the best of times, but add in some wet horse and the scent is truly ‘interesting’.

Sea life in Shetland.

After a calm crossing we lugged all of our kit on to the MV Halton, then eagerly awaited Bob’s latest plan.  We had hoped to do a quick check dive then a second dive as we headed down to south Shetland, before crossing to Fair Isle on Sunday night or Monday morning.

Unfortunately the weather put paid to that plan. Sunday through to Monday was building to a force 8 – 9 south westerly, accompanied by a big swell; definitely not the sort of weather to cross from Shetland to Fair Isle in comfort. So we dived locally within the shelter of Shetland. First dive was the Fraoch Ban, a small fishing boat which sank in 1999 in Hope Wick while trawling for sand eels, and now lies on her starboard side on the white sand in 27 metres.

Poking around the wreck, we found numerous octopuses sitting on her rigging; great to watch and a great start to the week. Taking shelter from the increasing wind and swell, our second dive was up on Score Head.  This was an underwater seascape was very like the Farne Islands; huge boulders and strange shapes, but where in some areas the urchins have grazed most marine life into obscurity!

Monday morning brought high winds, and Andy Hunt chose a random pinnacle on the chart to dive off Kebister Ness. Not knowingly dived before, my buddy Simon and I found five octopus, which made a great photographic opportunity. Hubert Desgranges (our French representative) collected enough scallops to feed us for two days’ worth of starters! The afternoon dive was the SS Dovre, a Norwegian cargo ship that sank in 1913 in South Nesting Bay, whilst en route to Bergen carrying a cargo of coal.

Si Fish on the Fraoch Ban
Si Fish on the Fraoch Ban

Tuesday morning dawned bright, at least it was once the fog burned off. Our final dive on Shetland was the Gwladmena. Looking back at the history of this 928 tonne steam ship, one could conclude that changing the name of a ship is bad luck. Having previously been named the Mary Hough and then the Maggie Warrington, she struck a Danish Steamship the Flora in January 1918 en route from Methil to Lerwick. Just a few miles short of her destination, the Gwladmena sank with its cargo of coal. Lying upright on the seabed in around 38 metres, even though much of the upper part of the wreck was destroyed in previous wire-sweeping there is lots to see, particularly at the stern. Visibility of 8m or so helped, but it was still quite a dark and atmospheric dive.

The flat cannon on the El Gran Grifon

The dive on the Gwladmena left us on a high, but this was soon to become a queasy low! As we headed south past Sumburgh Head to cross the 38 km to Fair Isle, the sea began to build. All chatter stopped and lying horizontal became a must. But where was best to lie? on deck (Hubert)? on the cabin floor (Fiona)? by the toilet (a few others!!)? What felt like days rather than hours later, we felt the swell lessen, we had arrived; and wow, Fair Isle is one large lump of rock sitting in the middle of a very stroppy sea.

Our immediate plan was to dive the El Gran Grifon, the flagship of the Spanish Armada’s supply squadron.  She was a supply ship rather than a combat ship, and following the defeat of the Armada, El Gran Grifon was one of the ships that sailed north, and rounded the north of Scotland before anchoring off Fair Isle. She was wrecked on 27 September 1588. Entering a series of gullies, the only sign of the wreck we found was a flat cannon shape; presumably because it had been worn away by stones rubbing over it in the swell. The El Gran Grifon was not a true fighting ship so there are few cannon to be found, and after 428 years all of the timber has gone, but there is much more to be found under the kelp growth.

Following the dive, we were greeted with the most fantastic sunset. Orange and gold light bathed the island as we moored up in North Haven bay. A few of us took a detour to take photos of the sun set, on our way to the local watering hole – the Bird Observatory.

Sun Set on Fair Isle

The following day dawned bright and breezy and a plan was hatched to dive The Fless, a small island close to the site of the El Gran Griffon. We all kitted up and jumped in, and I was so excited to be diving a new spot on Fair Isle. But oh, no, no, no. In my haste to get ready, and a dive brief mid kitting up, I had not done up my dry suit zip. Rooky error! So many expletives later, I was sat on deck in dry clothes, tea in hand, waiting for the rest of the divers to return. Return they did, whooping! It turns out that not only did they find the elusive walls of jewel anemones, but Hubert and Michael Hunt found a new wreck. We still aren’t sure what the wreck is, but hopefully some research over the winter will provide a name.

So, with a boat full of jubilant divers we began to head south, the journey to North Orkney was a lot flatter and less wretch inducing than the journey to Fair Isle. On Papa Westray, the 106 metre long and 4348 ton Panamanian cargo ship the Bellavista managed to stay completely hidden amongst the dense kelp in 15 metres of water.

So Thursday dawned, or should I say crawled into being under a thick blanket of fog. How can we dive safely in fog? Short answer, we can’t. So a plan was hatched to steam out to North Shoal 9 nautical miles from the mainland of Orkney, and hope for some better weather. After a few hours the fog did lift, the sun came out, the sea was calm and diving was on. After a very detailed brief considering the site is remote, has strong tides and hasn’t all been accurately mapped, we got ready.

Boulder at 32 metres, covered with life!
North Shoal at 32 metres, so much life!

Wow, what a dive, the pinnacles and gullies start at about 10 metres, dropping quickly down to 40 metres and beyond. The walls of the gullies are plastered in marine life, hydroids, bryzoans, and nudibranchs: this dive really is a Seasearcher’s paradise. Happy to be on a rebreather with a camera in my hand, I took so many photographs on this dive. It is an incredibly high energy site; the steeper rock faces were multi-coloured, every centimetre covered with jewel anemones. Fish shoaled all around us, and at the end of our dive Simon and I “hung” with a thousand or so pollock as we slowly returned to the surface; quite an experience.

Diver on the Karls Rhue.
Diver on the Karls Rhue.

On boarding the boat we sensed excitement building; that can only mean one thing in our club – a new wreck had been found. Another one. Hubert and Michael had located a boiler amongst all of the boiler shaped boulders, and marked it with a DSMB; so Andy and Fiona Hunt had gone down to have a look. They returned confirming that yes, it was a wreck. For the second dive we stayed on the same mark, so that everyone could go and see the wreck, and Bob could take a selfie of himself swimming over the boiler (not just a skipper our Bob!). The origin of this wreck still hasn’t been confirmed, but Bob has asked some of the local Orcadians if they might know. The wreckage found, might just point at it being an old Norwegian fishing vessel….

We arrived back in Stromness at 8 pm, just in time to hit the pub and indulge in a beer whilst devising a plan for our final day in the Flow. After a good night’s sleep in the shelter of Stromness harbour, we headed out to dive two of the classic wrecks, the Kronprinz Wilhelm and the Karlsruhe. Between diving the wrecks we visited the Heritage Centre at Lyoness. Always an interesting place to visit; full of history and a good place for tea and cake before the next dive.

So with the diving over, we decamped from the MV Halton, not so simple at low tide. Then headed over to Kirkwall with all of our dive kit (thank you to Andy for organising the transport). After a curry and a wander around town, we loaded our horsebox again and caught the ferry back to Aberdeen.  On arrival in Aberdeen we were all tired, but happy to be back in one piece. Just a shame that we only managed 2 dives on Fair Isle, someone must have upset those stroppy weather gods!!

Almost a group shot! Just a few missing!
Almost a group shot! Just a few missing!


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