Planning club organised trips is never easy at the best of times; so looking for a destination which offers something new and different but is within the financial means of most club members is especially challenging to those individuals who find themselves unfortunate enough to be the designated organiser…
Talk about the possibility of a trip to the Red Sea was in truth met with little real enthusiasm and off hand comments about over dived reefs and the perils of food poisoning experienced on previous trips.
Suggestions of a trip to Norway was likewise initially met with scepticism about the cost of drink, followed by concerns about how cold the water temperature would be, plus what was there actually worth diving on? As it happens, I had already had the good fortune to visit Norway on a dive trip at the end of last year, so was very much aware of the fantastic diving that Norway has to offer to those of us who enjoy green temperate water diving.
The combination of the stunning scenery, numerous intact wrecks in sheltered fjords, and relatively clear water combine to offer an experience that is potentially second to none.
The remoteness of many of these dive sites and the relative lack of a developed leisure diving infrastructure however make the prospect of organising a club trip to Norway seem a daunting one, more like an expedition rather than a club holiday trip.
Over recent years however, a number of UK based liveaboards have quietly been developing a market over the summer months in Norway , predominantly using Bergen as a base to operate out from. These boats are all vessels that are normally based on the West coast of Scotland , but whose skippers have been looking to offer a new experience to their regular customers.
For the 2007 season, Rob Barlow, the skipper and owner of the newly refurbished Elizabeth G, also decided to follow some of his fellow West coast skippers and try and test the waters of Norway .
The Elizabeth G is herself a former 30 metre Norwegian rescue vessel which has lovingly been converted into a luxury dive charter vessel. This boat and her skipper are well known to members of the club, so selling the idea of the trip was made much easier. In the end, we had a party of ten divers booked for the trip.
Back in 2007 there were only two methods of travelling out to Bergen from the UK; flying or by ferry. With the club based in the North East of England, both methods were easy options with a regular ferry service from North Shields to Bergen , as well direct flights from Newcastle airport to Bergen . We opted to make use of both methods of travel, with the majority of the party flying out, whilst two of the group brought across the heavier dive kit in a van via the ferry service. The dive charter service are usually Saturday to the following Saturday, to fit in with the regular ferry service. Airline flights on the Newcastle/Bergen run however are scheduled on a Friday and Saturday, resulting in us having to find accommodation on the Friday evening, as well as on the Saturday evening at the end of the charter. To minimise costs we made arrangements to stay at a local hostel in Bergen .
The ferry passage across the North Sea takes around 27 hours. Once unloaded, the van was parked up in a local lorry park in the centre of Bergen without any problems.
The Elizabeth G was originally built as one of 23 rescue vessels that operated in Norwegian waters. She has however, undergone extensive modifications since her original working boat days Indeed towards the end of 2006, the Elizabeth G was fitted with stabilizers, as well as having her accommodation structure extended to allow for a bigger saloon area. She now has six twin guest cabins, complete with wash basins. She also has two showers as well as three toilets. The vessel is fitted out to a high standard and is clearly designed to cater very much towards the luxury end of the charter market. 15 litre steel cylinders and weights were provided on board as part of the Norway ‘package’. Rob can also provide nitrox as well as O2 for rebreathers, all at extra cost. Whilst the Elizabeth G carries an inflatable boat on her roof, in practice all the dives were completed by jumping off the side of the vessel with re-entry back aboard being completed by climbing up a purpose built stainless steel ‘fishbone’ ladder.
Norway and its population have always enjoyed close association with the sea. Indeed for much of its history the only viable way of transporting goods and people along the length of the country was by boat. Much of the population outside of the main cities continue to live in small communities scattered along the islands and fjords that make up the coastline. Inevitably with such dependence upon ships, accidents have resulted in vessels being lost. In 1940, Norway was invaded by the Germans. Throughout the Second World War, allied air operations were conducted against shipping in Norwegian waters often with devastating results. Many of these lost vessels sank in the relative shelter of fjords, protected from storms and strong tidal currents. The relative isolated nature of these sites has also meant that salvage operations have been minimised. It is the combination of these factors that have resulted in a wreck diver’s paradise which is only now starting to be widely appreciated by the wider diving community. In addition to wrecks however, Norwegian waters also offer some spectacular scenic wall dives as well as the potential for interesting marine life encounters. In our case, however, the vast majority of the party were there because of their interest in wrecks.
The D/S Spring.
This 903 ton steam ship was originally built in North Shields and launched in 1883. She was subsequently sold to a Norwegian shipping company. On the 6 th January 1916 , the D/S Spring was involved in a collision with another steam ship whilst on passage from Newcastle to Trondheim . Taking on water, the Spring headed for the nearby island of Roms ø y but struck the base of the cliffs of this island and was lost along with 13 members of her crew.
Today the remains of this vessel lay on a steep slope with its buckled bows resting just out from the base of the cliff in 20 metres of water. Despite its relative age, the wreck remains fairly intact and upright. It makes for a relatively easy dive dropping down along the sloping deck whilst floating across deck winches and open holds below, until just past the 30 metre mark the wreck suddenly collapses. Swimming along this jumble of wreckage you eventually reach the remains of the stern, lying on its side, complete with rudder and the single propeller still in place in just over 40 metres of water. From here it is a simple ascent back up the wreck where decompression stops can be completed whilst exploring the cliff wall which is encrusted in marine life.
This large vessel was built in Germany and launched in 1922. Following the outbreak of WWII, the Frankenwald was wrecked whilst on a night passage to Narvick to pick up a cargo of iron ore on the 6 th January 1940 . Although Norway was not involved in the war at this time, navigation lights were turned off as a security precaution. The Frankenwald, without the aid of navigation lights to mark the safe channel, struck the Ytre Sula, a rocky island in the middle of the fjord. The stricken vessel was reversed off the rock and turned around before the extent of her damage became apparent. Taking on water fast, the vessel was reluctantly abandoned and quickly foundered. Today this wreck lays upright and remarkably intact, complete with her two huge masts rising imposingly to within 6 metres of the surface. The relative intact nature of this wreck provides plenty of opportunity for exploration, with deck cranes hanging over the open holds, and tempting passageways along the accommodation blocks to swim through, this wreck provides plenty of opportunities for exploration. Indeed by popular demand we completed two dives on this wreck and felt that we were only just beginning to scratch the surface of the potential that this wreck has to offer .
There is often a strong surface current on this site, which soon disappears once one is below the halocline. This current probably accounts for the rich covering of anemones which are to be found along the top of the two masts. Underwater visibility, whilst sometimes quite dark from the tea coloured fresh water on the surface of the Halocline, is often exceptionally clear once one descends onto the wreck itself.
The D/S Ferndale and the Parat
This particular site offers the potential for the more adventurous diver to explore two wrecks in one dive. The Ferndale was built in Germany and launched in 1925. Following the outbreak of WWII she was seized by the Kriegsmarine and used as a supply vessel supporting the German occupation. On the 15/12/1944 the Ferndale was part of a convoy sailing at night to avoid allied aircraft when she struck the Sejlsteinen rock in the Krakhellesundet. Stuck fast, assistance for the Farndale arrived in the form of the diving support tug Parat and a naval escort vessel, the V5305, to protect both vessels from aircraft attack. On the following day however an allied aircraft reconnaissance flight identified the stricken Ferndale and an air assault was launched by mosquito aircraft from the Banff strike wing based in Scotland . One mosquito aircraft and its crew were lost to AA fire from the V5305 . Both the Ferndale and the Parat however were repeatedly hit by rocket and cannon fire and set alight. Later that same day more mosquito aircraft arrived and pressed home further fierce attacks against both of the stricken vessels which by now were burning fiercely. Another aircraft and its crew were lost in this attack. Both the Ferndale and the Parat however were mortally crippled and subsequently sank following this final fatal attack. German casualties are not known.
Today the wreck of the Ferndale lies on the south side of Sejlsteinen rock with the remains of her bow in around 12 metres of water . She lies on a steep slope and whilst the front of the vessel is well broken up, much of the rear half of the wreck remains intact and sitting upright on the steeply shelving bottom.
The top of the stern is at around 36 metres . Looking over the stern rail one observes in the clear water, the wreck of the Parat with its bow resting under the curving stern of the larger wreck. Like some siren, the sight of the Parat lures one to make the short drop over the stern down onto the smaller ships deck which appears so tantalisingly close. Close to the bow of the Parat, one of its AA guns can be seen with its barrel digging into the seabed. Some care needs to be exercised at this point of the dive as it is all too easy to be tempted on to continue descending down on to this small vessels stern which is situated in 60 metres of water. Swimming up over the stern rails of the Ferndale it is an easy ascent back up the wreck to shallow water. The stern area of the wreck is particularly scenic; however, it is worth making the extra effort to swim forward from the bow onwards to the base of the steep rock face. Here the cliffs are covered in a profusion of orange and white plumrose anemones. There are also some underwater caves that can be explored. It is recommended to complete ones decompression stops whilst exploring this cliff face, as to swim out into the open water of the fjord is likely to cause navigation problems for the many large vessels that travel up and down this relatively narrow passageway of water.
The wreck of the Welheim is without doubt one of the most impressive wreck dives in this area of Norway . Launched in 1939, the Welheim was a large 126 metre 5455 ton cargo vessel. On the 28 th November 1944 the Welheim was ambushed by the Norwegian MTB 717 and suffered torpedo damage to her starboard side. Mortally crippled the Welheim slowly foundered and slipped beneath the surface of the fjord. Today, apart from a thin covering of glistening oil that is still slowly seeping up to the surface of the water, there is nothing else to indicate the presence of this huge wreck. At the time of diving this wreck, a buoyed line was tied off onto the bridge superstructure.
Descending down this line the starboard side of this massive vessel eventually looms out of the dark green water. Behind the bridge are the AA gun mounts reminding one that this was a vessel lost in war. Looking down the front of the bridge and accommodation block is quite an awe inspiring experience, not least because of the sheer number of intact glass windows that descend in neat lines downwards along the superstructure towards the seabed. Swimming forwards one floats across the huge cavernous holds, their cargo of coal long since spilled out onto the seabed below. Large derricks hang suspended in time and space, whilst torch beams briefly light up huge deck winches. Ascending forward brings one eventually up to the huge bows of this vessel which reach imposingly up to within 12 metres of the surface. The current that sometimes sweeps this area has ensures that this area of the wreck is covered in a rich layer of marine growth.
The stern of this vessel descends down to over 60 metres of water where the huge propeller still remains intact in its mount. The sheer size and intact nature of this wreck cannot fail but to make a lasting impression on those fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to explore this dive site.
D/S Inger Tre
Built in Baltimore in the United States , the 3088 ton steam ship Inger Tre was launched in 1920. She apparently had a relatively uneventful career until on the 12 th January 1936 , the Inger Tre ran onto a reef in the Stavfjorden in poor visibility. Stranded and abandoned by her crew, the stricken vessel eventually slid off the reef and sank in deeper water.
Today the remains of this wreck lie scattered down the slope dropping away from the reef upon which it originally ran aground. Its relative exposed and shallow position have resulted in the disintegration of much of the wreck with only the bow area remaining largely intact in 35 metres of water. wreck, it still provides a worth while dive with lots of brass goodies still to be found hidden ) Nevertheless, whilst this wreck is perhaps more reminiscent of a typical British amongst the debris field.
The D/S Svanholm
This small Danish cargo vessel was built in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1909. On the 16 th August 1917 , however she was intercepted by a German u-boat, who believing that her cargo of wood was bound for Britain , ordered her crew off the vessel before sinking her with cannon fire. Today the Svanholm lies some distance out in this wide fjord. The wreck lies totally upright and intact upon the seabed. Her position so far out from the shore probably accounts for the amazing visibility that can often be encountered on this site. Indeed underwater visibility of over 30 metres is not uncommon. The wreck itself is situated in over 50 metres of water. Depth to the Svanholm’s deck is around 35 metres. Most of her wooden superstructure has long since rotted away. Drifting across this wreck reveals many items that bring home that continually remind one that once this sunken ship was a seagoing vessel crewed by hardy individuals who risked their lives to trade goods during a period of great conflict and destruction. Amongst the rusting iron work, one is able to look down into the remains of the crews accommodate and view china wash basins still intact and in place after 90 years under the sea. The relative small size of this wreck also makes it possible, with a little care, to explore the entire length of the vessel in one dive. The intact nature of this vessel combined with the excellent visibility makes for a memorable dive.
This small coaster plied its trade for many years amongst the Norwegian fjords trading and supplying goods to the many small settlements along these shores. In January 1991, the Solvang was overwhelmed by severe weather and sank. She lies in 27 metres of water and rests on the bottom with a slight list to starboard .This small wreck however is remarkably intact although much of her wooden superstructure is starting to rot away. What however marks this particular wreck out from others is the sheer amount of marine life that has taken root upon the remains of this vessel. Her forward mast reaches dramatically up to within 5 metres of the surface and is shrouded in a rich covering of marine growth. The small size of this wreck makes for a very pretty and scenic dive.
Launched in Renfrew in Scotland in 1881 this small 677 ton coastal steamer had a relative uneventful life spending most of its working life carrying general cargo, mail and passengers between Trøndelag and Stavanger. On the 9th December 1944, however, the Havda was on passage from Måløy to Bergen when she was spotted and attacked by Allied aircraft. Raked by cannon and rocket fire, the Havda was soon burning fiercely. Surviving passengers and crew abandoned the blazing vessel and she was left to her fate, finally sinking close to Luta Island.
The wreck now lies on her port side in 30 metres of water. Whilst the hull is relatively intact the combination of 60 years under the sea and the original fire that resulted from the aircraft attack that destroyed her have clearly taken its toll on the superstructure and wooden decks. Glass bottles lie strewn amongst the debris that litters the seabed. Just forward on the remains of the bridge area we also came across bones, the sad remains of some of the 6 Norwegian passengers and crew who were killed in the air attack. Finding such remains again served to remind one that this wreck was the consequence of deadly violence ruthlessly applied, and that the victims were ordinary individuals simply going about there every day business. The fact that these individuals had died as a result of an Allied air attack seemed especially shocking and brought home to all of us all too graphically the true brutality of modern warfare. The Havda remains a monument and a time capsule to the terrible events that brought about her destruction in 1944. Over the intervening years nature has started to reclaim the wreck, covering the stern in a ghostly white mantel of marine growth .
This liveaboard trip however offered much more than the opportunity to simply dive some superb and fascinating wrecks. Cruising down the fjords amongst the dramatic scenery allowed one to appreciate the true beauty of some of the coastal wilderness that Norway still has to offer.
Most of the cruise itenary is undertaken in relatively sheltered waters, thus making it a trip that those prone to sea sickness can realistically consider.
Furthermore most evenings, the Elizabeth G would head for some small coastal settlement which allowed guests to escape ashore to stretch their legs, and for the more affluent, to go for a drink in one of the local hotels.
Reflecting back on this club expedition, everyone without exception thoroughly enjoyed the trip, as well as been amazed by the quality of the diving experience. It’s also true to say that the water was not as cold as some people expected. Prior to the trip, some individuals within the club appeared to have been’ put off’ by the prospect of diving in what they perceived as near artic conditions. In reality the water temperature encountered was very similar to what one would find off the Northern UK coast in July .
In conclusion, based on our own experiences, I can thoroughly recommend the Norway liveaboard dive experience. It is one that is particularly suited for a club organised trip.
Participants, however, in order to gain the most out of this trip need to be fairly competent divers, comfortable at diving at depths below 30 metres.
These waters also offer the opportunity for even deeper diving for those equipped with the right equipment and experience. There are numerous other wrecks on offer that are situated in deeper water, some of which have had relatively little diver exploration. Those contemplating diving these wrecks however must be aware that it is an offence to take any items off the wreck. If caught, you may well find yourself spending time in a Norwegian prison. It is an issue that the authorities take quite seriously.
Currently Rob Barlow is not planning to take the Elizabeth G back to Norway for the 2008 summer season.
There are however at least two other UK based boats that regularly operate in Norwegian waters, the Jane R, the original pioneer of Norwegian liveaboard diving for the UK market, and the Gaelic Rose.
Hopefully 2010 will see the return of the Elizabeth G back to Norwegian waters. If so, then I for one will be booking a return trip to Norway
Elizabeth G: www.elizabethgcharters.com
Gaelic Rose: http://www.gaelicrose.com/
Jane R: http://www.divenorway.com/