Words and images by Richard Booth
Tyneside 114 has a long history of diving in the Shetlands dating back to the early 1970’s when club members first ventured to these remote Islands in search of Viking long ships!
Still ever optimistic, this latest Shetland expedition had the ambitious aim of travelling out to the remote island of Foula to dive the wreck of the SS Oceanic, a sister liner to the Titanic lost during the 1st World War after it ran aground on an exposed reef in thick fog.
Other BSAC divers from the Milton Keynes, Ellen and Wright Dolphin club’s joined us on this expedition.
The bulk of the expedition members arrived in Lerwick after a remarkably calm crossing from Aberdeen on the ferry. Here we were met by Andy Hunt who had spent the previous week running a 1st Class diver training/assessment week on the MV Halton. The smooth crossing had undoubtedly raised hopes that we might just make it out to Foula.
On the West side of Shetland however, a large Atlantic swell was still rolling in, so the expedition was forced to start on the East coast. Foula would just have to wait for more settled seas.
We kicked off the dive programme diving the wrecks of the SS Gwaladmena and the SS Glen Isla, steam ships lost in collisions during WW1. Both wrecks are remarkably intact despite resting on the seabed for 100 years.
We also dived the scenic dive site known as the Giants legs, which offer some dramatic passageways and a tunnel.
Whilst in Lerwick we also had the good fortune to see a family pod of killer whales pass through the harbour. We slowly followed the progress of this pod as it moved down the coastline hunting seals along the rocky shoreline. Indeed that evening footage was posted on social media of one of the whales using its powerful tail fin to flick a poor seal several feet clear of the water. Clearly not an animal to be messed with!
Later that afternoon we dived on the wreck of the Lunokhods, a Russian Klondyker, wrecked after she dragged her anchor in a storm in 1993. The fact that we were all too aware that the pods of killer whales were also nearby added an extra sense of excitement to the dive. We even encountered a very nervous seal that dashed away into the gloom spooked by our encounter.
From Lerwick the MV Halton headed north up the East coast of Shetland allowing us the opportunity to dive the wreck of the SS Tonis Chandris and the E-49, a WW1 Royal Navy submarine lost in 1917 to a mine.
The wreck of the SS Tonis Chandris was lost in 1940 after running onto the Vere Rock. Although now well broken up, she still offers an interesting dive with her large upright steam engine. Off her stern area is the intact ships emergency wheel, which offers a fantastic photographic opportunity.
The wreck of the E`49 is one of the Shetlands iconic wreck sites. This dive is made more poignant by the knowledge that her crew of 31 are still entombed within her hull under the seabed.
At Unst we also took the opportunity to visit the famous bus stop and the new memorial to the crew of the E 49.
From Unst we continued North to Muckle Flugga, with its dramatic lighthouse set high on its cliffs.
Several hundred metres out from Muckle Flugga is the small islet of Out Stack, the most Northerly point in the British Isles. Whilst waiting for the tide to drop, some of the party swam to its shore, and eventually found a way up the steep rock to the top. It was from here that Lady Franklin is said to have also scrambled her way to the top to keep a look out for the return of her husband’s ill-fated expedition to the Arctic in 1845. Fortunately on this occasion all members of the Tyneside expedition made it safely back to the boat in time to dive around Out Stack.
This proved a most exciting drift dive along the steep submarine cliffs, as the tide proved to be still flowing quite strongly. The almost continual flow of water however has ensured that all the exposed surfaces are covered in a rich covering of marine life.
Whilst being recovered from the water we were treated to the spectacle of thousands of gannets floating above, whilst gangs of Skua’s selected individual gannets to chase, forcing the poor birds down into the water in an effort to persuade them to regurgitate their fish. The spectacle proved to be a brutal affair, with some gannets being drowned by the ferocious onslaught of the Skua’s. This brutal spectacle undoubtedly added to the imposing sense of wildness that characterises this remote and isolated part of the world.
We also dived a rather non-descript rock off the North West tip of Unst, with the rather unlikely name of Stackins –Huaska Stack. Underwater however, this rock proved to offer a very colourful scenic dive, with its walls and gullies liberally covered in bright colourful jewelled anemones.
The MV Halton now headed south down along the West coast of Shetland as we still hoped to make it out to Foula, if conditions improved.
En-route we dived the impressive Muckle Ossa Arch, the impressive underwater visibility allowing us to swim deep under the arch and from the bottom look up and view the arch towering dramatically above us. Swimming out and along the western cliff some of the party discovered
an impressive tunnel that cut back into rock and was complete with its own blowhole at the end! This site clearly offers more exciting exploratory diving opportunities.
The West side of Shetland also offers a number of wreck dives, and one of the more sheltered sites is the SS Highcliffe, off Papa Stour. This large steam ship was wrecked in 1940. Her bows are broken up in 6 metres of water. Although subject to extensive salvage work, this wreck still offers a fantastic dive. Her large upright steam engines are particularly impressive.
The remains of her stern rest in 26 metres complete with a large gun, still with shining brass bits in place.
Did we make it out to Foula? Sadly not, as the Atlantic swell failed to subside sufficiently to allow us to visit and dive this remote and very exposed spot.
Instead, with the swell picking up, we ended the expedition exploring the Hildsay Wall. Perhaps because this area is more sheltered, it did not offer the beauty and dazzling marine life of some of the other sites we had explored. Nevertheless, we had experienced some outstanding and adventurous diving during this Shetland expedition, thanks to Andy Hunt, Bob Anderson and the crew of the MV Halton.