Shetlands Diving Odyssey

17th-22nd August 2008

Inspired by an article on diving the green waters of the Shetlands in DIVE magazine, eight intrepid members of Tyneside 114 set forth upon the five-hour drive to Aberdeen ferry port.

On arrival, dive kit was quickly loaded aboard a pre-booked wheeled trolley before boarding the waiting ferry. It’s an all night passage to Lerwick departing at 5 PM and arriving in the Shetlands around 7 AM the following morning. En route the ferry calls into Kirkwall in the Orkney Isles. The passage across to Lerwick on this occasion however proved a comfortable experience with a smooth sea.

On arrival at Lerwick, kit was loaded into a taxi van for the short journey to the quayside where the dive boat Halton was waiting .

The Halton is skippered by its owner Bob Anderson. This vessel is normally based in the waters of Scapa Flow , but ventures north each summer for several dive charters around the Shetland Isles. The Halton is a traditional wooden built trawler converted to meet the demands of a live aboard dive charter boat. She has six twin cabins for the guests, complete with two showers and two toilets. The charters are booked on a self catering basis and the boat comes complete with a fully equipped kitchen with fridge, a freezer and a range cooker.

The Halton comes equipped with a range of 12 and 15 L cylinders, lead weights and also offers Nitrox and oxygen fills for the more technically minded.

So what of the diving around the Shetlands? Well, with a weather forecast of light easterly winds and the boat full of fanatical wreck diving guests Bob wisely opted for the safe option of diving the ‘wreck rich’ East side of the islands!

Having safely loaded all our kit aboard the Halton, we headed out of Lerwick harbour to begin our great diving adventure.

Score Head, North end of Bressay Island, 17th August 2008

First dive of the Shetlands trip and a nice scenic dive on a steep slope with areas of rocky underwater cliff face that drops down to around 40 metres. On some of the more exposed surfaces we encountered large dahlia anemones, as well as a lone solitary dogfish. After completing this dive Bob headed the Halton north, we were off to the far north end of the Shetlands.

Drift Dive in the Channel on the West side of Whalsey Island, 17th August 2008

Second dive of the trip and an adventurous ‘exploratory drift dive’ with Bob dropping us off directly into the fast flowing water running through the channel. Initially it was difficult to appreciate just how fast the current was actually running. Drifting downwards however, the seabed started to appear at 15 metres, but only as a blur as the bottom flashed by as we were swept along in the fast tidal stream. The odd boulder appeared briefly, covered by orange deadmens fingers, as we swept on. Suddenly the bottom stated to drop way, so SMB’s were hastily deployed. However, Andy and Fiona suddenly came across a large anchor complete with chain disappearing off into the gloom. What lay at the end of this chain? Sadly Andy never got the chance to investigate further before being forced to head back to the waiting surface by Fiona’s misbehaving SMB.

That evening we tied up against the concrete pier at Baltasound. The following morning, before setting off, we walked up the road to find the famous local ‘Millennium bus stop’, complete with its living room furniture, soft furnishings and Amstrad computer.

 The wreck of the E-49, 18th-19th August 2008

This Royal Navy submarine was sunk on the 12th March 1917 by a mine laid by the German U-boat UC 76. She lies just outside of the channel between Balta and Huney. The vessel sank quickly with the loss of all 30 of her crew. She now lies in 33 m of water and is still very recognisable as a submarine despite the fact that the mine blew the vessel into two sections which now lie 20 m apart. Much of the wreckage has sunk into the white sand and remains hidden below the seabed. Nevertheless this wreck provides an impressive dive back into history. Being a war grave it is a case of look but don’t touch. The vessels telegraphs remain intact amongst her conning tower. A brass lamp with its glass still intact remains bolt upright upon her stern deck.

It is a humbling privilege to visit this time capsule of a bygone age and quite sobering to reflect upon the circumstances of her loss and the sad fact that the remains of her brave crew are still entombed inside this wreck. The two dives we completed on the E-49 were without doubt the highlight of the week’s diving. The E-49 also has a local connection to the North East of England as she was one of three vessels of this class which was constructive and launched on the Tyne by Swan Hunter’s at Wallsend.

 SS Tonis Chandris, 18th August 2008

The Greek steam ship Tonis Chandris was en route from Kirkenes to Barrow-in-Furness with a cargo of iron ore when she was apparently sited and pursued by a U-boat. Aware that they were being stalked the crew took desperate evasive action zigzagging across the sea to escape into the surrounding fog. The vessel however ran aground on the half submerged Vere Reef in the early hours of the 9th January 1940 . Efforts were subsequently made to refloat the vessel but with deteriorating weather a last desperate attempt were made to pull her off the reef using a tug. The salvage attempt was abandoned however as soon it became all too evident that the vessels holds were simply filling with water faster than the pumps could extract it.

She remained in place on the reef for several more days until bad weather and big seas broke her back. Today the Tonis Chandris lies on a sloping kelp covered seabed. Much of her wreckage lies hidden under the surrounding seabed and kelp. This wreck however is most notable for the impressive engine block which rises several metres off the seabed. Her boilers are still in place as is the prop shaft. Close to the end of the propeller shaft is a small ledge that drops down onto a sandy seabed where more wreckage can be found. Swimming off to the right in around 26 m of water we came across an impressive emergency ship’s wheel still upright on the seabed and covered in marine growth.

The wreck of the Tonis Chandris also provides a good rummage dive with great photographic opportunities and plenty of recognisable wreck features.

The Swedish Steamship Jane, 19th August 2008

This wreck also has another connection with the North East, namely that she was constructed at the Alexander Withy yard in Hartlepool in 1870. Originally named the Jane Corrie she was subsequently sold to a Swedish company. On the 19th July 1923 she was loaded with barrels of herring at Baltasound and set off for Lerwick. Her captain made a simple navigation error however, when the Jane entered the wrong channel and ran aground on the Isle of Linga. Holed below the waterline the vessel quickly took on water as she floated off the rocks driven along by the strong tidal stream. She sank in the early hours of the 20th July a short distance south of the island of Sound Gruney.

Fortunately all 14 members of the crew including two women managed to safely leave the Jane before she sank. Today the Jane lies virtually upside down with a slight list over on her port side. Time and Tide are taking its toll and the hull is now decaying and gradually collapsing. Perhaps one of the most interesting features of this wreck is the iron propeller, still fixed fast in place on the upturned stern. Moving down the wreck it is still possible to enter inside the upturned hull. Indeed at one point the boilers and the remains of the engine room can be seen through a break in the hull.

The bow is still very much intact although completely upside down. Apparently the ships bell was recovered several years ago and is now on display in the Shetlands Museum . Just off the wreck several large dog fish were observed resting on the seabed. A large anglerfish was also found amongst the kelp on top of the upturned hull.

Wreck of the Sailing Barque Bohus, Yell Island, 19th August 2008

The Bohus was a magnificent 3 masted sailing barque built at Grangemouth dockyard in 1892. She was eventually purchased by a Swedish company who used her as a merchant sail training ship. On the 26th April 1924 whilst on passage from Gothenburg to Chile the barque was wrecked on the Ness of Queyon on the island of Yell . Four of her crew were lost including one of the cadets. The vessel was quickly broken up by rough seas and today she lies scattered in a series of gulleys just off the rocky shore of the island. This particular site does not appear to be heavily dived and whilst the wreck is now very broken up the Bohus still provides an excellent rummage dive. There are still many recognisable features of this wreck including deck winches, wooden spars and many brass fittings which still gleam from within the piles of steel plate. We even came across two portholes amongst the extensive debris.

The figurehead from the Bohus was washed up on a nearby beach where it stood as an unofficial memorial to the four lost members of the crew. This figurehead, also known locally as the white wife of Otterwick has recently been lovingly restored and returned to her resting place from where she still looks proudly out to sea.

Canon Site out at the Outer Skerries, 20th August 2008

The Outer Skerries consists of a collection of small islands and rocks out on the eastern fringes of the Shetlands. As such these islands are extremely exposed and have accounted for numerous vessels driven onto these rocky shores by easterly gales and fork. There are a number of protected sites in this area including the wreck of the Dutch East India man Kennemeland as well as the wreck of a Danish man of war the Wranglas Palais wrecked off the Lamba Stack on 23rd July 1687 whilst apparently chasing Barbary pirates. On this dive whilst exploring along the eastern side of journey we came across an area of numerous iron cannon is scattered across the seabed in a large gully at around 24 m of depth. They possibly belong to the Danish warship Wranglas Palais. If so, then this site is actually a protected wreck site. Either way, it was a case of look but don’t touch. There appeared however to be no signs of recent excavation and the dive provided an interesting but brief insight back into a different age of seafaring .

The Giants Legs, East side of Bressay, 20th August 2008

Another excellent scenic dive with plenty of colourful marine growth, plus an interesting cave to be explored. There is even wreckage of some lost vessel, although it’s very difficult to make out what type of ship it originally was. We even encountered the odd shy seal .

SS Gwladmena, 21st August 2008

Yet another wreck with a North East connection, the iron steamship SS Gwladmena was originally built by R. Irvine of West Hartlepool in 1878.

On the 2nd January 1918 however the Gwladmena was involved in a collision with the Danish steamship Flora as she was approaching Lerwick with a cargo of coal. The Gwladmena quickly sank although all 22 members of her crew were saved. The Gwladmena now lies upright on the seabed and is still quite recognisable as a ship although she is quite broken up in places. Perhaps the most memorable feature of this wreck is the bow area. This area of the wreck is very reminiscent of another more famous Scottish wreck, the Thesis in the Sound of Mull. Plates along her bow area have fallen away to the seabed allowing light to penetrate into the interior of the wreck. Indeed it is now possible to swim into the bow area from the inside of the wreck.

Underwater visibility on this dive was around 10 metres and with light streaming into the bow area through the missing plates, it provided quite a scenic atmosphere to the dive. Inside the bow itself we also came across an old fire hose, still coiled up from the day that the ship went down. Close by were also several very old tins of paint still neatly stored inside the bow. Deepest depth recorded on this dive was 38m.

Orkney Man’s Cave, 21st August 2008

This particular site is situated only a short distance from the Giants Legs site. The under water cave cuts deeply into the heart of the island and a good torch is a must. Inside the darkness, the torch beam lights up walls of bright orange marine growth. We also encountered a large panicking bull seal which fled past the advancing divers, lit up by a barrage of torch beams.

SS Glenisla, 22nd August 2008

The Glenisla was at anchor off the Kirkabister light in Bressey Sound when another ship ploughed into her side whilst under tow, (having apparently been the victim of an earlier torpedo attack).

A subsequent enquiry however apparently held that the master of the Glenisla was in fact responsible for the collision, as no anchor lights were on show at the time of the collision..

Originally built by W B Thompson of Dundee and launched in 1878 the Glenisla experienced something of an eventful life, having been involved in a number of serious collisions, as well as having been scuttled and raised twice before her final collision on the 24th November 1917 .

The wreck now lies in one of the main shipping channels into Lerwick and permission has to be obtained to dive this site from the harbour master. The wreck however is still very recognisable as a ship rather than a scrap yard. On this occasion Bob managed to drop the shot into the middle of the wreck just behind the remains of the boilers and engine room. In this area are also the remains of a small workshop complete with tools still in place. Both the bow and the stern areas are relatively intact and it proved possible to briefly explore the length of the wreck in one dive, although not without building up some serious deco stops. On the seabed off the starboard side, Andy Hunt also managed to find a large slab of white phosphorus which he very sensibly left behind. Most of the wreckage lies in just over 40 m of water with the seabed at 45 m. The Glenisla provided another truly memorable dive on the last day of the Shetlands trip

Lunokhods-1, 22nd August 2008

This Ukrainian registered fish factory ship was wrecked on the 9th November 1993 after dragging her anchor in Bressay Sound.

This 2774 ton Klondiker was built in 1971 at the Chernomorskiy shipyard in Nicolayer, Ukraine. Unable to start her engines in time she crashed backwards into the small bay beneath the Kirkabister lighthouse on Bressay during a severe southerly gale.

All 156 members of her crew along with the ships cat were rescued from the sinking vessel by the coastguard Sikorski helicopter based in the Shetlands. The vessel ended up stern first in the small cove under the lighthouse where she quickly broke up. The bow and parts of her stern now lay further out in deeper water. Diving the site in August 2008 there was no apparent evidence on the surface to indicate the trauma of the events that unfolded on the 9th November 1993 .

With a calm sea we jumped off the side of the Halton and descended down under the underwater cliffs beneath the lighthouse. Here we came across groups of Dahlia anemones. Keeping the wall on our left hand side we swam on around the headland and immediately came across large sections of wreckage. Whilst the wreck has lost all semblance of an intact ship it is still possible to swim inside large sections of wreckage where you are surrounded by rusting machinery and refrigeration coils. Suddenly you are taken back in time as your torch beam illuminates the remains of a workshop complete with laithes and tools. There is also a considerable amount of non-ferrous metal such as large brass flanges and valves scattered throughout the wreckage. The wreck has clearly not suffered at the hands of the salvage scavengers. The Lunokhods-1 provided a fascinating last dive to the trip .

Once everyone was recovered, it was only a short journey back to the quay, where kit was swiftly packed up for the return passage to Aberdeen . Thanks to Dave Robson for organising another great club trip