This eagerly awaited trip saw four members of Marlin Sub-Aqua Club (Rob Corby, Martin Maple, Mike Waddington and Jamie Vaughan) head up to the Shetland Islands for six days diving with Orkney and Shetland Charters. The trip was made even more unique as we had never been diving at these sites before. We would be taking sediment samples to survey microplastic levels during each dive as part of a study conducted by the University of Chester and Project Baseline UK.
So on the 5th June 2021, the four of us set off for Aberdeen, where we would take the overnight ferry service operated by Northlink to Kirkwall. We gave ourselves three hours extra than the actual driving time to allow for breaks and delays. Although we did not need the time, we did not waste it. We headed to Brewdog for a few pints after dropping our kit off at the terminal into the pre-booked diver crates and then parking our cars in NCP Shiprow, which carries a discount when validating your ticket at the Northlink desk on return to Aberdeen.
Once on the ferry, we checked into our cabins before later heading to the restaurant for dinner. Cabins come at an extra cost, although I would advise getting one to guarantee a good night’s sleep as we were diving the following day. Reports from others diving with us were that the recliner chairs didn’t offer this. The sleeping pods also have a poor reputation with the locals! After A few pints in the bar, we went to bed for an early night; this was due to the bar closing early rather than us being good!
The following morning we got breakfast on board shortly before arriving in Kirkwall. We met Hazel, our skipper for transfer to our liveaboard for the week, the MV Valhalla.
After being given time to set up, we headed out to do our first dive on the MFV Franco Ban. This vessel sank in the 1990s when it capsized whilst fishing for sand eels. Due to its small size, it is very photogenic in good visibility when the whole boat can be seen. However, we only had visibility of around five metres. It was still a very nice dive with lots of the boats original features, including glass in the windows with brass fittings, and much of the equipment remains in the wheelhouse, although broken up. There is also widespread colonisation on the wreck to keep you occupied. The maximum depth was 29.4 metres with a dive time of fifty minutes.
After lunch, which is provided on board at extra cost, we commenced the second dive of the day, which was a scenic dive at Giants Legs.
The dive began with looking around a boulder field before entering a cave, the entrance of which is strewn with the wreckage of a sunken barge. Although called a cave, there is airspace between the water and ceiling. Inside the cave, there is one long passage, estimated around 100 metres, of which a seal stalked us for most of its length. On leaving the cave, the most spectacular part of the dive was around the giant’s legs itself. There was an abundance of different types of anemone and dead man’s fingers. We also spotted sea slugs, cowries (European) and a small red lumpsucker. Dive time was seventy-five minutes with a maximum depth of 16.9 metres.
After dinner, onboard and at an extra cost, we went to the pub (as we did every night). Therefore, I can recommend the Lounge Bar, the Douglas Arms, and Thule Bar (although this can apparently be a bit rowdy at the weekends).
We started the day diving the SS Gwladmena, a collier that sank just outside of Lerwick in 1918 after a collision with another vessel. The ship was a nice wreck in orientation terms as we could follow the keel from the stern to find the prop tunnel with a few winches and large lumps of coal scattered on either side before we found the boilers and triple-expansion engine that a wire sweep had displaced. We entered a swim-through under the decking to exit the bow via some broken plates. The maximum depth was 38.2 metres with a runtime of fifty minutes.
The second dive of the day was the MV Pionersk, a Russian factory ship which is known as a ‘klondyker’ that now rests between 0 and 20 metres after she was sunk in 1994 when she broke her chains in a force ten and was unable to start her heavy oil engines. Due to the wrecks size (165 metres) and the visibility of around 2–4 metres, she was tricky to navigate, but we found a power room with four to five diesel engines with a workshop still complete with parts and tools on the shelves. We also found several processing rooms with stainless steel and refrigeration equipment inside and huge tin lids strew around. In total, we spent seventy-five minutes rummaging around in this wreck, and we felt like we had only just scratched the surface. The maximum depth was 20.8 metres.
This time another klondyker, this time the Latvian MV Lunakhods, sank in 1993 in similar circumstances to the MV Pionersk. We would only be diving the bow section of the wreck, which lay at forty metres. The shot lay behind a sealed bulkhead where we had to tie the shot into. After this, we ascended onto the deck area to find what may have been the bridge, still with the spare anchor attached to it. We could see some living quarters and a washroom in the lower deck, but as we were on nitrox and one of our team had already had a nitrogen narcosis moment, we decided not to go in. Instead, we returned to the shot line for a run time of forty-four minutes. Visibility was up to ten metres.
We had a seven-hour surface interval before the next dive as we headed to the north of Shetland to dive the HMS E49. The E49 was a British submarine that tragically sank in 1917 with the loss of all hands after hitting a mine laid earlier by a German U-boat. Although most of the wreck is buried in sand, the fin (conning tower), which is made of brass, lies on its side in the sand.
The detail in this wreck is beautiful, from the brass cogs and U-jays to the stainless steel periscopes. The glass remains in the conning tower and escape hatch. We also found the bow, which lies a short distance from the main wreck. The maximum depth was 32.5 metres with a dive time of fifty-seven minutes. Visibility was around twelve metres.
That evening we stayed in the port of Baltasound, and yes, there was even a pub (The Balta Light).
We started the day by diving the E49 again, but we were treated to spotting two octopuses this time. We also attempted to find the gun with no success. The dive time was thirty-six minutes.
Dive two was a drift dive in Dogfish Ally, a site renowned for having lots of catsharks and rays. We saw two catshark and no rays! However, we did collect a bag of scallops that I prepared after tuition and Paddy, the boat’s chef, deliciously cooked. The maximum depth was 25.1 metres with a dive time of fifty minutes. Visibility was approximately 4–6 metres. We returned to Lerwick that evening.
The day’s first dive was also the deepest dive, the SS Glenisla; another Collier sat in forty-five metres of water. This ship sank in 1917 following a collision with another ship undertow. As we would be revisiting her, we concentrated on the aft section on this ship. Visibility was excellent up to fifteen metres, so we orientated from the stern over the rear open hold to get a good look at the engine and boilers, complete with coal hoppers on either side, around the engine and boilers made for some good swim-throughs and allowed for a closer inspection. We also had a good look at the spherical steam condenser and the upper deck before returning to the shot. The maximum depth was 43.8 metres with a run time of fifty-six minutes.
Dive two of the day was a reef called Otter Point. I missed this dive due to an issue with my drysuit zip, but my fellow divers reported an abundance of life, and a Seasearch survey was carried out.
We planned only one dive for the day to catch the ferry home, so we went back for the second part of the SS Glenisla. Having another look at the boilers and engine again, we dropped into one of the forward holds to find a bright white wedge of phosphorous and an anchor. A portion of the top deck left created a nice swim-through which exited by a capstan rod. Looking at the bow, we could see two anchors on the seabed close by. Returning along the wreck, we found the spare prop and a brass door lock still with part of the frame attached. We couldn’t locate the shot again, so we ascended under a DSMB. The run time was sixty-eight minutes with a maximum depth of 42.2 metres.
Our trip was at an end. Later that afternoon, Hazel took us and our kit back to the ferry terminal. After loading the diving trollies, we decided that we would use our spare time to visit the pub before getting the overnight ferry back to Aberdeen.
I couldn’t recommend this trip enough to those who enjoy UK diving. It should be noted that all our dives were conducted using either nitrox or trimix and adopting accelerated decompression procedures when necessary; this was to allow for both enjoyment of the dives and safety. An approximate cost of the trip is given below based on my booking choices.
Approximate cost per diver
Ferry £150 including cabin and food