A club trip to dive in the waters around the Shetland Isles was arranged for August 2016. Trip organiser, Karen, summarises the weeks diving on behalf of the 12 adventurers…
The Shetlands are the most northerly islands of the UK. Travelling there from Towcester is a car journey to Aberdeen and an overnight ferry which arrives at the island’s main town Lerwick at 7am the next morning. It takes pretty much 24 hours to get there , although some of us chose to stop off at Carlisle the night before. Why go all that way ? Well this is one of THE best UK diving spots with fantastic marine life, shipwrecks and exceptional visibility.
There were 12 of us staying on the UK liveaboard, MV Halton skippered by Bob Anderson. Some of the group were liveaboard virgins but for those of us that have been on many a trip on the Halton over the years, its a bit like coming home. The boat is a converted fishing trawler and is very comfortable with 6 twin bunkbed cabins, 2 showers/toilets and an Aga in the galley. There is well-thought-out diving facilities including a diver lift and boxes under your bench to keep all your kit.
Arriving on a Sunday we were met by Bob and his fantastic crew, Jen who was catering for us and Luke the Deckie/Tank topper-uppa. Once your kit is all set up it stays set up for the rest of the week and your cylinders are filled whilst they are tied to the boat rails – very convenient.
Our first dive was the Pionersk – a Russian fish factory ship lying at 22m just outside Lerwick. A nice shakedown dive with an enormous ling tucked in under the stern. Back into Lerwick for lunch and an walk in the sunshine spotting seals, before going back out for a scenic dive on the Giants Legs. The “legs” are two massive stacks that rise up the cliff at Bressay to form the cavern. The area is jammed packed with beautiful dahlia anemones, walls of dead mens fingers and many, many different types of colourful nudibranchs (sea slugs). Macro photographer’s heaven but with the slight surge my images were pretty disappointing (or maybe it was just my rusty photography skills) but a very enjoyable dive.
After spending the night in Lerwick our second days diving started with the wreck of the Glwadmena at 38m. With stunning visibility you can see most of the ship as you swim along her. She has 2 massive boilers and a very photogenic bow.
After the dive we started steaming north for a few hours before a late afternoon dive on what is one of my favourite wreck dives the British submarine E49. She was sunk after hitting a mine in WW1 with a total loss of life. She lies in 35m on a sandy seabed , with the sand slowly claiming her. My photo taken 8 years ago (on the right) shows this clearly. With the fantastic visibility, you can see the whole wreck as you descend the shot line. Marine life is prolific, with some lucky to see octopus and the conning tower and periscope with its mirror still in place is fascinating.
We spent the night moored at Baltasound on Unst – the most Northern island of the Shetlands. Most of us had a wander up to the famous Unst bus stop which gets decorated every year in a different theme, before heading to the Baltasound Hotel where we discovered and sampled the excellent Shetland Reel Gin, distilled on Unst.
Everyone was keen to dive the E49 again so that’s what we did for our morning dive with others in our group also declaring it one of their favourite wrecks too. The SS Tonis Chandris wreck was our afternoon dive. It has a large engine block where you can easily see the con rods and pistons and friendly dogfish willing to pose for photos.
We spent the night moored at Uyeasound on the south of Unst. This was a beautifully peaceful harbour and most of us took advantage of walking our evening meal off and enjoying the scenery including the Shetland ponies and a Standing Stone.
With the weather closing in we managed a dive on the wreck of The Jane which has a much photographed propeller still in place and very friendly Ballan Wrasse. With the current running a little the dive was finished off with a fairly fast drift and some scalloping.
We set sail for Lerwick as soon as all were back on board – the weather Jonah (me) had finally caught up with us and we had a rough journey as soon as we got out of the lee of the islands. There was some fairly spectacular sea sickness from one of us – the details of which I will spare you and with one large wave another of the team managed to face plant the saloon table, leaving his spectacles behind, a hilarious manoeuvre ! We were all pleased to end up back in Lerwick and were happy to spend the afternoon having a wander round town, instead of braving the seas for an afternoon dive.
The next’s days plan was to dive the Fraoch Ban but the tides, wind and wave swell when we got round Bressay was very uncomfortable , so we headed back into more sheltered water to have a second dive on the Gwladmena. With the vis even better than the first dive this gave us a great opportunity to get some good wide-angle shots of the wreck. When those of us that dived were back on the surface we were told that just as we dived under, Orca’s had swam past ! “Yeah yeah” we all said – what wind up merchants ! The couple of weeks prior to our trip , Orca’s had been sighted around the islands and close to Lerwick and we were hoping to see them but assumed it was going to be one of those “Oh you should have been here last week” moments. Well, we still didn’t believe they were there until they were sighted as we were coming back into Lerwick harbour. The Halton followed them up all the way up Bressay sound. We had fantastic views of them, at least 3 of them with one mother and calf. The mother was identified as an Orca called Mousa, named by the Icelandic group that research them when they return to their home ground. A very memorable surface interval, we were very very lucky to see such magnificent animals. I don’t think the seals that were looking very alarmed around the harbour thought so though.
The afternoon dive was on the SS Glenisla. She was sunk in 1917 after being involved in a collision and now lies in 45m of water, upright and mainly intact. A stunning and very interesting dive. You could see the spare propeller, steam pipework and valves, boilers and small donkey boiler, which looked a bit like a mine ! There are pieces of white phosphorous around the wreck that look like wedges of cheese. Hence the “cheese and wine” photos. We were under strict instruction to leave them there as they can become dangerous on contact with air.
With the weather settling down for our last day we dived the Lunokhods in the morning.
This is a Russian Klondyker (fish factory) ship sunk in 1993 and lies just under Bressay Lighthouse The wreck is broken into two main sections – the bow section is in 42m and the stern breaks the surface under the light house. It made for an enjoyable dive, exploring the bow before working our way up the reef seeing various pieces of wreckage as our decompression stops disappeared. There is lots of life on the wreck and the reef.
The Fraoch Ban, a small fishing trawler was our final dive. She lies in 32m on her side and is covered with marine life and very photogenic. The surrounding sandy bed is home to many flatties, mainly plaice, that swarm around you to find food as you disturb the sand. You truly feel like you’re a “fish whisperer” and Bob has taken some stunning photos of them posing around him, which of course we attempted to emulate including some video clips. One of those dives that yet again brought a smile to your face as you surfaced !
As the Halton steamed back to Lerwick all our kit and packing was done and were were ready for the overnight ferry back to Aberdeen. A highly recommended week – the Shetlands is pretty hard to beat as one of the premier UK dive spots and team Halton delivers yet again, with detailed dive briefings on the sites, excellent catering and service.
Nature and Scenery Add-on
A couple of us decided to extend our stay in Shetlands by a week. Having dived the Shetlands a few times, it was about time we saw some of the other scenery and wildlife that the islands are well known for. We split the week into two and spent a few nights on the mainland staying at Scalloway and the second half of the week in Cullivoe on Yell. You do need to be lucky for both the weather and some of the wildlife sightings. We had some luck with the wildlife, especially the puffins at Sumborough Head down on the South of Mainland and close encounters with an otter on Yell but apart from a couple of days the weather was wet and windy. Despite this the scenery, particularly round the coast is stunning and can be very dramatic. Its a very unique place in the UK and I would recommend a visit.