Valkyrie goes to Shetland
ONCE AGAIN WE WERE TO JOIN Hazel Weaver, Helen Hadley and crew onboard Valkyrie. Their home port is Stromness on Orkney, but they make an annual pilgrimage to the remote Shetland Islands between June and the end of August.
While diving Scapa Flow with them they had told me how wonderful and more varied than the Flow they found Shetlands diving, so it was time to find out for myself.
The easiest way to travel to the Shetlands is by air. On my previous attempt to fly to Orkney via Aberdeen, British Airways had made an error with the check-in procedure, resulting in a missed flight and a ferry trip. So this time we checked in for both legs of the flight from the word go.
The Logan Air representative at Aberdeen airport remembered us from the previous year, and kindly ensured that there would be no repetition of the previous problems. Sure enough, a couple of hours later we landed at Sumburgh, albeit slightly behind schedule.
We had made it – unfortunately my dive-kit and that of others in our group had not. And there was I thinking it was all going so well!
It was the last flight of the day, and no luggage would arrive until the following day at the earliest, so there was little to do but head for Lerwick and get installed on Valkyrie. The missing luggage was delivered next morning.
Being so far north, the temperature change from the warmer climes of south-east England is very noticeable, as are the longer hours of daylight.
In mid-June it has hardly got dark before the sun rises again. Lerwick is actually nearer to the Arctic Circle than it is to Edinburgh.
Valkyrie’s spacious foredeck is where all the dive-kit is set up and kept. The crew make sure that guests’ gas requirements are met, so there’s not much else to do but listen to Hazel’s very detailed and informative dive-briefings.
I always find the first dive of a trip in the north Atlantic a bit disconcerting. I’m not sure why, except that the dark, sometimes rough, waters take some getting used to.
The first dive was on a little-known wreck called the Fraoh Ban, a 16m eel-trawler that reportedly sank in about three minutes in 1998. Despite the rapid sinking the crew all escaped, as did the captain who, according to sources, was not a small man but managed to get through one of the small wheelhouse windows. Amazing what adrenaline can make you do.
The sandy seabed makes the ambient light better than expected. The wreck lies on its port side totally intact at 31m – as she sank so quickly all her equipment, particularly in the wheelhouse remains untouched.
One curiosity of the dive were the “worshipping flatfish”. If you pat the seabed gently, lots of flatfish suddenly appear with their backs arched, looking up at you as if worshipping a deity. Most skippers ignore this wreck as it is rather small. More fool them, it’s a great dive.
I AM FOND OF CAVERNS, and one called Fugla Hull (Bird Hole) just off Bressay would be, we were briefed, both picturesque and exciting.
Unusually, the entry and exit points were not the same. The L-shaped entrance is at about 12m and leads into a large chamber with colourful walls. Lots of dahlia anemones and blennies were in evidence.
After exploring the chamber, you pass back along the passageway through which you entered, keeping the wall to your right, until you can go no further. At this point you slowly make your ascent to the exit.
The waves, seen from below, were smashing through what looked like an impossibly narrow and shallow gap. As you get closer, however, it becomes apparent that the gap is more than wide enough to get through.
Now at about 2m depth, you commit and are energetically ushered into the exit channel, which is a few metres long, and blasted out into calmer waters and a very pretty sea garden teeming with life. This dive had a bit of everything.
Unfortunately the weather was not being very kind, and the skipper decided that it would be better to stay moored in Lerwick than steam north of the islands. There are interesting wrecks and dives there, but it could have been an uncomfortable journey.
This, as all UK divers know, is a fact of life, even more so this far north. I can’t say I was disappointed, as I’m not particularly fond of rough seas. And having a crew with great local knowledge, we didn’t feel we would be missing out. They told us there was plenty to see and do “down south”.
So a boulder reef called Score Wall was followed by a search dive for an uncharted wreck. Score Wall I found a little boring, with little to see but a few crabs and lobsters.
The search for the wreck was more fun, but had I come all this way to dive through kelp? I prayed that the next dives would be more entertaining.
MOORING IN LERWICK HARBOUR allowed for very comfortable nights’ sleep and time to explore. The town was much larger than I had imagined, with an eclectic variety of shops, restaurants and bars.
After a very good breakfast on board, on day four we headed out to dive the Gwladmena, a 67m steamship built in 1878 and weighing in at 938 tonnes.
Transporting coal, she was struck while at anchor by the ss Flora and put under tow, but sank in around 15 minutes. The crew made it ashore.
Gwladmena lies upright at about 38m on a silty bottom. The upper structure was wire-swept so is no more, and the wooden decks have long since rotted away, though the hull is relatively intact.
We dropped down the shotline amidships and made our way to the bow. The intact foredeck has a large opening allowing access inside the bow. Seen from the outside, because some of the steel plating has fallen off the visible bow structure looks rather sinister.
Heading sternward, the steam-engine appears, followed by two large boilers of an unusual design, which makes the wreck even more interesting.
Steam-engines are fascinating, and this two-cylinder compound design doesn’t disappoint. There is also a deck-gun to be seen, just off the stern.
The waters may be dark at this depth but visibility was excellent. The Gwladmena had laid to rest my earlier concerns, and a lot more wrecks were dived over the week, but most memorable for me was the Glenisla.
Because of its location in a busy shipping lane, permission has to be obtained from the port authority, which allocates a time-slot for diving – and this only goes to emphasise the mystique of the wreck.
GETTING THERE: Flights from London to Aberdeen with BA and on to Sumburgh with Logan Air.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: The 22m timber-built Valkyrie started life as a fishing-boat in 1967 and has travelled all over the world. It was converted for diving in 2003. It caters for mixed-gas and CCR divers, www.mv-valkyrie.co.uk
WHEN TO GO: Between June and the end of August.
PRICES: Flights cost around £250pp. One week’s B&B on Valkyrie including diving costs around £750 – gas mixes extra.
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.shetland.org