TEN YEARS AGO, IF SOMEBODY HAD TOLD ME that one day there would be holidays catering for technical divers in home waters, I would have laughed. In the early 90s only a few people, most of them involved in commercial diving, were privy to the mysteries of mixed gas as a way of overcoming obstacles to deep exploration. It wasnt there for fun.
     Today, all that has changed. Many divers get their trimix qualification and are left wondering how best to use it. Glamorous deep-wreck explorations might grab the headlines, but how can trimix divers use their skills without all the hassles of a full-blown expedition
     One answer lies off County Donegal, where the north-west tip of Ireland drives its jagged way into the Atlantic. The cliffs here can rear as high as 600m, and names such as Bloody Foreland reflect the harsh nature of the environment.
     Only recently have some of the well-kept secrets of this coastline started coming to light. The fact that Donegal offers what is probably the best deep-wreck diving in Europe is fast becoming the focus of conversation across the technical community.
     From huge liners to battleships, Donegal is home to a magnificent catalogue of wrecks steeped in history, but what makes the diving so special is the awesome visibility. Its not uncommon to enjoy 30-40m views in Donegals offshore waters, where the big wrecks lie.
     Most are also in a sensible depth range of 40-70m, relieving divers of the pressure of big decompression penalties - and making their visit more of a holiday!
     My latest mobile ringtone halts conversation at the deli. Its my old diving pal Chris Hutchison: Ive booked a charter vessel for a weeks diving off the north of Ireland, he says. Interested
     You bet! Like Chris, I had been hearing rumours about diving off Donegal for some time. Richie Stevenson, who runs Deep Blue Diving, was similarly delighted to have an independent group charter his liveaboard to visit the area.

nomadic existence
Loyal Watcher, an ex-Royal Navy fleet tender with a range of more than 2500 miles, comfortably accommodates 12 heavily equipped divers. Converted with the needs of serious wreck-divers in mind, it carries adequate supplies of oxygen and helium.
     And, unlike conventional liveaboards, Loyal Watcher leads a nomadic existence. The crew live onboard, and the vessel could visit several locations throughout Europe during a single season.
     Stevenson says that, of all the locations Loyal Watcher visits, Donegal is the highlight of the season. And because club divers who acquire trimix certification often cant finance a charter alone, the company runs Deep Blue Weeks on which they can book a space and team up with like-minded technical divers.
     A weeks holiday off this part of Ireland begins at the small fishing port of Girvan on Scotlands west coast. Girvan is tidal, so the charter can leave only at certain times. As soon as the last diver was aboard with high water, we were off.
     The 110-mile journey across the North Channel takes almost 12 hours. Travelling through the night, we missed seeing Rathlin Island, the Mull of Kintyre and Malin Head, but arrived at our first dive site conveniently soon after crawling out of bed.
     An added advantage of diving these waters is the refreshing lack of tidal constrictions. We never once had to calculate slack water; we simply threw in the shot and went diving.
     Stevenson was able to advise us about the wrecks, their condition and how to get the best from our bottom time.
     The plan was to stick to the tourist route and decide in midweek whether we wanted to be more adventurous and locate some unexplored wrecks, of which there is no shortage.

childs toys
The Empire Heritage was a 12,000 ton oil tanker sunk during WW2. She was carrying government stores, including Sherman tanks and trucks, which now lie scattered over the wreck like a childs toys. The UKs answer to the Thistlegorm
     Visibility was easily 40m. Empire Heritage seemed to come into view almost as soon as we entered the water.
     The wreck lies partially twisted and upside-down over a white sandy seabed about 65m deep. There is no need to reel off the shotline; navigation is simple.
     The stern is upside-down. A huge, four-bladed prop towers above, intact and solid to its shaft assembly. Six double-ended Scotch boilers can be clearly seen some distance from the prop. Swimming towards them, you note that the wreck twists back and virtually rights itself.
     Two large triple-expansion engines mark the point at which the construction begins to break down. A short swim beyond the exposed boilers brings the unforgettable spectacle of a number of Sherman tanks, some piled upside-down on top of the others but intact, their guns pointing in all directions.
     Over the clear white seabed, bucket dump trucks appear, jumbled as if casually tossed there. Those upright remain loaded with tyres, while others spill their load across the sand. The wreck for the first time becomes somewhat shipshape at this point, with deck fittings, derricks and winches clearly identifiable.
     Peering over hatch-combings, we saw more tanks and supplies stacked within deep holds. Lots of broken steel girders marked the way to the focsle and bow, which lies to port fairly smashed, the large anchor providing a clear marker.
     The sun broke through the soft corals that lightly cover the wreck, making it an impressive sight, though the water temperature was less inspiring at 9C on the bottom and an acceptable 13C for decompression.
     Fixed in a position some 15 miles north-west of Malin Head, we had plenty of time to enjoy a breakfast buffet and check our gear before reaching the shelter of Lough Swilly. This is where we would anchor each night, surrounded by the Knocalla Mountains.
     Lough Swilly has been called the Scapa Flow of Ireland, because it played a vital role in combating the German submarine menace during WW1.
     With its clear entrance and a magnificent expanse of water extending 12 miles inwards and three miles wide, the lough is the first and last safe port on the western merchant trade route.
     One of the logistical problems of diving Donegals amazing wrecks, and perhaps explaining why there is so little diving activity, is the lack of marinas, harbours and dive centres on the coast. With few shops accessible, the charter has to be pretty much self-sufficient.
     Each evening Loyal Watcher would arrive in the bay of Portsalon, and its small inflatable would ferry us to and from the nearest Guinness sales-point!

cargo of gold
The 14,892 ton White Star liner Laurentic lies in 40m, not far from the entrance to Lough Swilly. Not only does the site provide a great opportunity to dive when conditions are rough, but the wreck becomes a popular playground for those on second dives.
     The wreck lies generally upright on a stone and gravel reef, although numerous salvage attempts to recover a cargo of gold are obvious, as it appears fairly well blown apart. The hull has fallen out across the reef and six huge boilers form the highest point of the wreck, one having rolled to starboard but staying in line.
     There are three engines, one of piston design, the others turbines. Their propshafts are broken in strategic sections and exposed, but the props have long since been salvaged.
     The ships ribbed construction is apparent and an abundance of steelwork, flanges and pipework is present, with four 6in guns lying among it. Each gun, and the boxes of ammunition that litter the wreck, is a solemn reminder of the Laurentics wartime activities.
     The inshore location means that the water is more emerald-green here, but visibility remained excellent, at well above 20m. Ambient light levels were such that we never needed to use a torch during our stay, even at depths of 70m.
     Laurentic is home to a wide range of marine life. Pollack, pouting and cuckoo wrasse swim aimlessly around bollards, while lobsters and crabs have found homes in several ceramic toilets.
     As on other wrecks here, the bow is the most impressive section, cut clean off aft of the focsle and lying intact to port.
     One cant help remembering that not all of Laurentics gold was recovered as one looks around this interesting wreck. As I swam around with my camera I envied those colleagues with DPVs. Each of them managed to circumnavigate the 560ft-long wreck several times.

damned scooters
Loyal Watchers compressor made light work of cylinder-filling each day, even with two dives, and the ultra-long filling whips saved us the painstaking task of having to drag our twin-sets to the fill point. Back on the vessel after each dive, I simply retired to my chosen bench, where my equipment remained until the next time out.
     Climbing the ladder was also easy because the crew, including the engineer and Greg the friendly chief, were always on standby to recover side-mounted deco cylinders, cameras and, of course, those damn scooters!
     The accommodation comprises three double-berth cabins and a single eight-berth for the lads, though the single shower on board did give rise to occasional arguments in the queue.
     Twenty miles from the lough, although still in view of Malin Head, lies the wreck of HMS Audacious, a 23,000 ton dreadnought battleship sunk by a mine in 1914.
     Her loss was an embarrassment to the Admiralty. The mighty Grand Fleet was rendered helpless and had to leave it to Titanics passing sister Olympic to try to bring Audacious to safety! Like most battleships, it lies upside-down, but it is a tremendous dive. The wreck stands proud 12-13m over a sandy seabed at 63m, and with 30m-plus visibility, navigation is simple. The stern is obvious from the triple screws shadowing the seabed against an intact rudder.
     As we headed south across the keel towards the bow, we swam over the turbines in the exposed engine-room.
     Dropping down to the seabed, the smaller barbettes and guns could be seen, and huge 13.5in projectiles lay scattered on the sand. It all seemed very impressive until we reached the forward twin gun turrets which, although upside-down, provided an awesome monument to turn-of-the-century engineering.
     The bow is equally imposing, with two extremely large anchors still in their hawsers and a great deal of machinery and portholes to see.
     As with most of these Donegal wrecks, one visit to Audacious will require another and then another, especially if you dont have a scooter to help you take it all in.
     After doubling up on dives to these great wrecks, we had only three days left. However, our next dive was so impressive that we were content to leave for another year everything else that lay unexplored close by, including virgin liners and dozens of U-boats.

top ten changes
The Justicia, a 32,234 ton White Star liner lying in 70m of water, was possibly the most impressive wreck any of us had dived since the Britannic project of 98. My Top 10 list of wreck dives changed at a stroke - even the Lusitania took a drop down the rankings.
     The Justicia is worth taking a trimix qualification to see, even if you never use trimix again!
     This 750ft giant was the third largest liner sunk during World War One. The wreck lies fairly broken and listing to port some 21 miles north-west of Malin Head, on the edge of the area in which the U-boats of Operation Deadlight were lost.
     Blessed with almost 40m of viz and bright rays of sunshine, we marvelled at the intact bow with its safety rail still attached and a massive housed anchor on the starboard side.
     I shot the images you see here fluctuating around 1/60th on the shutter speed, bracketing through the apertures as I went. This was big-time exposure country, and had I known in advance I would have brought my tripod and a stock of fast film!
     Swimming over and down the foredeck we could see winches, anchor chains and capstans fitted to an intact deck, as if on the day the Justicia was lost. Where the bow had broken away, we could see within the below decks untouched hand-lamps and the machinery that once drove the huge capstans above.
     Heading from the focsle towards amidships, 12 huge boilers were visible in the distance, with many donkey boilers beyond them. A service tunnel runs most of the length of the ship, broken at strategic points and big enough for a technical diver to penetrate.
     The bridge rests to port. It is so big, it could easily be mistaken for the starboard hull. And we saw more porthole windows and ventilation systems than we had ever seen on a wreck.
     I made three dives, but with so much to photograph never made it to the stern. My friends on scooters had the time of their lives. Their reports suggest that the port prop lies beneath the wreck, while the centre prop shows only its blade-tips above the sand and the starboard prop rises impressively high above the remaining wreckage.
     We came away from Justicia and our week diving the wrecks of Donegal with fabulous memories and a determination to return soon.

  • Deep Blue Diving offers a variety of courses on board, including trimix and rebreather, 01752 491490, www.deepblue.gb.com. Another liveaboard, mv Salutay, also visits the area. It can carry eight trimix divers, and skipper Alan Wright is an experienced trimix diver and authority on local wrecks, 028 9181208, www.salutay.com

  • Richie
    Richie Stevenson gives scale to the awesome 13.5in gun barrels of the dreadnought Audacious
    investigating an open tank hatch on the Empire Heritage
    mooring bollards on Audacious display interesting marine growth even at 63m
    the prominent and haunting bow tip of Justicia
    apparently Irish stout is good for divers
    Sherman tanks lie scattered over the wreck of the Empire Heritage
    a turbine within an exposed engine room of the Audacious
    again Richie Stevenson gives scale to the huge four-bladed propeller on the inverted stern of the Empire Heritage
    The smaller guns of Audacious lie to the seabed, overshadowed by the 13.5in monster turrets
    one of the two massive anchors located at the bow
    mooring bollards over the intact bow section of Justicia
    Examples of Justicias many different types of window construction
    a rebreather diver and his scooter make their entry from Loyal Watcher
    Justicias huge starboard house anchor