EVER SINCE THE INTRODUCTION of nitrox and trimix, boundaries have been pushed in the field of wreck-exploration and discovery. In the early days it was diving deep air, later adding some helium accompanied by a selection of nitrox mixes for accelerated decompression. There were no suitable dive-computers; tables were worked out on a PC.
This allowed the pioneers to discover and explore some outstanding big wrecks off the north-west tip of Ireland – Malin Head in County Donegal.
This introduction of what we now know as technical diving has opened up a British Isles destination that ranks as one of the world’s best. The big change came in 1998 when the APD Inspiration rebreather was introduced, allowing unheard-of dive-times on these deep wrecks.
The wrecks are there because of the political turmoil that drove the world to two wars in the 20th century. They come from both conflicts, and have ended up where they are because of the geography of the UK.
The bow of the Justicia.
The major ports of Liverpool and Belfast sent and received ships from North America, and still do. The North Channel between Ireland and that finger of the Scottish mainland the Mull of Kintyre was the route through which the ships passed, and U-boat commanders knew that rich pickings were possible for them.
I first visited the area aboard Loyal Watcher in 2004, and still remember the outstanding clearwater diving I enjoyed. No liveaboards visit this area any more, possibly because of the exposed position in which the wrecks lie. A skipper would have to be assured of several days’ good weather before travelling from Ayr or Stranraer, and many trips ended up not reaching Donegal, while others lost several days to poor weather.
So now we have to rely on shore-based day-boats to take us to the wrecks, because they can often find weather-windows where a liveaboard could not venture out.
The diving is in the open Atlantic Ocean, big swells are the norm and challenging conditions are possible. To make the most of a week in Donegal, you have to be prepared for this.
Arguably the most spectacular of the deep wrecks is that of WW1 Dreadnought battleship HMS Audacious. The King George V-class dreadnought was completed in 1913 – 182m long with a 27m beam, she displaced more than 27,000 tons when loaded. Power came from two Parsons steam turbines fed by 18 boilers, each turbine driving two shafts – four props in all. Audacious had a top speed of 21 knots.
The battleship was commanded by Captain Cecil Dampier when, out on manoeuvres on the morning of 27 October, 1914, she struck a mine laid by the German minelayer Berlin.
The subsequent rescue operation was mired in confusion. Plans to tow Audacious to safety came to nothing and she capsized and was left lying on the seabed. No crew were lost. One turret fell off the deck and landed near the rest of the wreck.
A deep wreck this big demands several dives to be seen in all its glory. Divers equipped with a scooter are able to take in the whole wreck in one dive, but I would argue that to really get to know Audacious, multiple dives are better.
In our week we were able to have two dives on the battleship, firstly on the upturned turret and bow and then on the stern. Everything about Audacious is on a grand scale, and the wreck has been the subject of many articles but I add my image above of the massive gun-barrels attached to their turret.
Less-documented is the stern section, but modern digital cameras have improved so much that their sensitivity in low-light conditions now exceeds anything once thought possible. This means that the magnitude of the wreck of this magnificent ship can now be better appreciated.