Portland Harbour is home to several sites for wreck-dives, and STUART PHILPOTT never tires of exploring one of the most popular
The Countess of Erne is probably the most popular dive-site in Portland Harbour. Located as it is inside the breakwater, the wreck is well-protected from wind and waves. Features include an easily accessible deck area and cargo-holds, all sitting at a shallow depth suitable for most experience levels (going inside the holds, even though there are no major restrictions, could be classed as more advanced).
I dug out my pile of old red BSAC logbooks from yonks ago and found that the Countess was my very first Portland harbour site, entered as dive no. 43 in the Philpott archives. Since then I have returned more times than I can remember, occasionally for work but usually with friends and just for fun.
Overview of Countess of Erne
This wreck is a firm favourite for recreational and tech–diver training, as well as for pleasure diving. I looked online and found that nearly every dive-club/centre south of Watford has mentioned the Countess on its website in either past or future events.
For me the wreck brings back great memories of descending all the way down the stern to explore the rudder, scouring around the breakwater boulders searching for black-faced blennies and dipping up and down through the cargo-holds.
There is only one major negative I can think of, and that’s the amount of fine, easily disturbed silt. If I was to give the Countess a rating of one to 10 on my siltometer scale, the wreck would consistently score a high eight or nine.
Arrival at the site
The Portland harbour dive-sites, including that of the Countess, are offered by nearly every dive-centre and charter-boat operating around Weymouth and Portland. From Weymouth there are several boats for hire, or contact the Old Harbour Dive Centre, which advertises the full range of harbour dives and tech dive training and beyond.
Follow the main Portland beach road (A354) onto the causeway. Carry on past the Fine Foundation Chesil Beach Centre car park, turn left at the next roundabout and then follow the signs to Portland Marina.
Alternatively, carry on to the next roundabout and turn left. O’Three drysuits and Underwater Explorers can be seen from the road (this is a convenient stop for gas top-ups and any dive-kit issues) and then follow the signs to the marina.
Portland marina offers the full range of boat services and facilities, including the Skin Deep Diving centre and The Boat That Rocks bar/restaurant. Skin Deep offer regular shuttles to the harbour dive-sites as well as venturing further offshore. Car parking is free.
Carry on into Castletown, where the Hotel Aqua and Dive Beyond reside. The café cooks up a great full English breakfast as well as more healthy options. Dive Beyond is owned by well-known PADI Course Director Dale Spree, who is a great character and has been diving around Portland forever. Dale offers Countess dives virtually every weekend. The car park fee is about £3 for four hours. There are also some free spaces available along the roadside.
The Countess of Erne was an iron-hulled paddle-steamer built in Dublin by Walpole, Webb & Bewley and launched in 1868.
At 74m long with a beam of nearly 9m and weighing 830 tons, she must have looked a grand sight in her heyday, sporting twin funnels and distinctive paddle-wheels amidships.
Owned by the London & Northwest Railway and used as a passenger ferry, she sailed from Holyhead to Dublin carrying a maximum of 700 passengers: 100 in upper class and the remainder in second- and third-class seating. There were also three cargo-holds, with a capacity of 700 tons.
After 21 years of service, the Countess was auctioned in Liverpool and sold to the Bristol Steam Navigation Co. A short time later she was sold on for scrap. All the fittings and fixtures were stripped from below decks, including topside railings, funnels, masts and cabins to leave a lifeless hulk.
What remained of the Countess spent the next 30 years as a portable coal-storage facility moored at various ports. On the night of 16 September, 1935, she broke free of her moorings in Portland harbour, drifted onto the breakwater and sank.
The Countess now lies upright on a sand and silt seabed at a maximum depth of 16m, just a few metres away from the breakwater in a parallel orientation. The deck is approximately 8-10m from the surface. There used to be mooring buoys at the bow and the stern but these days I think there is only a rope at the bow.
Most dives begin at the bow, where the shotline is attached. This is a reasonably open area, with the capstan being the most prominent feature. The bow is still intact and retains its shape.
As you fin towards the stern you see some overhead deck cross-members (some have collapsed), and then it’s a matter either of delving into the cargo-holds or continuing along the deck.
Usually I stay at deck-level, occasionally going in and out of the cargo-holds all the way to the stern, and then turn and work my way back to the shotline. If I’m feeling particularly adventurous I’ll explore the breakwater boulders on the return leg, scouting for marine life.
The silty conditions remind me of driving in fog – it can be quite eerie. There is plenty of ambient light filtering down, so I don’t think it’s a necessity to carry a torch, because the beam simply reflects off the particles. The darker overhead areas penetrate for several metres only, and the entry/exits are always visible.
The internal cabin walls have all corroded away or collapsed so it’s mainly a wide-open space, with enough room for two divers to fin along side by side. There are some deck-support pillars and ladders to negotiate but very few snagging wires or tight squeeze areas. The hull is full of large holes (there seem to be more appearing each year) so divers can also practise their buoyancy skills.
Apart from the rudder, there is not much to see on the seabed. Slightly off the wreck there are bits and pieces of metal but nothing substantial, so my advice is to stick closely to the hull. In low-visibility conditions, it’s rare but still possible for divers to lose contact with the wreck and drift into the harbour entrance, where shipping regularly passes by.
Sometimes there can be a current but it’s not usually strong enough to hinder diving activities, and the flow helps to clear away any silt.
Marine-life sightings can be quite varied. Usually I see spider crabs and velvet swimmers clinging to the bollards or camouflaged in the flora growing over the decks. Wrasse and pollack are always flitting about. Dead man’s fingers and sea-squirts adorn the hull.
There are even nudibranchs, and on occasion I have even seen cuttlefish, triggerfish and shoals of sea bass. The only time I go off piste is to explore the breakwater boulders.
I have also found the odd lobster, gobies, tompot blennies and those rare black-faced blennies.
For recreational dives I use a single 12-litre filled with either air or nitrox. This should easily provide enough gas for a 45-60-minute dive. Always carry a delayed SMB just in case.
The Countess of Erne, Portland Harbour:
Type of dive: Boat Depth: 16m to the seabed, though the deck area is around 8-10m
Marine life to look out for: Spider and velvet swimming crabs, pollack, wrasse, blennies, dead man’s fingers, nudibranchs, cuttlefish
Visibility: Can vary dramatically – on a good day, you could get near double-digits, but generally 4-5m is the norm
Seabed: Sand and silt, which is easily kicked up by a careless fin stroke and can reduce vis to zero in seconds
Hazards: Boat traffic nearby, so always carry a DSMB in case you come off the wreck, and the copious amounts of silt
Photographs by Stuart Philpott