Divernet

Seven oclock and a wake-up call. If I want breakfast before diving, now is the time to get moving. I rub my eyes and groan my way off the bunk and into my woolly bear. On deck its a grey day with the tip of Fair Isle ascending into a low cloud base, just visible through a light mist.
I nip into the galley to pour myself a bowl of Coco Pops, my favourite diving breakfast. I bring it back on deck to admire the view.
There is something fascinating about chugging along a wild and remote stretch of coast. Seabirds soar from the cliffs and spiral around the boat, the motor chug-chugs gently and of civilisation there is no sign.
Our planned dive site is at Swartz Geo, a deep bay about a sixth of the way up the east side of Fair Isle. Apparently swartz translates to black and geo means cut.
On the south side of the bay lie the remains of an Armada wreck, El Gran Griffon. Following devastation at the hands of the Royal Navy in the English Channel, the surviving ships of the Spanish Armada made their escape up the North Sea and around the top of Scotland. Ravaged by storms and separated from each other, there are quite a few Armada wrecks around the Northern Isles, Hebrides and Ireland.
The story has it that the crew of El Gran Griffon climbed the masts and escaped up the cliffs. They spent several weeks on Fair Isle, nearly causing a famine before they could be transported to the mainland.
As we enter the bay, to the north I can see daylight through two slot caves that cut right through the headland.
Was it these that had originally suggested the name Swartz Geo, rather than the bay itself

Forget the wreck
I have never been a great fan of historical wooden wrecks. Theyre interesting if you are doing a detailed archaeological survey, but not particularly exciting as a standard wreck dive. Dive Scotland notes eroded iron cannon... small pieces of wood... lead shot... anchor in 23m.
On the other hand, I am a bit of a ferret when it comes to holes. A pair of slots going right through the cliff looks enticing.
The other divers are split on the matter. Some fancy the historical significance of an Armada wreck while others, like me, are drawn by the slots. Our skipper solves the problem. The bay is narrow enough for him to watch out for divers on both sides of it.
If it were not for the remoteness, such sites are usually better suited to an inflatable or RIB. With a big hardboat, getting close in under the cliffs in unknown territory is a delicate business. A submerged rock could provide a nasty surprise.
Dropping divers off is not so bad; they jump out and the boat reverses away. Picking-up is far more hazardous, with the boat drifting as divers take time to climb the ladder, so we would have to swim out to clear water at the end of our dive.
The slots are a couple of hundred metres back from the headland. The inshore one looks wider, but boulders are breaking the surface in the entrance.
We decide that the narrower offshore slot looks the better starting point. Our plan is to go out through this hole and come back through the other.
Swimming into the slot is a bit of an effort. A surge from the north is coming through the cliff and washing us back out.
After a few minutes of this, I give up on surface-swimming, take a fresh compass bearing and dive to complete the journey under water, which is not as simple as it sounds, because the seabed is not clear.
We have to cross a couple of reefs and the entrance is only 2m deep, with a strong surge against which to swim.

As I push through the surge, the slot deepens and there is room to drop below the lip. I pause to get my breath back.
The marine life instantly changes. The outside was dominated by kelp, but once in the entrance, this gives way to a tightly packed covering of strawberry tunicates, biscuit-coloured hydroids and anemones. I photograph other divers entering the cave.
Now safely inside and out of the surge, I move to the right-hand wall to admire the marine life close up. Sites like this are nearly always a good bet for dense riots of colour from anemones and soft corals.
I am not disappointed. With clear water and reasonable light entering the slot, the scene is spectacular.
One of the other divers beckons me along the wall. A small scorpionfish is hiding among sponges and hydroids. Halfway through, I look to the other side and see light through an opening. Taking a short diversion, it becomes apparent that the two slots interconnect via a submerged arch to form an H-shaped cave system.
There is so much to see that I have to force myself to save a few frames on the film. This is the sort of dive on which I could do with a string of porters carrying spare cameras, like some of the staff photographers on National Geographic.

Through the keyhole
One hundred metres later we emerge from the north end of the slot. The opening is unobstructed down to a coarse sandy seabed at 12m. Rather than loop straight back and through the wider slot, we turn towards the headland and immediately enter a narrow gully that soon becomes a much narrower slot back into the cliffs.
This one is really narrow - single file only, with just enough room to swim through and no light visible from the other side. A boulder jammed across the slot gives a choice of an over or under route. We go under.
A pair of dancing sparkles in our torch beams quickly becomes the head of a seal that darts out past us and above the boulder. Much too quick for me to get a picture.
We never reach the end of this slot. It narrows to such a degree that there is a risk of becoming wedged by the surge. In the distance I can just make out a crack of light, but with that surge building up as it funnels into the slot from the north, the only safe option is to turn round.
Back out of the entrance, and just to the right is yet another slot. My film long gone, I am now exploring just for the hell of it and having a fantastic time.

Giant step
On such dives you cant depend on anyone elses ability to rescue you. A clear surface is intermittent and with the surge we would be unlikely to have the stamina to make it back to the south side of the headland on the surface. I am wearing a twinset with independent regulators, however, and the slots have straight edges, clear water and no silt, so I am not laying a line.
Even allowing for a caving rule of thirds, it is four slots later and over one hour into the dive before I have to turn around and head back towards the southern entrance of our starting slot. An amazing and exhilarating dive.
What of the Armada wreck
The divers who had gone for it had been up for a while and had also enjoyed an excellent dive, thanks not so much to the wreckage as to the marine life found in gullies in the reef and a cave going back into the cliff.
A few days later, we approach an impressive double arch on the cliffs called Giants Leg, towards the tip of Bressay from Lerwick. The main arch here is built on an altogether different scale - big enough to drive a bus or two through, with room to spare.
After the caves on Fair Isle, everyone is looking forward to this dive site.
Dropping into 20m, we land on a rocky slope dominated by big yellow dead mens fingers. To get beneath the arch, we have to follow this up to 12m to cross a lip, and then we are into the cut below it at 15m.
There is some plankton in the water, but even so, I can look up and see the arch above me and sky either side of the shadow of the rock.
Marine life is as expected: spectacular walls of dead mens fingers and dahlia anemones. Coming out of the south side of the arch, we turn in towards the cliffs.
Ten metres into a semi-circular rocky grotto, another opening appears in the wall. Four metres wide and 10m deep, it is much smaller than our first arch, but still a fair-sized hole.
Inside there is no sign of light from the other end - if, indeed, there is another end.
There is no way this could be the second arch seen from the boat. I must have passed the entrance without realising it. But the entrance is tempting, the marine life looks interesting and we have plenty of air. We are drawn inside.
About 100m in and the entrance is disappearing into the gloom. A clear surface is broken by rocks dipping into the water. I have not been laying a line. This is an obvious decision point - turn round, continue without a line, or lay a line from here The visibility is excellent, there is no risk of silting out and both sides of the cut are clear and straight.
There is also no danger of getting lost, so the third option is acceptable.

Twinkle ahead
Further on, the cut narrows and shallows. I can feel a strong surge running across the rocks as the gentle ground swell outside funnels through. It has the distinct feeling of being a through route rather than a dead end.
Further still, and a twinkle of daylight breaks the distance. Water is now just 1m deep. I poke my head up for a look. The exit is still 50m or so away, but the route is obstructed by jagged rocks breaking the surface. An estimated 300m long, this entrance must be well along the cliff from the Giants Leg arch where we started. OK, I could scramble across at a risk to suit, hands and camera, but it is much easier and simpler to turn back and retrace the way in.
Back in the grotto, we follow the wall back towards the first arch, this time in the shallows rather than hugging the seabed. The original second arch of our plan opens immediately to our right. Earlier we had swum below the entrance without even realising it.
The arch turns out to be shallow and scoured, not a patch on the first arch or the long tunnel we had followed.
Funny thing is, if we had found it as intended, we might never have explored the magnificent tunnel. It all goes to show that sometimes a navigational error makes for a better dive.
Shetland and caves, but what about the wrecks On the way north from Sumburgh Head to Lerwick we had dived the wreck of the Murrayfield, a small steamship that ran onto rocks off Mousa in dense fog in 1942. The wreckage is pretty well broken up between 15 and30m, with a large boiler standing upright.
Closer to Lerwick, it seems that Shetland attracts Russian factory trawlers like a cliff attracts lemmings. Anchoring in Bressay Sound to the south of Lerwick, they have a habit of dragging anchor in heavy storms and failing to get their engines started due to sloppy maintenance.
Beneath Bressay Light we dive the remains of a 2500 ton stern trawler, Lunokhod 1, presumably named after the moon probe. The intact stern of the wreck runs from 2 to 18m, with easy access inside past the machinery and refrigerated holds. Debris from the bows is scattered sparsely down the slope to 30m.

Surface-breaker
On the opposite side of Bressay Sound, the 13,600 ton factory ship Pionersk is in 18m on the south side of the Ness of Trebister. Though mostly broken up, there are intact sections of hold and the tip of the bows actually breaks the surface. Sunk in 1994 and away from currents and surge, it has little life on it. Some of the divers love it, but to me its a bit weak compared to the other wrecks.
The wreck I really enjoy is the Gwladmena, a 928 ton steamship that foundered following a collision in 1918, and resting in 37m. It is such a good dive that I am saving it for a Wreck Tour.
Heading back south after diving Giants Leg, we look for the St Sunniva, another small steamship wrecked off Mousa. Unsure of the exact position, this is pot luck. I miss the main body of the wreck but have fun taking macro pics of marine life on the rocks.
Others find the main body in 25 to 30m and report a good dive, deeper than the 20m noted in the guidebook. It seems I stayed too shallow.



Divernet

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE Ferries run from Aberdeen to Lerwick or, alternatively, take a liveaboard from the Orkneys or elsewhere in northern Scotland.
DIVING: All taken care of with liveaboard boats. John Liddiard dived from the mv Jean Elaine, a Scapa Flow-based vessel, 01856 850879. Selkie Charters in Shetland provides RIB diving, equipment hire and supply air, 01806 588297. For launching there are countless slips in the Lerwick area, but Fair Isle is mostly high cliffs.
ACCOMMODATION: All taken care of with liveaboard boats. Be aware that many of the Scapa Flow-based vessels are self-catering. If youre planning to stay on Shetland, contact the Shetland Islands tourist board, 01595 693434 or www.shetland-tourism.co.uk
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1942, Fair Isle to Wick. Admiralty Chart 3283, Shetland Islands - South Sheet. Admiralty Chart 3291, Approaches to Lerwick. Ordnance Survey Map 4, Shetland, South Mainland. Shipwreck Index of the British Isles Vol 4, Scotland, by Richard & Bridget Larn. Dive Scotland Volume 3, The Northern Isles and East Coast, by Gordon Ridley.