|Scapa Flow, Orkney
The Ultimate Wrecks team travelled to Orkney from the south just as a spiralling low pressure system charged in from the north. So day one of our expedition was spent wincing and staggering in icy northern winds, first as we stumbled out of the departure lounge in Kirkwall Airport, next as we assembled equipment with numb fingers on the deck of the mv Karin, John Thorntons splendid boat in Scapa Flow.
This was to be a gladiatorial first week, and the team glanced out into the dark waters of Orkney with some trepidation from the twitching deck of the boat, tethered alongside the harbour wall in Stromness. Around us was an impressive array of manifolds and valves, cylinders and wings, all bolted together with shiny D-rings and elasticated loops.
Scapa, certainly on first impressions, is tekkie country!
Fortunately, John is also an old hand at guiding those less familiar with the black arts of mixed gas, and surveyed the team with a practised eye. Though there was a wealth of experience in our group of eight, there were also one or two more accustomed to tepid waters and Lycra suits. It was therefore decided to start the week on the shallower wrecks, before moving on to the more demanding dives as time progressed.
The Karlsruhe, a cruiser lying in a sedate 24m, was the perfect debut dive for the team. As we pulled ourselves down the line into the atmospheric gloom of Scapa, I thought: handle this, and the rest of the trip should be a fiesta of crystal viz and balmy skies.
First in was Dan Burton, expedition cameraman and all-round diving guru. Dan chose to mark his debut dive on the project by neglecting to connect his drysuit inflator hose, which created the interesting sensation for him of being slowly vacuum-packed as he drifted down towards the wreck.
Ever the professional, he was in position to film as we all moved down the line, albeit looking slightly pained.
The rest of the team settled at the base of the shot, adjusting gear and fidgeting with new configurations, and then moved off to explore the listing hull.
The shallower wrecks in Scapa are festooned with life, as befits these islands awash with currents and bathed in icy, oxygen-rich water. Plumose anemones jostle for position with sponges, and sea squirts sway beneath fields of kelp. Moving overhead are pollack so big that you wonder whether its wise to turn your back on them, while the most luridly coloured wrasse Ive ever seen root around in the body of the wreck like plump pigs.
To the fore was Crann Davies, a retired engineer who joined the expedition as a once in a lifetime gift to himself.
Crann was notable as the only one of us not wearing a hood, His shock of grey hair created a halo emanating from a presumably numb scalp as he drifted over the superstructure.
Suitably buoyed up by our first dive, the team spent the afternoon exploring one of the famous blockships dotted around the ring of islands that make up Scapa Flow. Sunk by the Admiralty in 1914 to prevent submarines sneaking into the anchorage and wreaking havoc among the moored might of the Royal Navy, these shallow wrecks are a riot of temperate species clamouring on technicoloured hulls.
These are magnificent dives for the photographer, with groups of wrasse following you loyally around the interior of the wrecks, waiting for handouts.
Beneath the stern of the Gobernador Bories, our first blockship, the fully intact rudder and prop lie half-buried in the silt. Peering from the dark cavern created by the overhanging hull was a huge lobster, waving deep blue pincers at us as we filed respectfully past.
The next two days saw Orkney flex its meteorological muscles, the storm front deepening into a howling gale that whipped the surface into white spume and made the boats in the harbour tremble against their moorings.
John valiantly managed to get us through to the K2 wreck, our boat snorting and bucking through charging rollers on the passage out.
This dive again was a beauty, a small vessel lying on one side, bow gun pointing towards the sea floor, and jumbled wreckage amidships creating endless crannies through which I spied the great slate-grey head of a large conger snaking backwards into its lair.
Our final dive was on the Brummer, a Scapa classic. By now the gale had intensified, and this dive had it all - howling winds, wildly corkscrewing deck and dark waters streaked with white foam. The Brummer did not disappoint, a beautiful, well-preserved wreck in the cold heart of the Flow.
With great skill, John extracted the divers from the maelstrom, and returned to the refuge of the harbour carrying a wild-eyed team ready for anything.
As we stepped off the aircraft at Larnaca, still shell-shocked and salty-eyebrowed from our brush with the most depressing of depressions in Orkney, we were met by a gentle Mediterranean breeze redolent with the smell of olives and baked earth.
We trailed across the shimmering tarmac towards the terminal building, sighing like a group of casualties of war arriving at some sleepy country house for rehabilitation.
The Swedes have given us Ikea, Abba and Volvo - all very commendable. They also gave us a large ferry steaming towards Larnaca on the night of 2 June, 1980, with an autopilot that could not only steer the ship but also appeared to have its own personality, and not a very nice one at that.
The result is a splendid dive a stones throw (if you can throw a stone 1500m) from Larnaca Harbour. The starboard rail lies at 18m and the seabed at 43 - something for everyone, from clammy-palmed novice to horny-palmed veteran.
The Zenobia is huge - the statistics tell us it was 10,528 tonnes and 165m long - but to dive it makes you feel as if you are flying over an office block felled by some catastrophe.
This is compounded by the numerous tempting doors and windows, some still ajar, coaxing you into the dark interior.
Our host was Viking Divers, hugely experienced in diving the Zenobia, and this was typified by its programme for us: a few gentle early dives exploring the exterior of the wreck, before venturing into the cavernous maw of the vehicle decks, and probing the accommodation areas and bridge.
Our finale was to be a brief foray into the engine room - a distinctly gnarly dive that has been responsible for a number of deaths, and one we were treating with great respect.
There were 135 lorries on the Zenobia, and these now lie in tangled heaps within the vast interiors of the main vehicle decks. One of these provided our first penetration, a relatively leisurely swimthrough initiated by diving into the hold through a huge door like that of a cathedral.
Glowing in the distance is the exit, a small rectangle of blue about 90m away guiding us over the lorries. These lie beneath you like an elephants graveyard, backs broken and innards spewed.
We were joined by local diver Axel, an excellent diver with tremendous experience but completely insane.
He first indicated his absence of marbles by unpacking a gleaming white boilersuit and some martial arts boots (white) from his kitbag. He also had a large helmet (white) festooned with lights, and a 20 litre cylinder (white). He didnt really put this cylinder on so much as strap himself to it and drag it overboard.
The resultant meteoric descent and percussive clang as cylinder and Zenobia came together sounded like a vast gong.
Axel then stood, legs akimbo on the hull, gesturing the team down. But when it came to the penetrations, he was professionalism personified.
After further dives exploring the bridge and restaurant, both atmospheric and spooky, we readied ourselves for vehicle deck two. This is a far more serious affair, with only one entry and an exit point that requires considerable contortions and much clanging of pillar valves. Once inside, you find aninterior free of much of the algae and silt that coats the rest of the wreck, and the lorries are better preserved.
The team found this dive a genuine challenge, with faultless buoyancy control essential and tying on and reeling from the entry point a key safety measure. They also had the rare treat of seeing their noble leader wedged like a cork in a bottle on exit, head outside the hatch, body and twinset firmly inside.
After lying in this position for while, a look of bovine acceptance on my face, like a heifer in an abbatoir, I was released by chuckling team-member Michael Loughray - an act he has already reminded me constitutes a rescue.
Hes probably right. Without him Id still be there, and so would the three divers behind me, still pushing hopefully on my proffered buttocks.
The final phase of the trip was an exploration of the engine room. This is entered through a hatch at 38m, requiring a reverse-profile ascent into the pitch-black bowels of the engine-room before returning to the exit point to squeeze out and begin the ascent to the surface. This is therefore a multi-level, overhead-environment, decompression penetration dive!
Crann Davies and Gavin Griffiths were the volunteers, both deemed to have the ability, qualifications and experience to complete it. All went smoothly, a credit to both of them and to Viking Divers.
The penetrations we were to be doing on the remainder of the trip wouldnt come much harder than that one.
It was an emotional journey from Cyprus through to Cairo and on to Sharm el Sheikh. Humping prodigious quantities of diving and filming gear around the world is traumatic. Doing it at three in the morning after bickering with bored check-in clerks, whose eyes light up when you wheel a procession of creaking trolleys towards them, is an added test of ones sanity, and our pained smiles had begun to slip.
Nonetheless, we made it to Dahab, a town that still had a certain Wild West feel to it. Perhaps it was fitting that our first dive had a reputation as the Alamo for recreational divers.
The Blue Hole has a fearsome history, and your qualms about diving it are not allayed by the presence of numerous memorial plaques on the rock face behind the entry point. Miraculously, the team survived the experience, and in fact enjoyed it - a gentle drift along the wall followed by moving across the exit point through the hole itself.
After a further gentle shore dive on the Bells, a series of vertical canyons dappled by light from craggy skylights, it was time to board the vessel taking us towards the Thistlegorm.
The voyage out takes three hours (or seven meals if you let the fanatically keen liveaboard cook have his way).
The Thistlegorm is like a dearly loved friend to most divers, and the old girl didnt let us down, providing a good afternoon dive and a real thumper of a night dive. The latter saw big lionfish prowling the wreck, as bold as brass in the darkness, while large jack and barracuda hunted above us.
As we hung on the deco line, a glance beneath the boat revealed the sinister front profile of a bruiser of a king barracuda, motionless in the gentle current. Half of me wanted it to come closer to provide a humdinger of a photograph, the other half (the part presumably descended from a small fish) wanted to bolt for the ladder.
I settled for one hand on the lower rung and a flinty gaze into the middle distance, careful not to meet his eye.
The next day saw us diving the Rosalie Muller. What a dive! This wreck site is upright on the seabed, and although a tad deep for prolonged exploration on a single cylinder (the deck is at 33m, and its a big vessel), the state of preservation is mind-blowing. The galley, easily accessible on the main deck, still has lidded pots on the stove, and in the engine-room tools hang in neat rows.
This truly world-class wreck must have sunk incredibly slowly, and bolt upright. Doubtless there is much more to see, but we had to head back to Sharm as the sun slowly set.
The team were diving well, the guzzlers and the gilled now neatly divided into buddy teams. Louise occasionally surfaced with more air than she went in with, something the rest of us are still trying to figure out. Michael, Mike, Crann and myself bowled around whooping great lungfuls with wild abandon, our pressure gauges whirring like the dials on the dashboard of a crashing aircraft.
We had Mark Andrews with us for this week. Contrary to what some pundits may say, he was the epitome of caution and professionalism, constantly emphasising the potential impact of narcosis at 40m-plus and passing on some top tips concerning the monitoring of our buddies in the water. He was the ideal tutor for some of the more rigorous diving we would encounter later.
Our thanks to Ed Poore and everyone at Poseidon Divers. Between the gales of laughter about my kit configuration, Ed and his team went out of their way to ensure that we accessed the best sites and had the best support.
Its a great set-up at Poseidon - surely the best technical centre in this region and possibly in Egypt. Boy, do they know the dives in this stretch of coastline!
And so we travel halfway across the world to Palau. The undersea wonders of this glorious archipelago are well-documented, and were explored on the previous Full Circle Expedition.
Exquisite rock islands cloaked in dense foliage are fringed by the shelves of coral reefs covered in crystal water leading you to precipitous drop-offs.
Meander through the warren of islands under blue tropical skies, feet sinking into talcum-powder sand with the warm wind in your face, and you might think you had arrived at the most peaceful spot on Earth.
But stare more closely at the darker overhangs on the rock walls, and a grim secret starts to be revealed.
Take a hike into the sheer rock hills at the centre of the islands, sweating and grunting under the jungle canopy, slipping and wincing over razor-like limestone and coral rocks, and it is revealed in sick detail.
Concrete pillboxes stand as if abandoned only hours before, huge guns still point to sea covering narrow deepwater channels, and everywhere is the detritus of a vanquished army.
Palau, for all its 21st century tranquillity, was the scene of some of the most intense fighting in World War Two. If it conjures images of GIs chewing gum while firing from the hip under swaying palms as the enemy dies theatrically before them, think again.
The reality was a living hell. Of the 12,000 Japanese soldiers dug in to the island of Peleliu, only 19 were taken prisoner. The rest died fighting a battle they knew they would lose against aseasoned enemy in the most bitter hand-to-hand fighting seen in modern warfare - mediaeval savagery in paradise.
This history is so recent that the lingering echo of the final gunshot still seems to sound around the lagoons, mingling with the shrieks of the white-tailed tropic birds that wheel overhead.
Our host was Sams Tours, an old friend of these expeditions, and an incomparable guide through the archipelago. Before getting stuck into the wrecks sprinkled around the islands, we had to experience the roaring currents that bathe the outer reef, washing over some of Palaus great dive sites.
Blue Corner proved to be the reg-free-flowing-mask-wobbling-teeth-clenching pelagic extravaganza of legend. Great schools of blackfin barracuda swirled above cruising grey and whitetip reef sharks, and a lone hovering eagle ray peered down at us, perfectly motionless in the racing blue water.
As the team hung at the deco stop, grey reef sharks swirled aggressively in for a closer look, seemingly rattled by the incongruous presence of a white plastic bag pulsing in mid water.
These passes became so aggressive that the final diver on the deco stop made the sensible decision that he would rather be on the boat with a minute of deco outstanding than working his way slowly through a large fishs alimentary canal with a smug piece of electronics on one wrist.
There was also the opportunity to explore the Temple of Doom - a great abscess in the reef wall entered through a trapdoor-sized hole at the base of an eerie blue cave. Chandelier Cave proved as enchanting as any computer-generated Tolkien movie set, a chain of echoing sumps streaked with mineral deposits and dripping stalactites.
As a finale to our non-wreck-related diving, our boundlessly energetic and eccentric guide Kevin Davidson arranged a nautilus dive. This involved dropping bait to 300m in a cage to draw in the nautilus for examination next morning.
Normally the bait is a chicken, but the combination of a large yacht in harbour and Kevins infectious enthusiasm meant that this particular trap was baited with a commandeered pheasant.
This obviously attracted a better class of nautilus, and a bumper crop was viewed by the team the next day in a wonderful dive hanging over an abyssal drop-off.
We were here for the wrecks, however, and our target was the Iro, a giant tanker that burnt for three days before sinking. Sitting upright in 30m, it still bears the scars of the bomb strike that downed it. The huge pylons that acted as refuelling struts reach for the surface, cloaked with extraordinary coral growth and clouds of fry.
Next was the Jake float-plane, lying upright on skewed floats in 15m, propeller pitched drunkenly towards the seabed. The fuselage is snapped in half, providing a glimpse of spars and struts.
The cockpit still has glass panels intact, and is thrown open in a terrifying moment that has been frozen in time, which gave the team a voyeuristic chill as they swept around the wreckage.
We had time to snorkel over the remnants of a Zero fighter lying intact in 1.5m of water. The 19- year-old pilot staggered from the crashed aircraft and walked to shore, where he lived for three months before being repatriated to Japan. He still returns occasionally to Palau.
Next stop was Chuuk, better known as Truk Lagoon, to explore the silty bowels of some of its 38 charted wrecks. Sixty-one ships went to the bottom over two murderous days, 17 and 18 February, 1944, as Operation Hailstone launched 450 aircraft from nine US aircraft carriers at poorly defended and inadequately equipped targets.
Unfortunately, what no-one tells you is to bring a good macro lens! It seems ironic, surrounded by huge wrecks cluttered with fascinating, photogenic tools of war, but the extravagant coral growth on these wrecks has to be seen to be believed. And something brightly coloured and goggle-eyed peers from every garishly hued nook.
Our host was Lance Higgs, on his huge liveaboard ss Thorfinn. Lance has been diving these waters longer than any other operator, and knows a lot about deep-air diving. He was practising deepwater recompression techniques 15 years ago, and insists that his guests do the same.
This is also the only liveaboard I know where you are virtually made to drink a large glass of water on completing the dive, a simple rehydration measure that Im sure reaps rewards.
The first dive was on the Fujikawa Maru - the must dive wreck in Chuuk.
It sits upright in 35m, its number two hold containing the fuselages of Zero fighters. Here the team got their first inkling of the impact Hailstone had on the Japanese war effort.
Moving out of the hold, we ascended the bridge wing to a beautiful tiled bathroom complete with bath and urinals. Passing through the bridge area, we swam through the stern section, eerily lit by natural light streaming through spars and along passages, our path occasionally blocked by chicanes of whip corals and fine sea fans.
The stern gun stands in a coral garden, incongruous amid such splendour. Slowly ascending, you had to ask how any other dive that week could top that.
In true Chuuk style, one immediately did. The Shinkoku Maru is a 165m vessel that sits upright with its prop at 42m and bow rising to 12m. The vessel has an interesting history, being one of the few in the lagoon that was constructed in Japan. She was also, as a fleet oiler, at the vanguard of the fleet that launched the assault on Pearl Harbour.
The Shinkoku Maru was anchored awaiting repairs for an earlier torpedo strike when Operation Hailstone struck, and was quickly sunk.
The notable aspect of this wreck is the coral growth, particularly on the bow section all the way back to the bridge. Some of the soft corals were beyond anything I had seen before, mixed in with multicoloured sponges, hydroids, anemones and hard coral species.
Beautiful black crinoids waved in the current, set on a backdrop of red seafans. Grouper, anemonefish and small morays jostled for position in this kaleidoscopic garden of coral, with some brightly coloured nudibranchs and small shrimp adding to the mix.
A chimpanzee with a decent macro lens could produce a roll of award-winning shots here. Sadly, I had neither chimp nor macro, so simply finned slowly through the exhibits, like some old chap strolling through Kew Gardens.
The diving over that week was intense, four and even five dives a day being the norm. Our final dive was on the San Francisco Maru, a freighter almost 400ft long and weighing 6000 tons. Its most famous cargo are the three battle tanks on the deck in front of the bridge.
The dive was excellent, with the tanks looking absurdly small for cramming in a crew of three. A glance over the port rail revealed a steamroller lying on the seabed at 70m, tempting but not an option.
Moving over the holds, there were gaps like missing teeth in the neat rows of mines, stolen by local fishermen for the 20kg of explosives they contain. Dont drop anchor on this wreck!
The final sight before ascent was the bow gun, still pristine at this depth, pointing forlornly into the middle distance, unused in the final battle because of an extraordinary recurrent flaw in the Japanese air defences on these ships - they couldnt elevate.
There was one more job for me to do, a personal quest that ended on the bow of the Shinkoku Maru.
Major Jason Ward of the Royal Marines was a great man, one I was proud to call my friend. He was also a keen diver who expressed a lifelong desire to get to Chuuk. As Jas left for Iraq in January 2003, he spoke excitedly of plans after the conflict, one of which would certainly have been a visit to the greatest of all wreck sites.
Jas was killed at the head of his men as they flew into southern Iraq in late March, and I had carried a small woven key strop he had owned as a memento of him throughout the expedition.
I placed this in the heart of the most beautiful coral gardens I had ever seen, an entirely appropriate resting place and a spot that would have made him wide-eyed with excitement and wonder.
As I looked at the strop waving gently in the current on the rainbow bow of a victim of another conflict in another time, it dawned on me that some lessons of history are all too easily forgotten.
|team-member Gavin with plumose anemones on the Z83
|final dive on a classic Scapa wreck, the Brummer
|on the bridge of the Zenobia in Cyprus
|Diver on Car Deck One at 40m filming the cabin of a truck on the Zenobia
|winch on the Thistlegorm
|the ever-fascinating contents of the Thistlegorm
|Mark Andrews is drawn to a loose porthole on another Red Sea wreck, Rosalie Muller
|swirling baitfish around the Rosalie Muller
|A nautilus lured to the surface in Palau
|a divemaster shows off ammunition on Palaus Helmet Wreck
|the Jake floatplane -
- Scapa Flow Diving & Johns Charters, Kirkwall, Orkney, 01856 87476, www.scapaflowtechnical.com
- Viking Divers, Larnaca, Cyprus, 00357 24644676, www.viking-divers.com
- Poseidon Divers, Dahab, Egypt, 0020 69640091, www.poseidondivers.com
- Sams Tours, Palau, 00680 4881062, www.samstours.com
- ss Thorfinn, Truk Lagoon, 00691 3303040, www.thorfinn.net