|The Elizabeth Bornhofen, perched upright on an 80m seabed with its doorways and hatches open, might have sunk yesterday, were it not for the sealife-encrusted rails, portholes and navigation lights.
Finning along the decking past collapsed masts, my torch picked out, bolt upright on the aft deck, the biggest ships wheel I had ever seen. I looked at my buddy in disbelief, but it was time to commence the ascent and 90 minutes of decompression scheduled in the cold Norwegian waters.
The idea of diving this wreck had begun when Matt Duke, a diver I had taught on a trimix course, met a beautiful Norwegian journalist on holiday. Her newspaper was interested in the story of the Elizabeth Bornhofen, sunk in the fjord at the entrance to Bergen harbour, and Matt called me to see if we could put a small expedition team together.
We roped in trimix divers Graeme Bruce, Mark Grainger, Paul Adkin and Gareth Leyshon and an experienced support team, Craig Billingham, Andy Bentley and John Skerry. Matt, as expedition leader, undertook months of planning to ensure that everything would run smoothly when we arrived in Norway.
Permission had to be granted to dive the wreck, and we were put under strict notice that no artefacts should be lifted.
The chief instructor at Bergens Classic Nemo shop, Atle Toskedal, organised our gases and allowed us full access to the compressor to blend the trimix and nitrox we would need.
And Matt found a superb diving platform, ms Navigator, skippered by Norwegian coastguard Halvor Mohn. Halvors skill at manoeuvring this vessel was remarkable. Helped by the variable pitched props, he showed that he could turn it on a sixpence.
Craig was responsible for researching the Elizabeth Bornhofen, a 1923-built cargo liner 90m long with a 13m beam and 6m draft.
The night of 4 October 1944 had not been the best time for the vessel to be anchored outside Bergen harbour; that was when the RAF decided to bomb the German submarine pens. The ship, sailing under the German flag, was hit and sank with no recorded loss of life.
Our team met up in Newcastle to make the 24-hour ferry crossing. Customs officials opened our vehicles at the terminal to reveal some 40 diving cylinders of all sizes, and various gases. We explained that they werent bombs and they seemed happy.
In Bergen we got down to planning the week-long diving programme with Atle. Our main concern was the water temperature. As British divers, we were accustomed to cold water but unsure how low the temperatures might sink at depth. We decided to carry out some dives in the 50m range to check our kit, temperature and visibility.
The first was on a wreck called ss Spring, which sat on a fjord wall. Its highest point was at 30m and the wall went on down to 150m.
The second site was another wall, which again disappeared well past 100m. We found visibility to be about 10m and temperature 4C at 50m.
How best to maintain a comfortable body temperature when staying in the water for at least two hours A DUI drysuit and Snugpack Technical undersuit would keep my body core warm and I insulated my hands by using one thin pair of gloves under another thicker pair, which allowed me to maintain dexterity.
The other team members each found their own divewear solutions.
We were also concerned about free flows, and Mark and Paul were charged with ensuring that all the regulators were in tiptop condition. In the event, we experienced no problems with them.
We were ready to carry out our first dive on the Elizabeth Bornhofen. With little or no tide, we would be able to attach a decompression trapeze to the shotline directly above the wreck.
The deco station consisted of three bars at 9, 6 and 3m, with spare decompression gas at the 9m level.
We asked Halvor to place the shot towards the bow and began to prepare our equipment. We were using twin 12 litre cylinders for the bottom gas, with mixes of 17 per cent oxygen and 44 per cent helium, travel gases of nitrox 36 and a final deco gas of nitrox 70.
The first dive was planned to give us a 15-minute bottom time and total decompression of 90 minutes. Graeme gave me the lets go look and we were the first of three pairs in. We switched to our bottom gas at 20m and continued descending the line. At 30m we were aware of a distinct line where the brown water changed to black.
Landing near the bridge, we were amazed to find visibility of as much as 20m. The water was dark but, in a good light, very clear. Paul and Mark, the second pair down, said they could see our lights from 30m down.
We swam towards the bow along the port side and, in front of the bridge, spotted the ships nameplate and crest. We headed back, swimming across debris over the deck, where a large navigation light lay close to one of the broken masts.
For a deep wreck, there was a surprising amount of marine life, including huge ling and two of the ugliest wolf-fish I have ever seen, both bright turquoise.
In the holds we could see the cargo of iron ore, but what caught and held the eye was that intact ships wheel.
Unfortunately, our bottom time had already run out. We needed to get back to the shotline and commence the ascent. At 30m we switched to our travel gas and began the long decompression to the surface.
SHOPPING FOR GAS
Excited discussion ensued, the result of which was that we decided to dive again the next day. This meant a busy evening of dive-planning and further gas-mixing. We had to fill 28 cylinders for the team with various mixes, just as the locals were descending on the dive shop to get their regular air fills.
We still aimed to get in an early night, followed by a relaxing morning to prepare for the afternoon dive. We achieved this, apart from having to take time out for a grilling about the diving and the wreck itself from the local press.
Four of us were to dive the Elizabeth Bornhofen this time round, with Graeme and I leading again, and Mark and Paul following close behind.
We had decided on a longer bottom time and to go deeper, and we wanted to place the shotline nearer to the ships wheel this time.
How close do you want it Halvor asked me.
About a metre will do, I replied, though I was joking.
I entered the water and waited a few seconds for Graeme to reach me at 10m. Sea conditions were similar to the day before, and I was able to discern the shape of the wreck from 60m on. Descending onto the decking, I couldnt believe my eyes - the shotline was less than a metre from the wheel!
Graeme had brought the camera with him, and spent the next 10 minutes shooting away at the wheel and the ling that lived behind it. I finally levered him away, and we swam towards the stern.
We explored the holds and some of the smaller stairwells. Penetration was easy enough, though with all the silt deposited we knew we must take care to preserve the tremendous visibility. My natural instinct to pick up brass also needed suppressing but it was wonderful just to witness this huge time capsule.
It was at this point that the loudest drumming noise I had ever heard under water intruded on our dive. It was very uncomfortable and I spent several minutes with my hands clamped over my ears. I realised that it had to be a surface vessel, but could not work out how it could be so noisy at depth.
We learnt later that a large tanker had entered Bergen Harbour. It was not that close, but the walls of the fjord acted like an echo chamber, bouncing the noise from wall to wall.
Once it had abated, we headed further back. Looking over the stern rail, we decided to head down for a closer look at the murky bottom. There was no debris behind the wreck, so we turned back along the port side towards the start point. On this swim the wreck displayed a wondrous amount of life, including various anemones and rare Lophelia pertusa corals.
Our bottom time had caught up with us too quickly again, and Graeme signalled the ascent.
I spent much of the long deco phase thinking about the great dive we had just completed, though apprehensive about how cold I might feel later on.
Mark and Paul caught up with our run time and shared the usual difficult four-way conversation through scribbled messages.
We surfaced just 150 minutes after the dive had commenced for the mug of hot tea and where the hell have you been banter. Were hungry for more such dives now, and plans are underway to visit other deep, undived wrecks in the Bergen area.
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