The more I travel and dive, the more I realise that its not that big a world after all. My trip to Sweden began on the opposite side of the Atlantic on another assignment at the northern tip of Nova Scotia. We had a few days blown out when the wind was too rough to cross to St Paul Island, and I was idling with the other divers in the dive centre kitchen.
Customers came into the shop, one of the staff went to help them, and soon they too were in the kitchen, chatting about diving. And thats how I met Henrik, a diver from Gothenburg and the man behind the OxygÃ¨ne chain of dive centres across Sweden and Finland. He was in Canada on honeymoon with Canadian wife Heather.
A few beers later and we had made plans for me do some Baltic diving in Ã…land (December 2003) and, on the way, to look at some of the other diving available in Sweden. Which is what I am doing early on a sunny May morning on the motorway, heading north from Gothenburg on Swedens west coast.
To get into the spirit, I have an Abba tape playing.
Henrik has introduced me to Fred, one of his regular Gothenburg divers, who will be my buddy. Just over two hours on we reach Kungshamn, or Kings Harbour, and SALT. I have no idea what this Swedish acronym stands for, except that rather than a waterfront dive centre, its more like the dive resorts found at some warmwater locations.
Owner Anders takes us by boat to Elephant Reef, a hummock of rock just breaking the surface from the seabed at 35m. The terrain varies from gentle slopes to overhanging walls. The marine life is also varied, with dead mens fingers, various anemones and a few dense colonies of tunicates.
Visibility is planktony; I have arrived with the spring bloom and there is a bright emerald tinge, with blobs of algae floating about. Anders remarks that even last week it was beautifully clear. Such is coldwater diving.
Back at the dive centre, I get a slice of cake at the bar. Such snacks are complimentary for guests, but the real reason for mentioning the bar is that it is the entry point for the house reef. Despite the lure of a second boat dive, the prospect of diving the house reef by descending steps in the middle of the bar-room floor is too good to miss.
Once below the rocky shoreline, the reef is a sand and silt bank down to the perimeter of the buoyed-off area, broken by training platforms, old anchors and the remains of a small wooden cabin cruiser. I make good use of the shallow training platform, landing splat on it as both feet of my drysuit pop off at the same time. I had fitted new boots and forgotten how slippery the insides can be before theyre worn in.
I wallow about pulling the boots back on, and make a mental note to tie some straps round my ankles on subsequent dives.
Docked in front of the dive centre is a much larger wooden boat destined to become an artificial reef. From topside, I wonder it hasnt already sunk of its own accord. Under water, the propeller cut-out is the bright spot, a beautifully framed window decked in mussels and anemones. I hope they survive the sinking. Venturing into snorkelling territory below the boardwalk, there are similarly bright gatherings of sponges and anemones on the pier legs.
Climbing the steps through the floor of the bar, I can appreciate the popularity of the dive. Under water its nothing special but late in the afternoon being able to end the dive out of the wind - hot drinks, food and beer at your fingertips - gives the location that something extra.
Next day is the OxygÃ¨ne Gothenburg jolly day. The shop is closed and all the staff, occasional instructors and a fair selection of regular divers are checking out Aqualand, a new dive centre at SkÃ¤rhamn, just 40 minutes drive from the city centre.
Its more typical of Swedish dive centres, a comfortable old house converted to hostel accommodation on the waterfront. But the boat is something else, a 14m open glass fibre speedboat that was once the captains gig on the US battleship Missouri.
swedish with a dublin accent
I am struck by owner Eddys softly spoken Swedish, in contrast to the usual more guttural pronunciation. Then Henrik explains where I am from, the conversation switches to English and I realise that Eddie comes from Ireland. I had been listening to Swedish spoken with a Dublin accent.
Eddie drops anchor at the tip of a narrow rocky islet called Teste. A mild current disappears as I break through the thermocline, an oily swirling cloud at 7m. Below, the seabed slopes, then drops away in a raw and jagged wall. Marine life comes in noticeable patches - clumps of dead mens fingers, clusters of small anemones, tightly packed colonies of tunicates and solitary big anemones. Squat lobsters hang onto ledges and hide in the cracks.
Facing out from the slope, I hadnt really appreciated that part of the dive on the way down. Heading back up, I can appreciate just how much more prolific the marine life is in the shallower water.
I suspect that this has as much to do with the current as with the slightly warmer water above the thermocline.
The weekend arrives and I set off early from Gothenburg with Magnus, another diver to whom Henrik has introduced me. He is getting in a last few days of coldwater diving before quitting his job and setting off on a world tour.
Lysekil is pronounced something like Lucyshiel. Its a major seaside town, a bit like Salcombe with Swedish architecture. Its closer to Gothenburg than Kungshamn, but further off the motorway and across a fjord by ferry, so the journey again takes two hours. We begin at KarnÃ¶fÃ¶l, on a dive that reminds me of the north wall at Skomer island in Wales, save for the colder water.
I am always interested in translations of place names and Magnus explains. Karn is the name of a larger island, Ã¶ means it is an island and fÃ°l means foal. So we are diving the foal island of nearby Karn island.
There is also a Calf island at the other end. It reminds me of the Isle of Mans Viking heritage and the Calf of Man.
Later at GrÃ¥vurn, or grey urn, we dive another slope leading to a wall, but this time run our profile back to front. I have noticed on previous dives that most of the fish, understandably, stick to the shallows and the warmer water above the thermocline. So to get some fish pictures we spend the first 15 minutes at 3m with some curious wrasse, pipefish, butterfish and a well-camouflaged scorpionfish - all familiar sights, though there is an overabundance of pipefish.
By the time we head down to the deeper wall, other divers are on their way back up and we get it to ourselves.
The diving on Swedens west coast has been quite good so far, but not significantly different from sites around Britain. That all changes on my second day at Lysekil when I dive in Gullmarn, Swedens only real fjord.
The Swedish coastline is complicated. From a map you might think the place was swarming with fjords, but a real fjord is a deep U-shaped glacial valley that has become flooded.
The other characteristic is a shallower lip at the entrance, left by the glaciers terminal moraine.
Its a 20-minute boat-ride round the headland to the south side of Lysekil, up Gullmarn past the ferry I had crossed the day before and on to GrÃ¥seklÃ¥van, or Goose Cleft, a wedge-shaped fissure in the vertical cliff.
The wall goes straight up, and below the surface it continues straight down.
The water is perfectly still, with no current, no wind and hardly a ripple for waves.
Jonas, the manager at OxygÃ¨nes Lysekil dive centre, later tells me it takes three years for all the water in Gullmarn to exchange with the open sea.
I descend through a visible halocline, then a similarly distinct thermocline. Once through the plankton of the surface layer, it becomes clear and dark. The water is layered, as is the marine life.
There are obvious bands of plumose anemones, tunicates, small white anemones, tubeworms, and hydroids. Occasionally things get mixed up, as where small white anemones have set up home on the abandoned tubes of a worm colony.
Magnus has to return to Gothenburg and work, while I have another night at the dive centre before setting off for Stockholm and the ferry to Ã…land. A group of open-water students and their instructors invite me to share dinner. There are plenty of places to eat out but they prefer to cook a communal banquet on all their dive courses.
For entertainment they have a video of diving a WW2 German wreck.
The survivors had landed here and even stayed at the house the dive centre uses for additional accommodation at busy periods. Earlier in the afternoon,Magnus had shown me the memorial the survivors had carved in the rock.
into the bottomless lake
I find it strange that while there are wrecks in the area, and the divers are obviously interested in the video, no-one I had met so far seemed interested in diving them. This is the scenic diving capital of Sweden; for wrecks, they go to the Baltic.
Well, not quite that far, because on my way back from Ã…land I stop off at OxygÃ¨nes dive centre in LinkÃ¶ping for some freshwater diving in Lake VÃ¤ttern. LinkÃ¶ping is one of a line of towns along the road from Stockholm to Gothenburg that end in kÃ¶ping. Pronounced shirping, it means town.
VÃ¤ttern is the hub of an inland waterway system joining Gothenburg to Stockholm, so over the years has seen a lot of small ship traffic. The lake is 76 miles long, 17 miles wide and legend has it that it is bottomless and connects to a similar bottomless lake in Austria. In reality it bottoms out at 127m.
Uffe launches his boat at Motala and we head out to Fjuk, a cluster of three uninhabited islands in the middle of the lake. The wrecks we will be diving are all nearby, so we stop and unload spare kit to free up space in the boat.
We begin with the MÃ¤sen, a 15m two-mast wooden sailing barge that had been converted to a small diesel engine. Other than the engine, everything else is made of wood, from the rudder hinge to the anchor winch. Being in cool fresh water, everything is beautifully intact. Depth under the stern is 38m, which happens to be the average depth of the lake. One of the attractions of diving in VÃ¤ttern is that visibility is reputedly 30m or more. On the west coast I had arrived with the plankton bloom. Now, in sweet-tasting fresh water, clouds of yellow scum on the surface are in fact pollen from the pine forests. With the pollen slowly sinking, we get 10m or so.
Fizzing off at a picnic table, I get to know Skar, Uffes dog. The word he is trained to bark at is Joshmore, who happens to own another dive centre.
Decompressed, we dive the Ulrika, a slightly larger wooden barge in 34m, this time without an engine and in more broken condition, though by all normal standards I would class it as intact.
I save the last 10 shots on my film for a quick dip on the ByÃ¤lven, an antique iron steamship that had sunk in the shallows by the entrance to Fjuks small harbour in 1936. Intact parts are the boiler, a primitive single-cylinder steam engine and the propeller.
The deepest point is only 3m and I am still running a heliair diluent, using up gas from Ã…land. Others set records for deep trimix diving but I go to the other extreme - I enjoy my shallow bimble and can see why it is a popular training dive.
Back at Motala we stop for ice cream. Uffe introduces me to Joshmore, whose boat is tied up here. Woof! says Skar.
I drive back to the coast and Lysekil for some more diving in Gullmarn. In between breaking weather I manage another boat dive at GrÃ¥seklÃ¥van and shore dives further up the fjord at Ormesrad and Jordfall - all memorable for being that little bit different.
I deliberately get back to Gothenburg with a day to spare before the ferry home. While I have been in Sweden for the diving, I would expect the average visitor from the UK to be on a general holiday with a bit of diving added on. I need to do some tourist things.
I toy with the idea of visiting Ikea, then take up Heathers suggestion of a Gothenburg city pass. For 175 krone (about£15) I get parking, unlimited trams, buses and harbour ferries, and admission to, it seems, all the citys museums and exhibitions. Making the most of it, I get in two maritime museums, a 16-ship collection, a repro sailing ship, the exploratory tour and an aquarium.