If you mention Ireland, most divers will talk about the south and west, yet the largely unexplored northern coastline, spanning the counties of Antrim, Londonderry and Donegal, has much to offer. There are many wrecks here, resulting from two world wars and a proximity to shipping routes. And the variety of dive sites from the Irish Sea to the warmer waters of the Atlantic Gulf Stream leaves you spoilt for choice.
We joined the crew of the mv Salutay to visit sites on both sides of the border, from Rathlin Island in the east, around Malin Head to Lough Swilly in the west. Our hosts, Norsemaid Charters, have been in the business for 15 years and know every inch of the area.
We started from Scotland, heading overnight from Portpatrick in Galloway to Rathlin Island. Heading west, we reached the coastal town of Portrush to dive the Skerries - a large exposed reef of angular, sloping rock strata, with many boulders and gullies, and a lot of marine life: some of the largest, rarest and most beautiful nudibranchs appeared in front of us as if to pose.
We headed west again, from Portrush to the wreck of the Towey. This small steam puffer carried local cargo up and down the coast in the first part of this century, before striking rocks at Portstewart. She now lies broken in two pieces in 17m of water, just offshore from a golf course. The wreck has created an oasis of life in an otherwise featureless area. The tide has swept a deep scoop in the sand around her, which has become a haven for hordes of flatfish and golf balls.
For much of this dive, we watched the antics of a tiny spider crab defending its golf ball home with great vigour, standing on top of it and waving miniscule claws with all the fervour of a beast 100 times its size.
Further west, past the entrance to Lough Foyle, is the Inishowen Peninsula. This part of the coast is littered with wartime wrecks. Although many are too deep for the air-breathing diver, there are enough exciting and little-explored wrecks within reach if you are fairly experienced.
At the end of World War II, the German U-boat fleet was ordered to rendezvous at Lough Foyle before decommissioning. Most of the vessels were stripped of anything valuable, and were either used for target practice or sunk. However, some U-boat crews refused to comply with orders and abandoned their craft along with all their valuable items, before rowing ashore to the then neutral Republic of Ireland.
Two of these U-boats, for which locations are known, lie within reach of the more experienced air-breather. On them you can find up to 30m visibility, which gives you plenty of time to spot the enormous lions mane jellyfish that trail past while you are doing your safety stop. With enormous shoals of pollack and cod, these sites provide for spectacular and thrilling diving.
Two notable wrecks are the Castle Eden and the William Manell. The Castle Eden is an extremely scenic old steamship, lying in 33m on a clean bottom of mussel shells, clams and coarse gravel. The stern section is broken, but stands 5-6m proud of the seabed. Because little sport diving is undertaken in this area, the wreck still contains wartime ammunition. There is also a wide variety of life, including enormous ling, which at first sight can be mistaken for conger eels. The William Manell is an old steam trawler converted to a minesweeper which met its fate when, ironically, it collided with another minesweeper. The wreck lies on her side and, although broken in the middle, she is more or less whole. The overhanging stern structure provides an excellent habitat for more monster-sized ling, conger and lobsters.
Heading west again, we rounded the bleak but beautiful hills and cliffs of Malin Head, to arrive in westerly waters warmed by the Gulf Stream. It was mid-July, and we noted a 5C difference in water temperature between Rathlin Island and Lough Swilly. There was also a change in the abundance of certain life forms. The cottonspinner, or Holothuria forskali, appeared in great numbers, and on one occasion a 2m blue shark cruised lazily around the boat, apparently attracted by offal from freshly caught mackerel.
Not far from the mouth of
Lough Swilly is the wreck of the RMS Laurentic, a 15000-tonne White Star Liner that hit a mine in 1915 as it left the lough. Among its valuable cargo were 3211 gold bars, of which eight are still unaccounted for. The search for the gold has left its mark, and the wreck now lies broken up and relatively flat on a clean bottom at 40m.
Despite its broken appearance, the abundance of life on this enormous liner makes it a most memorable dive. There is still plenty of brass left, including an impressive row of portholes left untouched on a length of hull lying flat on the seabed. It should be noted that the laws in the Republic of Ireland concerning wreck ownership differ from those in the UK. You need permission from the owner and may need to pay a fee before diving.
This area also has much to offer in the way of scenic dives, and the spectacular terrain above water is more than matched by that below. At the east side of the entrance to Lough Swilly is Dunaff Head, with a series of canyons, stacks and archways that offer truly spectacular diving. Few charter boats operate in this part of Ireland, but small boats have access to the Skerries and to some of the sites around Lough Swilly. Because of the currents and the nature of some of the deeper wrecks, it is better to dive under the guidance of an experienced skipper.
- The mv Salutay is an 18m motor yacht fitted out to accommodate 10 divers in maximum comfort. Prices include air, with a range of mixed gases available for an additional fee. Diving parties can board the Salutay at various points on the Scottish mainland, including Portpatrick or Stranraer, or at Bangor, Co Down in Northern Ireland. The Salutay also covers the east coast of Northern Ireland from Belfast Lough to Strangford Lough, the St Kilda Isles and the west coast of Scotland.
- The boat is registered as an IANTD facility for technical diving. Simon Williams and Jamie Stevens booked through Norsemaid Sea Enterprises Ltd, 152 Portaferry Road, Newtownards, Co Down, BT22 2AJ (tel. 01247 812081; mobile: 0831 135298; fax: 01247 820194).