SURREAL MOMENTS tend to catch you unawares. Like the rather inebriated 80-year-old Glaswegian singing an unintelligible version of a pop song in the bar of the most northerly hotel in the UK.
We had arrived in Baltasound on the island of Unst while trying to dive the wreck of the WW1 submarine E49.
I say trying, because the weather had given us a wet and windy slap across the face, so we found ourselves that evening watching open-mic night at the Baltasound Hotel as the rain drummed on the windows.
Unst is the UK’s most northerly settled island, and as part of the Shetland archipelago is as far north as you can go and still retain English as a common language (unless you are drunk and from Glasgow).
Earlier that day we had dived the Jane, a small freighter complete with its prop and brass bits. The wreck lies almost turtle, its back broken in a few places. The part that stands proudest of the seabed is where the engine is sited.
Off to the side lies a jumble of broken superstructure, which is good to explore, and the engine space has been opened up by the power of more than 80 years of storms.
Although in life the Jane was a fairly nondescript iron-hulled ship used for carrying dull things like ore, it’s a pretty wreck to explore, with a lovely prop.
At around 20m deep, it usually offers a decent amount of time and light.
Due to threatening clouds, however (which opened up as we reached Unst), the light didn’t penetrate too far.

THE WEATHER WAS NOT particularly on our side on this trip. Rain, wind and low clouds dogged our diving days, breaking only once when we dived a fishing-boat, the Fraoch Ban.
The wreck sits in a bay off Bressay, the island opposite Shetland’s main town of Lerwick. The seabed is white sand, and the wreck appeared as a dark smudge against the light background as I hit the water.
The small trawler is a fairly recent addition to Shetland’s wreck-fest, and its lines and nets are still in good order. It sank on a calm day in a sheltered spot because a wave shifted its hold full of sand-eels.
Without baffles in place, the catch acted like liquid. Before the crew knew it, the ship was turning over due to the sheer weight of fish sliding around.
Fraoch Ban now rests slightly on its side. The decks still have timber on them, and the lines are tightly wound around the winches, but the wreck has attracted life like seagulls to an empty chip packet. Massive plumose anemones crowd the vertical structures like London Underground commuters at rush hour. They are joined by edible crabs, algae and colourful macro life, including sea-squirts and several species of nudibranch.
Underwater photographers love nudibranchs (and I’m no different) but wreck-divers don’t see the point in them. I guess if you need a macro camera lens to see an animal, a dive like the Giant’s Legs off Bressay seems a bit pointless.
This site is around the corner from the trawler. It is a small cavern, interesting in its own right, but the fact that it is dripping with nudibranchs brings macro photographers leaping in.

THE DIVE STARTS ON STARTS on a substantial sheer wall below some impressive cliffs where fulmars nest. The “legs” are two massive stacks that rise up the cliff to form the cavern.
They drop to around 15m before the seabed levels off – not that we were particularly interested in anything deeper, as the deepest part of the mouth of the cavern is at 15m.
The most common nudibranch species here is translucent white, with a brilliant yellow tip to its many tendrils. This is Ancula gibbosa, a species found throughout the UK, though it seems to love the northern waters of Shetland.
Frequently seen feeding on a favourite bryozoan, this species is often spotted because of the large patch of hollowed-out cells that appear white among the brown leaves. I spotted several even before the cavern, and by the end of the dive was ignoring them.
Less common but much larger is the similar-looking Polycera faeroensis. It too eats its way through algae and bryozoans, though judging by the number of egg masses I saw, eating is not the only thing nudibranchs like to do.
And after sex, of course, come babies – nudibranchs have a lot of babies. Most are eaten before they gain the ability to become toxic. Their vibrant colours are a warning to predators that they are not for eating, but they gain their toxicity only from the food they eat.
Juveniles are, therefore, less nasty to devour. The way for evolution to get around that is to flood the market with so many that some must get through.
Faeroensis appears not to have too many predators here. There were plenty of juvenile squat lobsters, which have voracious appetites, but the sheer concentration of nudibranchs of different species is greater here than anywhere I have dived in the world.
A bed of long stringy seagrass at the mouth of the cave was smothered – there were hundreds of them.
Rarest was the Polycera quadrilineata, a delicately coloured creation in whites, golds and blacks, like a delicate wrapped posh chocolate.
For the divers who didn’t have a camera, let alone a lens that could reproduce a pinhead at life size, the dive was nothing more than a shallow bimble. I was almost dragged out of the water because my buddy was bored, and I can understand why. It was also a shame that the light wasn’t great, because sun streaming into a cavern can be kick-up-the-butt special.
But good sunshine was as elusive as a steak dinner at a vegetarian convention, making the wrecks somewhat dark – although no less enjoyable, as I discovered just outside Lerwick.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Russian fish-processing factory ships called Klondykers set up camp here and took catches from trawlers working just outside the 12-mile limit.
They bunged the fish into cans and shipped them home without having to pay a landing fee.
But Russia in the 1980s had an economy heading for the toilet. The “companies” that owned the vessels didn’t much care for the safety of their boats or crews, and storms picked them off one by one. If losing your ship in a storm wasn’t bad enough, if a captain made it home the dubious characters running the operation were likely to shoot him in the head.
So the fish stocks didn’t win, the captains didn’t win; I’m sure the criminal gangs weren’t that bothered, but the only people to gain from the experience are divers adventurous enough to make the trip to the islands.
The Pionersk is a Klondyker that lies along the shore against which it was driven in a hoofing wind one October night in 1994. It is broken into sections, but some are pretty intact. This interesting rummage dive starts at around 25m and ends in the kelp, so there’s plenty of time to explore.
First clues to the wreck’s past were the huge coolant pipes that kept the fish frozen. They lay densely packed together, their covering gone. A shoal of haddock wafted above them for a while, but the rest of the ship was bare of fish.
It was as if they knew the carnage to their kind that the wreck had supported.
Because of its broken condition, it’s hard to work out what’s what, but there are lots of intact portholes and all sorts of 1980s Soviet paraphernalia to see, including hundreds of stacked fish trays.

A YEAR BEFORE the Pionersk’s sinking, the Borodinskoye Poleye went down in a November storm, but sank in slightly deeper (25m to the seabed) and less rocky water.
Testifying to the sheer power of the weather that killed them, and the condition they were in, most Klondykers have broken apart, but that does make them interesting to explore.
The crew of the Borodinskoye Poleye had to leave the ship fast, so they left a lot behind. You can still see their personal effects, and one of our divers discovered a 1980s Russian telephone, among other things.
They even had to ditch their suitcases, as the lifeboat that went to help them couldn’t carry all 37 and their luggage.
If diving on a wreck that is only a little rustier than when it was working sounds odd, the Shetlands has a lot more corroding metal to enjoy. A favourite is the Gwladmena, a large steamship that collided with another, the Flora, in January 1918 while carrying coal, which can still be seen around and about.
According to Wikipedia, during the 2001 Receiver of Wreck Amnesty a lump of coal from the Gwladmena was surrendered, although it doesn’t say if it was returned to the wreck or not.
Much of the Gwladmena is on the edge of recreational diving limits, so you need nitrox or a little deco to enjoy it fully. In good vis this is a great dive.

MY FAVOURITE SITE is not much of a wreck, or a reef, and the day we did it the vis was only a couple of metres. Still, there is something about a bunch of 18th-century cannon lying on a rocky surface that gets my heart pumping – perhaps it’s because I’m short and bald, just like Tony Robinson.
The vessel was once the Queen of Sweden, a Swedish East Indiaman that sank after dashing against the rocks that lead into Lerwick one rotten January night in 1745.
There are a few bits of glass and some ballast stones, but most of the cargo and ballast lead was removed soon after the sinking, or during the archaeological survey that started in 1979. I have seen cannon under water before, but usually embedded in a coral reef, overgrown and barely recognisable. The Queen of Sweden’s are instantly recognisable.
In the usual good visibility they can be seen scattered across the plateau from the surface, but in 2m vis locating a 2m-long lump of rock-like metal against rock is not easy. Still, when we did find one I was captivated.
One of the reasons I love diving is the opportunity to see history in the raw. There are no museum signs, no glass case to distance you from the exhibit. This wreck is a protected site, however, so due respect should be shown.
Another wreck-site worthy of respect is the British WW1 submarine the E49.
I’d love to tell you how I glided over the white sand surrounding the wreck, photographed a diver above the conning tower and viewed the bow while at the stern, but I can’t. I didn’t even see what is reputed to be one of the best wrecks in the UK.
Wind and rain kicked up a sea that prevented us even from getting in the water. I felt annoyed.
Instead, we dived a sheltered piece of rough seabed in around 20m. Sounds dull, but this turned out to be Cat Shark City. Full of scallops, slipper limpets, squat lobsters and crabs, it was a perfect hunting ground for what divers call dogfish, chip shops call rock salmon, and scientists call spotted cat sharks.
These fairly common bottom-living elasmobranchs were making full use of the dining facilities. Divers and fishermen take this common shark for granted, but though small they are incredibly beautiful to watch. You’ll see all the characteristics of bottom-dwellers such as nurse sharks or wobbegongs – I find them fascinating.
With the weather seemingly closed in for a while, we headed back to Lerwick. Our dive-boat, the Valkyrie, was a fishing-boat from the 1960s to the ’90s and rides the seas well. She proved surprisingly spacious and comfortable.
The diving arrangements were excellent, the skipper knowledgeable and the food outstanding, with all the major food groups on the menu – meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and cake.

DOCKING IN OUR USUAL BERTH on the edge of the jetty, we wandered into town feeling a little dejected. Being this far north in the Atlantic Ocean, the weather is generally against you, though I have been to the Shetlands and not had one bad day – luck of the draw.
If London conjures up Dickensian images and Manchester the Industrial Revolution, Lerwick is a cross between a hard-working fishing port and a nuclear bomb shelter. Everything is made of granite to withstand howling gales that run in from either the North Sea or Atlantic, right down to the immaculately clean new toilet block on the waterfront.
What Lerwick lacks in prettiness, it more than makes up for in charm. The lovely older part of the town is built of thick stone, with houses and storerooms right on the waterfront.
Stroll through here and along the headland and you soon reach the location where the Queen of Sweden sank. Wildlife-watchers marvel at fulmars playing on the air currents as they take a break from their nests, which are right by the cliff path.
On the water, broods of Eider duck cluster for protection from Arctic skuas, and puffins can be seen bobbing around.
Seals are found around Shetland, but we saw none while diving. They hang out in the harbour and sound between the mainland and Bressay Island, near the fish-processing plant.
The Glenisla was a large old steamer that collided with another ship while at anchor in the middle of Bressay Sound. This is one of the closest dive-sites to Lerwick and, though in 45m, the wreck sits intact and upright, making the best part of the dive a little over 30m.
In fine weather and clear vis, this is a special excursion, and I’ve seen pictures to prove it, but God seemed to be wrapping a blanket of cloud over this northern outpost to keep its secrets safe.
Glenisla is a protected site, but it sits in the middle of a shipping lane, and the authorities swept the decks soon after the sinking. So the wreck is fairly flat to the deck, and the interesting stuff is now piled up as debris.
As the Giant’s Legs and the rough-ground site showed, the diving around the Shetlands is not just about rusting metal. There is a profusion of marine life and some excellent scenic dives to do, even if most divers will arrive with hope of enjoying the wrecks in good visibility.
My thanks to Tunbridge Wells BSAC members for allowing me to join them on their trip.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Ferries leave from Aberdeen or Scrabster. The drive to both is a long way from anywhere, but you can take all your kit. Many groups hire a van or minibus and send the gear ahead while the rest fly up. LoganAir and Flybe fly from Edinburgh or Aberdeen to Sumburgh Airport, a few miles south of Lerwick. Landings can be exciting in tricky weather!
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: The 22m Valkyrie has six twin cabins and has been refurbished since Gavin Parsons’ trip, mv-valkyrie.co.uk
PRICES: For a week-long trip, expect to pay around £800 for flights, diving, accommodation and food.