Divernet

WICK, northern shore
The northern Moray Firth is a remote region where men are men, wrecks are virgin and the food is deep-fried in batter.
The town of Wick is just a few miles south of John OGroats. Its not easy to reach. Driving from London, youre only about halfway by the time you get to Edinburgh. Perhaps its the distance, or the risk that sea conditions can be poor; perhaps the pubs are just too rough, but the northern Moray Firth is rarely visited by divers. Or anyone else.
During both world wars, Allied warships and cargo vessels sailed across the Moray Firth to and from Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands. German U-boats would wait silently in the firth for targets. The harsh and unpredictable weather on this exposed coast has also claimed many victims, so the area is rich in wrecks, many undived and unidentified. If you have a taste for adventure and dont mind the occasional foray into the unknown, you wont go home disappointed.
Wick has no land-based diving facilities, so to make a trip there requires chartering a dive boat with a compressor. John Thornton, Scapa pioneer and skipper of mv Karin, has spent much time exploring the area. He regularly sails from the Orkneys to base himself in Wick harbour, wedged between the few remaining fishing boats and the occasional salvage barge.
As we load our gear, I am greeted by the familiar stench from stacked crabbing pots. We are joined by John Leigh, a local diver and wreck expert who probably knows more about these waters than anyone.
The North Sea always looks grey until youre beneath it, when visibility can be 15-20m and the colour a glassy green. Often theres enough ambient light at 60m to allow you to manage without a torch, which makes diving here a pleasure.
The wreck of the U309 was found by Thornton on an expedition in 2001. The survey work of the Hydrographic Office hasnt reached the Moray Firth, so many of the wrecks are not on their charted positions, and this is a classic case.
This is a dive to thrill any submarine enthusiast, as U309 had a number of adaptations usually found only on later submarines. After firing a torpedo at the Canadian vessel HMCS St John, the German sub was pursued and depth-charged for two days in January, 1945. It sank with the loss of all 47 men.
The wreck lies on its port side, and despite considerable damage to the bow from the depth charges still looks very much like a submarine. Swimming around the conning tower we found the outer hatches open, presumably the last act of crewmen desperate to escape the flooding vessel.
The most distinctive feature was the round hoop on top of the tower. This radio direction-finding aerial was a late war innovation by the Germans. Grid-like features visible further astern formed part of the snorkel tube. These adaptations allowed the submarines to sail just below the surface.
Switching off my torch, I gazed across the wreck in the green half-light. Divers glided elegantly over the hull, their torches and video lights picking out a path in the gloom. It was a hauntingly beautiful sight.
Climbing the ladder back onto the Karin, I could smell bacon frying. Little John, the skippers mate, cooks up a huge post-dive brunch for returning divers, welcome after half an hour of deco in water that rarely rises above 11C.
Most of the wrecks here lie in 50-70m, ideal for mixed-gas divers. As long as youre happy to spend an hour or so in the water, you can get in a decent amount of bottom time.
HMS Exmouth is another poignant dive. This E-class destroyer was torpedoed by U22 in January 1940 while escorting shipping to Scapa Flow. A war grave lying in 60m, it was recently listed as protected by the MoD, so will soon be impossible to dive without permission.
The torpedo hit Exmouth midships, igniting the fuel tank, and the resulting explosions left little intact. The most recognisable objects are the large, circular cogged gears that held the 4.7in guns. The guns are visible but partially buried by the flashguard and debris from the bridge. One is now home to a large lobster.
A nearby mass of wires and valves indicates that this was once the communications section. Just beyond, its possible to make out the square windows of the open bridge, collapsed flat onto the seabed. And swimming aft you can spot some of the steel portholes, blown clean out of the hull-plating.
We were careful not to disturb anything on the wreck, but took time to retrieve a delayed SMB left by an earlier diver.
My favourite dive in this area, however, is the Clan McKinley, a 6365 ton liner sunk by air attack in November, 1940. In the clear waters of the Moray Firth, you can get a reasonable impression of its 65m length. By staying off the seabed, the white sand of which gives a bright, friendly feel to the ship, you can do much of the dive at 65m.
The mast is broken off and lies across the centre of the wreck, pointing towards the bows - a useful navigation point for divers. There is a large wheelhouse to explore and a couple of big winches and gear in the forward part of the ship.
The most interesting features are towards the stern, where youll find a 12lb anti-aircraft gun on either side of the ship. If your buddy cant resist posing for photos, this is the place to take them.
Another favourite is the Sound Fisher. Dived only twice, this large cargo ship lies in 72m and has the unique distinction of having sunk during a storm in the 1950s while carrying a large quantity of scrap metal recovered from the fleet at Scapa Flow. It is smothered in plumose anemones but the scrap is still clearly visible on the decks, with the partially collapsed midships section revealing yet more cargo.
The Sound Fisher is quite intact, with its highest parts nearly 10m off the seabed. Exploring the cabins and wheelhouse is a pleasure, but the overall depth makes it impossible to see the whole wreck in one or even two dives. However many divers are on it, there is so much to explore that youre barely aware of anyone else being there.
An unexpected find on a previous expedition was a trawler that had disappeared in roughish weather in 1974 with all seven crew. It lay in 60m, its masts stretched towards the seabed and nets strewn across its deck. The blue paint on the hull and white paint on the bridge were still visible, as was the name Trident across the stern. Blue plastic fishboxes remained in the cargo holds.
We knew nothing about this wreck, but later when we described it to local bar-owner and ex-fisherman Des McLeod he suspected that we had found the Trident, and produced press-cuttings showing photos of the boat.
The Marine Accident Investigation Board has imposed an exclusion order on the wreck while it conducts an ROV survey. The cause of the sinking is still something of a mystery.
As the nearest pub to the harbour, the Camps Bar is the favourite of the few dive groups that visit Wick. It has as much character as the dives, and is not the kind of place in which you could order a mineral water and leave unscathed.
Des Mcleod has always made us feel welcome. He is interested in everything to do with boats, and enjoys grilling divers about the latest wreck finds. If we took in our underwater video footage, he would show it on the bars giant TV screens - except on karaoke nights, when they display the lyrics of Achy Breaky Heart or My Way.
Wicks locals are legendary for hard drinking and partying. Its a smallish town where the weather is grim for most of the year, and theres not much in the way of entertainment.
You get a sense of being right on the edge, geographically and mentally. The locals can be pretty rough with each other but have been overwhelmingly friendly towards us. Unfortunately, unless youre well-versed in Highland dialects, they are also quite difficult to understand. It took me nearly a week to figure out that the man who kept talking to me in the pub was in fact completely incoherent!
Eating out in Wick is an interesting experience. At first glance, the menu in the chip shop looks quite varied. Apart from the obvious fish, the local delicacies are black pudding or haggis and the universal standard is pizza. But remember that this is the land that invented the deep-fried Mars Bar. Pretty much all food receives this treatment. Order a pizza and youre likely to find it dipped in batter and dropped into boiling oil.
But thats part of the charm of a days diving in the Wild East - a dive in clear water on a new wreck, a high-calorie supper and then its all off to the local bar for a rousing rendition of I Will Survive.

LOSSIEMOUTH, southern shore
The Tornado jets flew incessantly around the town of Lossiemouth. I wished I could have travelled in something as fast as I tumbled out of my little car at the quayside. I had been stuck behind juggernauts on the A9, and was 45 minutes late. I would hardly be Mr Popular among the other divers and the skipper.
As it turned out, however, there was no problem. Most of the other divers dashed up the gangplank to help me with my kit. Friendly bunch! Now I know why those dodgy types turn up late, to get a hand with their 10 ton twin-sets.
Skipper Bill Ruck has been operating out of Lossiemouth for two years. I was relieved to learn from him that tides dont affect the diving too much in the Moray Firth.
Rucks boat Woodpecker would be our platform for the next couple of days, during which the sea would remain mirror-calm. Soon after leaving harbour we sighted a porpoise, the first of many. More surprising was a large minke whale that we sighted on both days. I had seen glimpses in the past, but encounters at less than 100m certainly gave some sense of the immensity of this creature.
Bill tells the story of a huge minke that came in close for a snoop during a deco stop, an encounter captured on video by one of my fellow-divers. I had thought I would enjoy an encounter with such a beast, but now wonder what effect something that big looming out of the gloom would have on me.
My stress levels were calming down nicely. Having to zoom past all the famous Speyside whisky distilleries to get up here didnt seem so bad now.
The Moray Firth is famous for its large dolphin population, though we saw none. Twitchers are in for a treat, however. We had seen guillemots, gannets, razorbills, puffins and cormorants by the time we reached the first of the four shipwrecks we would dive over this weekend.
HMY Verona (previously the Imogen) was a luxury yacht. Sketches and pictures of the time show a beautiful ship with racing lines and a large bowsprit, and these features can still be enjoyed under water 84 years after her loss. She was built by Fleming and Ferguson of Paisley in 1890.
From the excited chatter aboard Woodpecker, I knew I was in for a good dive. Many on board professed this to be their favourite wreck.
Down the shotline the water turned darker, but viz was around 6m. We landed on the single large boiler, which looked oversized for the ship, partly because most of the wooden superstructure had collapsed or broken up, leaving only the metal features and hull. The hull has broken amidships and the wreck has a slight list to port either side of the break.
Finning forward, we noted a gun on the seabed. Further forward, the bowsprit stretched out in front of the bow, allowing divers to fin beneath it. But at 42m time was limited, so the tour continued along the deck to the stern, past various brass fittings.
The stern was fairly broken but we could see the bronze propeller and, rounding the stern, another gun on the seabed. My favourite feature here, however, was a set of ornamental toilet bowls decorated with blue-ink drawings. The crew must have marvelled at the opulence of this yacht when it was pressed into service by the Navy during World War One.
Back on the port side we headed back to the boiler, passing intact brass portholes in the hull. Four officers and 19 men lost their lives when the Verona hit a mine, so it is a war grave and sport divers should be able to enjoy seeing these fittings in situ for years to come.
On a clear day this might have been my favourite wreck dive in the Moray Firth, but there was even better to come.
Bill had worked some magic with potatoes, curry powder and baked beans to sustain us for the second dive of the day, the Unity. Resting upright in 24-28m, this relatively easy wreck is used extensively for novice and second dives. You could probably fin around the Unity half a dozen times on a dive, and Bill Ruck says it is one of his most popular sites.
The Unity was a 28m Peterhead-registered trawler which sprang a leak while being stripped in Lossiemouth Harbour. With the pleasure of future divers no doubt in mind, it was decided to tow the vessel to the scrapyard and it sank under tow.
Descending onto the bow railings, large sections could be viewed in the bright conditions of this shallow site. Over the focsle, two entrances to the fish-holds appeared. If you fancy entering the wreck its easy enough if you dont stir up the silt, but there is little to see inside these holds.
The sunlight brightened up the deck as we finned towards the stern, where most of the superstructure remains. The engine was removed before the Unity sank, so access was very easy.
Over the stern the prop has settled into the sand. I finned along the starboard side to the base of the bow, where I found a monster edible crab. I liked the idea of the one-time prey of this vessel now living comfortably on it. Another diver noted a wolf-fish beneath the hull.
Sunday found us on HMS Tantivy, the design of which differs from earlier T-class submarines as the hull was not riveted but welded together. A long-range patrol sub, Tantivy saw active service, sinking 1800 ton Japanese merchantman Shiretoko Maru in the Sunda Strait in September, 1944. She was decommissioned after the war and sunk intentionally in 1950 as an ASDIC target for training purposes.
Other boats of the class were sunk around the UK, but all but the Tantivy were later raised. The Navy, I gather, could not locate its own target and it was many years before Tantivy was rediscovered. The moment for raising it had passed so, thanks to the Navy, we have a fantastic wreck to dive.
Visibility at this site can vary dramatically and relies on dry conditions. It had been raining for some days before we arrived, yet I could see a long way down the shotline.
By a cruel twist of photographers logic, I knew that if I took my camera the viz would disappear 10m down, but that by leaving it behind I would ensure great viz - which was what happened. The water was dark, but viz held steady at around 8m.
A conning tower filled my field of vision, but strangely, for a solid brass structure, this area of the wreck was as densely covered in bright orange and white dead mens fingers as the rest of the wreck.
Still 8m off the 42m seabed, we finned over the deck gratings above the pressure hull. Apart from soft corals we could see prawns and pollack inhabiting the wreck.
The first point of interest was the largest opening, the torpedo-loading hatch. Further forward we saw two external 21in torpedo tubes mounted on the deck. More hatches were visible on the trip to the bow, but I saw no hydroplanes. Possibly these were folded in or had been removed, though I might have missed them.
And at the bow six more torpedo tubes could clearly be seen, though from drawings of the bulbous nose I had expected to find eight, along with the two amidships and one at the stern.
We headed back to deck level, passing a couple of vents I had failed to notice earlier. I certainly didnt notice the big conger eel hiding in one of them until the last minute, and it gave me a bit of a fright.
Between the two deck-mounted torpedo tubes was a large flange, which I think held either a heavy cable to help sailors move along the deck in heavy seas, or possibly a mechanism for operating the torpedo tubes.
There was now time to explore the conning tower more thoroughly, including the lower level where a 4in deck gun had once been mounted. I noted a cogged structure, presumably a mounting for the lighter-calibre machine guns that would have been alongside the deck gun.
Further aft, the fin rose to the level where officers would once have stood and I could see a couple of hatches. I dont think any periscopes remain, though with a heavy trawl-net covering part of the structure it was hard to say.
I might have left the camera behind but the image of this wreck was imprinted on my mind. It was the best dive so far, but after another curried lunch, this time of stovies (corned beef, potato and onion), and another close encounter with a minke, the next dive proved to be a perfect 10.
The ss San Tiburcio was a 5995 ton gross oil tanker more than 125m long. Built in Shooters Island, New York, she was one of a fleet belonging to Eagle Shipping, which suffered many wartime losses. The San T was lost on 4 May, 1940 after hitting a mine. Miraculously all the crew - even the cat - were saved.
The cargo was 2193 tonnes of flammable fuel oil and Sunderland seaplane floats (there are three Sunderland wrecks in the Moray Firth).
The ship split in two on sinking. I dived the bow section, which is intact to the bridge area and generally regarded as the most interesting half of the wreck. There was tide in the surface layers as we descended the shotline but this eased at the bottom, where my impression was that everything was double normal size!
A winch of monstrous proportions sat on the deck, aft of the focsle. The mooring bollards were equally outsized. A flying walkway could be seen 4m above the deck. This had enabled the crew to reach the focsle, bridge and engine room in the stern area, because when fully laden in heavy seas the San Ts deck would have been awash.
Green water and colourful soft corals made the wreck very photogenic, and there was plenty to see as we passed over empty holds with ladders leading into their bowels. Dodging a large lions mane jellyfish, we found in the captains cabin his bath, its white enamel partly covered in weed.
With an average depth of 30m, it was time to return to the bow. We followed in the footsteps of the crew along the flying walkway, passing under a large A-frame that supported the foremast. Back at the focsle, the shotline was easily found.
The tide was running in the deco zone, and with 15 minutes of stops I hoped the big minke didnt come in close. It was bad enough when another lions mane flew by.
These four popular dives are the tip of the iceberg for the Moray Firth. Bill Ruck can also offer deep wreck dives for trimix divers. But there is plenty to keep the most demanding air-suckers and nitrox-divers happy. Yacht, trawler, submarine and oil tanker in one weekend - what more could you want

Large
Large cargo shipwreck the Sound Fisher
diver/skipper
diver/skipper Bill Ruck aboard Karin - his own boat Woodpecker also takes divers around the Moray Firth
Diver
Diver on the Sound Fisher on the Trident, the trawler which disappeared in 1974
preparing
preparing to dive aboard mv Karin
gridlike
gridlike features that formed an extension of the snorkel tube on the U-boat U309
Looking
Looking across the deck on the Sound Fisher
radio
radio direction-finding aerial on the U309 sub
gun-mount
gun-mount on the Exmouth
AA
AA guns on the Clan McKinley
Ornate
Ornate toilet on the Verona
Diver
Diver in the captains bath
A
A diver on the Verona, looking at the bow gun
The
The oversized boiler on the same wreck
Plumose
Plumose anemones on the Unitys railings

FACTFILE

GETTING THEREFor Lossiemouth drive north on the A9 and branch off north of Aviemore on the A95 to Elgin. Lossiemouth is four miles further on. For Wick keep driving up the A9 - its about two and a half hours drive from Inverness. You could fly or get a train to Inverness and rent a car there.
DIVING:Lossiemouth - mv Woodpecker, Moray Diving Services, 01309 690421, www.moraydiving.com. Wick - mv Karin, Johns Charters (Orkney), 01856 874761, www.scapaflow.com
ACCOMMODATION:Lossiemouth - Mansion House hotel in Elgin, B&Bs or caravan and campsite. Bill Ruck can arrange. Wick - liveaboard charter boat.
COST: Woodpecker£30 a day (25 at weekends); Karin£35 a day
FURTHER INFORMATION: Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board, www.host.co.uk; Elgin Tourist Information Office, 01343 542666.