A CENTURY AGO, ship design and construction reflected the confidence and innovation characteristic of the age.
Imperial ambition was driving an arms race that had propelled warships into the “all-big-gun” Dreadnought battleship era. Passenger liners competed on size, elegance and comfort.
Common to both, however, was an increasingly massive scale of ship, of tens of thousands of tons displacement.
For divers, the seas off Malin Head, the most northerly point of County Donegal in Ireland, offer a unique opportunity to visit the wrecks of these metal monsters, resting on the seabed a century after their demise.
If you’ve ever been to Malin, you’ll know that the coast is rocky, spectacular and rugged, interspersed with sea lochs and sandy beaches. The waters are swept by the Gulf Stream, and visibility offshore can be excellent in summer.
For the wreck-diver, this combination of historical monster wrecks, rugged coastline and crystal visibility makes for a compelling proposition – perhaps some of the best temperate-water wreck-diving to be had.

OUR JOURNEY TO VISIT the Malin metal began in Ayr, Scotland, where we boarded our boat, Loyal Watcher.
Steaming past the Mull of Kintyre, the huge skies give you the feeling of being at the edge of the world. On route, the rock island of Ailsa Craig seems mystical in the distance to the south.
The fickle gods of weather are kind o us and, as the greyness of the sky gives way to azure, the sea state settles to flat-calm. Later, arriving off Malin, the first monster wreck we visit is HMS Audacious.
Audacious was a Royal Navy “super-Dreadnought” battleship, and was launched a century ago. With a length of 182m and a width of 27m, she displaced 23,400 tons. Her engines developed 31,000hp, driving four propellers to push her through the seas at 21 knots.
Her main armament consisted of ten 13.5in guns along the central line of the ship, but she also carried sixteen 4in guns. Each 13.5in shell weighed 640kg and required 200kg of cordite to propel it to a maximum range of 13.5 miles.
However, despite such size and capability, the service history of Audacious was short-lived. She hit a German mine during gunnery exercises off Loch Swilly in 1914.
Damage control was poor, so though there was time to take off the crew safely, she gradually flooded, turned turtle and sank, mostly intact, to the seabed some 70m below the surface.
It’s now 20 minutes before we dive Audacious, and the raucous banter between divers begins to die down as the focus of attention switches to final dive-kit and configuration checks.
The skipper lets us know that the shotline is hooked into the wreck, and the deck of the boat becomes very quiet.
Divers climb into their kit, stow side-mount cylinders, photographic gear and scooters, and perform their last pre-dive rituals in silent focus.
Almost suddenly, it’s my turn to join my buddy and get into the water. Total focus now. Actually, the focus turns into an intense excitement on descending the line, because you never really know what you’ll find until you get there.
At 40m, the vast scale of the ship begins to stretch out below. I can hear divers whooping and squealing with delight into rebreather mouthpieces, sounding like deranged Mickey Mouses thanks to the helium gas.
As we arrive on the wreck some orientation is necessary, because Audacious is mostly upside-down on the seabed. We think there have been some salvage attempts on the condensers and engines, so the hull is open in a number of places.
Our first recognition is of a pile of 4in shells, some with strands of cordite spaghetti hanging out.
Look around, and there’s the 4in gun, lying quietly on its side. These guns were located both forward and aft, so we need to search further.
Much large-scale machinery lies around, and my buddy Brian spots what could be a propshaft. Aha! So we’re aft then. Let’s follow the shaft and see where this takes us.
Good on you, Brian – an enormous propeller eventually comes into view as we fin along. It’s covered in anemones and wildlife – why are those anemones so colourful

FIN ALONG A BIT FURTHER and there’s another propeller. We must be on the port side of the ship. Fin along again, and we see a break in the upturned hull, but over the break there are the two rudders, pointing skyward.
As Brian swims between them, I’m thinking that these rudders might be 2 or 3m tall, but they seem quite small to steer such a monster of a ship.
More importantly, a quick glance at our gauges makes us realise that now would be an excellent time to turn and head back to the shot. There’s no more time to savour the moment.
Finning forward along the hull past the props, we keep going until the comforting twinkling of strobes appear on the line. It’ll be at least an hour before our heads break surface and we board the Watcher, so now it’s time to relax a little, and quietly ascend the shotline as Audacious slips from view.
Not too many miles from Audacious lies another monster wreck. RMS Justicia was launched in 1914 as the Statendam, owned by the Holland American line. However, at the outbreak of war she was acquired by the British government and used as a troopship.
Justicia was so enormous that it took six torpedoes (four from UB64 and two from UB124) to sink her in 1918.
With a length of 237m, and a beam of 26m, she displaced 32,000 tons and was capable of transporting 4,000 troops.
The wreck is so large that, even with scooters, it’s difficult to get around it in one dive. However, unlike the Audacious, Justicia lies largely upright on the seabed at around 70m.
As we descend the shotline on our dive, it’s quickly apparent that the skipper has shotted the wreck just forward of what remains of the bridge.
Brian and I quickly orientate ourselves and head for a huge lump of metal standing some 10m proud of the seabed – the bow.
Dropping down to the seabed on the starboard side, the hull superstructure is mostly intact, except for some deterioration of the hull-plating just below the gunwales.

WE FIN ON TO THE TIP of the bow. I’ve always loved that classic view, looking up from the seabed as it stretches up.
Justicia’s blow-top is so characteristic and distinctive of the period that it’s impossible not to conjure up mental images of that Titanic scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio holds heroine Kate Winslet, “flying” in the bow high above the waves below, wind rushing through her hair.
Wonderfully, the bow handrails are still intact, and as we gently fin over and head back along the teak foredeck, the massive anchor-chains are present leading from the hawsers, capstans still stand proud ready to winch, and ropes remain neatly coiled in a figure-of-eight pattern around the massive bollards.
It’s incredible; this feeling that we’re in a snapshot of time, frozen a century ago. Who needs a time machine
As we come to the end of bottom time, we look up the shotline stretching up and vanishing into the green/blue glass-like surface light – 10 divers strung out and melting into the surface.
What motivates divers to dive wrecks at these depths Well, perhaps a curiosity, a sense of challenge and a desire to explore.
To dive these wrecks requires modern diving technology of course, which in itself can be satisfying to master, but also effective social interaction – a team-based approach and consistent, predictable behaviour on the dive.
In terms of motivation, however, there’s also an appreciation and respect for the history associated with the ship.
Examining and exploring a wreck provides a great opportunity to see artefacts of the era. Indeed, a sense of historical search took us to the site of another Malin wreck – the ss Athenia.
Athenia was a defensively armed British merchantman torpedoed some 6m from the stern by UB53 while steaming at 20 knots, then abandoned and sunk. Some 440 horses and 15 crew were lost.
However, what makes Athenia a particularly interesting wreck is that we’d heard reports that it had been depth-charged in WW2 to prevent it becoming a hiding place for U-boats on the seabed. True or not, it’s fair to say that this wreck is now well opened up, so large parts of it can be examined.

HAVING DESCENDED to the wreck, which lies at 55m, we have to orientate ourselves quickly – bottom time being at a premium – so there’s plenty of focus as we find that the shot is on the boilers.
We fan out from there, mindful of noting our path in order to ensure a safe return journey to the shotline.
Bright powerful torches light up crevices and under rusting metal plates. Rebreather mouthpieces are hollow and gas-filled, so it’s possible to make some grunts and vocal utterances to notify buddies of interesting structures.
It’s fascinating to see some of the artefacts on Watcher after the dive.
As well as some empty shell cases that seem possibly to have been made from graphite, some very nice, ornate carved candlesticks have also been lifted, and all are reported to the Receiver of Wreck.
The intricate carving has lasted amazingly after a century under water.
Malin is a “remote” destination. You really feel as if you’re going to the edge of the Earth to explore historical wrecks, even though it’s not a million miles away for most UK divers.
As we journey back to Ayr, we pass the magical coastline and distant mountains of Arran. As part of our journey, it’s been such a treat to explore these awesome wrecks, built in a time when size really mattered.
These metal monsters have been on the seabed for a century and are sadly showing signs of deterioration – which is inevitable, as they’re gradually reclaimed by the sea. Best to go and see them while they’re in their glory!

Loyal Watcher, www.loyalwatcher.co.uk