A MAXIMUM DEPTH OF 39M Great, I was going to see more on a single wreck dive than I had in all the years I could remember. Leigh Bishop dived the Laurentic with Plymouth-based Deep Blue Diving (01752 491490, www.deepbluediving.org) but Irish-based Norsemaid Sea Enterprises also organises charter trips aboard the Salutay (028 9181 2081, www.salutay.com).
Usually 25 minutes is enough on a deep wreck dive, but now I was expecting a heavenly 45, more if I wanted it.
The wreck of the 15,000 ton White Star liner Laurentic, sunk at the mouth of Lough Swilly in Donegal, had far more than enough of interest to fill that time.
Arguably, ocean liners are the highest calibre of shipwreck for a diver. The Laurentics depth makes it accessible to most of us - and there are enough gold bars from its 35 ton bullion cargo still hidden among the broken wreckage to prey on the mind throughout any dive.
Having said that, the chances of finding any such gold are slim. Laurentic won a place in history for having yielded the most gold ever recovered from a shipwreck. Estimated at more than£300 million at current prices, the amazing story of its recovery is included in many a book about sunken treasure.
The remaining gold was last searched for in the mid-1980s by a commercial company aboard the Holga Dane. Swanage diver Adam Ridges wrote the account for Diver at the time, and when I caught up with him he told me of a single eight- hour dive in which he had walked around almost the entire wreck!
Ever since hearing Adams story, the Laurentic had been hovering around the top of my to-do list. The wreck has collapsed substantially over the past 85 years and today its double-ended Scotch boilers mark its highest point.
Yet another bonus on this wreck is the fabulous visibility, which averages 15-20m, often more. Ambient light alone is impressively efficient. Even on an overcast day you are unlikely to need a torch. If you did, it would be in the hope of catching a tantalising glint of gold beneath hull plates and twisted steel.
It soon becomes apparent to the visiting diver why Ireland is known as the Emerald Isle. Its coastal waters here, and especially on Laurentic, are exactly that colour. Not till you get offshore does that change, alongside an amazing increase in visibility.
The moment I saw Laurentic I was reminded of what a time-capsule it was. The buoy permanently attached during my stay was secured to a 4.7in gun pointing skywards from the forward port section of the wreck.
Laurentic was commandeered as an armed merchant cruiser by the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the Great War, and nominated as one of 15 to be equipped with such guns. Four of them can be seen today, two exposed and the other two camouflaged by collapsed wreckage.
Lying exposed to the harsh Atlantic weather, and having suffered the effects of explosives as well as the ravages of time, the wreck is badly broken and scattered over a wide area. However, several key features make it difficult to become lost.
The most recognisable and substantial section of the wreck is that of the bow tip, lying to the north on its port side, amazingly intact. Cut clean off aft of her forecastle, it cant be missed as you navigate along the southern port side of the wreck.
Passenger safety railings remain fixed in position, as does the teak decking, all lightly covered in anemones and marine growth. The bow is impressive and very photogenic, with the exposed starboard anchor still housed and its hawser and mooring bollards easily distinguishable.
Beyond here and due south is more than 550ft of wreckage to explore. Like the bow, it lies over to port, though in places this is not immediately apparent.
The entire wreck rests on a reef, which helps create the clean visibility. The huge amount of marine life doesnt seem to be discouraged by the ever-present swell. Pollack, pouting and cuckoo wrasse swim aimlessly around bollards while lobsters and crabs shelter inside ceramic toilets.
On one occasion I dived the wreck the day after a storm, which left a monster swell over Laurentic from the north-west. Handheld time-exposure photography was simply not on; the swell kept picking me up from the seabed and placing me wherever it fancied.
Immediately beyond the bow, the foredeck capstans and deck winches could be seen. The chain locker has rotted away, leaving visible a huge pile of chain.
Another reminder of Laurentics wartime activity comes with the boxes of ammunition that litter the wreck. Heading south along its eastern (starboard) side, 303s and 0.50s could be seen in the remains of wooden boxes, near a stack of 4.7in shells.
After my initial dive, largely taken up photographing the bow, my VR3 computer and rebreather gave a measly 12 minutes of deco. I was beginning to regain the feel of these depths.
Boarding the dive charter Loyal Watcher was comforting, because within half an hour we would be back on land enjoying hot chocolate and freshly made flapjacks.
Slipways used by local divers allow RIBs to cover the short distance out to the wreck, which is less than a mile from the mouth of Lough Swilly. Permission to dive Laurentic has to be sought from the Cossum family which owns it, unless you visit the site with one of the commercial charters.
Port Salon is almost in sight of the location, and it is here that the charter vessels drop customers for a drop of Guinness after a dive. Or you could make the short walk to the local Protestant church, because in its high tower Laurentics bell now resides for all to see and hear.
Laurentic is a great second dive for those heading home from one of the many deeper offshore wrecks, although coastal charters can also easily squeeze in a second dive there.
Soon after my camera had been re-prepped we were heading back out to the wreck. Understanding photographic models are rare but Metropolitan policeman Tim Bradley was willing to accompany me on the Laurentic.
Tempting as it was to revisit the bow, we planned to work from amidships south towards the stern. The hull had fallen across the stone and gravel reef, and holes caused by explosions and salvage could be seen. Many portholes had long been taken by souvenir-hunters, although several rows securely fixed indicated that the wreck was not quite ready to give everything away.
All but one of the boilers remained in position, silhouetted against the green water and ambient light. The other had rolled out to the east, and the remaining wreckage had collapsed to seabed level. The ships ribbed construction was obvious, although there was a huge amount of steelwork. Pipes were now home to several conger eels.
Laurentics engines were built at a time when turbine technology was very much in its infancy at Harland & Wolf. She used an experimental combination of two triple-expansion engines and a low-pressure turbine. Her sister ship Megantic, which also entered service in 1909, was driven by two quadruple-expansion reciprocating engines, but Laurentic was soon outperforming her in both speed and economy.
Today, these examples of fine engineering dwarf visiting divers and rest tilted to port, tidy little oil-boxes still attached to their sides. The propshafts leading from these huge engines appear broken in strategic sections and exposed, but disappointingly the props were salvaged long ago, although the rudder quadrant and pin assembly gear becomes an obvious landmark if you begin your dive at this end of the wreck.
Diving the Laurentic is an unforgettable experience - put it top of your list if you plan a holiday that takes in this stretch of Irish coastline.