|THE WHEELHOUSE WAS FULL AS WE BEGAN TRAWLING back and forth across the site, but for a long time the sonar showed nothing more than a few blips. People were beginning to fidget and chat when Vicki said: Hang on, whats that |
Something was appearing from the right side of the screen. I am not exaggerating when I say that what emerged was the clearly defined shape of a ship with two masts still standing proud, as if sailing across the seabed.
We were in Greenland, a name that conjures up a vast Arctic wilderness. You might have heard about its world-class skiing, climbing and sea-kayaking potential, but when it comes to diving, the country is pretty much virgin territory. So when Paul Freemont Smith, owner of Greenland Outdoors, had asked me to join an expedition to investigate the possibilities, I was curious and excited.
I had invited marine biologist and oceanographer Vicki Billings to be my diving partner. We met in Copenhagen and flew to Kangerlassuaq in Greenland, continuing by prop plane to Sissimate on the south-west coast, just north of the capital, Nook.
Here we joined our dive vessel, the Kissaq, and met the other nine members of the team: Paul, the expedition leader; Tom, Caleb and Frederick, the off-piste skiers; Leslie and Tom Day, the film crew; Anders and Jens, skipper and first mate; and Ellen, Anders wife, who ruled with a rod of iron and kept us extremely well fed.
That evening we were also joined by the knowledgeable and charismatic Lasseraq Skifte, founder of the Arctic Circle Race, who would be our guide and translator.
Vicki and I had discussed our objectives. She was looking for interesting marine life while my goal was to find a wreck.
Jens remembered a guy in a bar a couple of years before talking about a shipwreck in the area in which we would be operating. It seemed tenuous, but at least it was a lead.
We met people in the docks and phoned museums and naval archives, but we needed to talk to Ulrick, the guy in the bar. We learnt that he had moved to Denmark and managed to call him. He confirmed that there was a wreck in a small bay outside a settlement called Itivdleq, and described it as spectacular. It was a 360 ton, three-masted schooner called the Borgin, which had arrived almost half a century ago from the Faroe Islands.
We arrived at the location in the early evening and spent a few hours sweeping with the ships sonar, but Anders said that without co-ordinates it was a needle in a haystack scenario.
He would speak to Ulrick in the morning and ask him to fax us a chart showing the exact location. Our priority now was to find a safe anchorage for the night where we would receive a strong enough signal to receive the fax.
There was a lot of tension aboard the Kissaq that night. Early next morning, the wheelhouse was full. Cameras were trained on the fax machine, fingers crossed. At 6am on the dot, a map began to take shape on the fax. About an inch of contours and depths emerged before we lost the signal.
Anders was not to be beaten. By holding this sliver of fax against his charts, he and Jens were able to match up the contours to determine what the rest of the document would have looked like.
We had been in the right area, but on the wrong side of the bay. The fax showed where the ship had been anchored when she sank, so we headed back to do a sonar search of the west side of the bay. Finding a wooden ship on sonar in what was quite a large area would not be easy, but we were hopeful.
To say that there was excitement in the wheelhouse when that image of a shipwreck finally sailed onto the screen would be an understatement. Even the otherwise sombre Anders was grinning from ear to ear. Fantastic! Incredible! Just fantastic! he kept saying. Those who have spent time watching frustrating sonar images will understand his amazement.
As Anders anchored Kissaq, Vicki and I prepared to dive. We agreed not to let all the excitement sway our decision-making and planning. We were going down onto a wreck that might be in a dangerously deteriorated condition, and the water was seriously cold.
Tom and Lesley urged Vicky to take as many photographs as possible. I didnt envy her the responsibility in those conditions. As it turned out, her Nik V would perform perfectly but numbness would set in 10 minutes into the dive. By the end of it Vicki would be having to use the base of her thumb to release the shutter. The recent plankton bloom didnt help either.
Jens took us out on the inflatable, and after a little trawling about I thought I could make out what might be the top of a mast, about 5m down.
Diving in, we were proved right. We descended through the intact rigging on the main mast until we hit the main deck at about 25m. We attached a marker buoy to one of the spars and sent it to the surface to confirm that we had found the wreck. That was a great moment.
On this first dive we wanted to do a general sweep from stem to stern to assess the wrecks condition. Making our way up the starboard side and floating just above the decks, we were amazed at its state of preservation.
All the rigging remained in place. There were barrels of mummified salted herring on the fore-decks, and we had a clear view of empty holds which would have been full of cod bound for the Faroes the night the Borgin sank.
The wreck teemed with life, and the masts and rigging were festooned in brown seaweed. Spider-crabs wandered across the deck, sculpin hid behind timbers encrusted with sponge, and a nimble butterfish slid among the weed.
As we made our way to the bow, we dropped down to the seabed to see the anchor half-buried in the sand, the rope still attached to the ship. The Borgin had lovely sweeping lines, sleeker than we had expected, and as we drifted across the bow, we were amazed to find the other anchor still firmly attached to the port side.
Heading aft towards the stern, we found the mizzenmast collapsed, which was why it had not shown up on the sonar. The stern had also collapsed, which was sad, as we had hoped to send Ulrick a photo of the name. We surfaced from this first recce dive delighted by what we had seen, and itching to tell everyone how beautiful the Borgin was.
Lasseraq went ashore to visit the fishing community in the village of Itivdleq. It was here that he met an old lady, a Mrs Dalh, who had been a young girl the night the Borgin sank.
In those days most skippers had preferred to anchor offshore to prevent their crews partying with the locals, but the Borgins jovial skipper. Thorvald Helmse, would bring his ship right into the bay and allow his crew ashore.
That had made him immensely popular with the locals, who called him Naalagakasak, or the Happy Captain.
The young girls, Mrs Dalh included, would race up to the high point above the bay and watch as the crew of the Borgin, wearing their unusual Faroenese hats, rowed ashore. They would bring accordions and sing and dance long into the night.
Mrs Dalh told us how during the dancing a huge explosion had been heard. Everyone had raced to the shore to see the Borgins stern engulfed in flame, with Thorvald and his father-in-law still on board. The crew had raced out and were able to get them off the ship before she sank.
For many years it had been possible to see the tops of the Borgins masts above the surface, but then the sea-ice cut them off, said Mrs Dalh.
On our subsequent dives we were able to see where the fire had occurred. It was good to know that no lives had been lost.
Itivdleq had, it seemed, been without fresh water for months because of a problem with its desalination intake, which lay on the seabed. This had left its fish-processing factory inoperable. Knowing that there were divers aboard the Kissaq, the villagers asked whether we could check it out.
Blocked intakes are a common problem and I had worked on them before. Vicki and I were able to get fish factory, showers and water back on line. It was good to be able to put something back.
Over the next few days we cut holes in the sea ice and dived beneath it, which was strange but beautiful in an eerie sort of way. We also dived on what we were told was an underwater cliff rich in marine life. The cliff turned out to be a steep rocky slope, with shell gravel in hollows and on ledges.
For the top 10m the rocks were covered with a dense kelp forest, but the plants were quite short compared with what we might expect in British waters, and the fronds were broad and flat and pock-marked with holes like a colander.
Below the kelp were clumps of northern sea urchins, abundant spider-crabs and the strange sculpin lurking around every corner. Starfish were plentiful and there were several different species, some familiar, like the many-armed sunstars, but others quite new, such as those with six arms coiled around in a spiral, as though trying to keep themselves warm.
Another species we failed to recognise was bright orange and again had six arms. We saw several fist-sized sea squirts which were bright pink in colour, and only when studying the photographs afterwards noticed that each was attended by a number of well-camouflaged commensal prawns, also pink.
Delicate nudibranchs glided over the kelp. Barnacles were in profusion on every solid surface, and it seemed to be their shells that contributed most to the shell gravel.
We also dived in a narrow channel joining the upper reaches of two fjords to find plumose anemones in abundance, many spider-crabs, northern sea urchins and sculpin.
A huge brown sea cucumber sat upright on the seabed like a Christmas pudding, but with bushy fronds of tentacles extending up into the water. A chiton was clamped firmly onto a rock, beneath which lay a large green and pink brittlestar.
But for me the highlight of the trip will always be the Borgin, still lying peacefully at anchor at the bottom of the sea, with its bow sweeping up through the green Arctic water.
Perhaps its time to add diving to the list of Greenlands celebrated adventure and sporting activities.
|One of the many-armed orange starfish |
|sea cucumber |
|Preparing for an ice dive in the chilly wastes of Greenland |
|The view from below the ice |
|The anchor line on the wreck of the Borgi |
|Preserved timbers on the wreck |
|Remnants of the Borgins salted herring cargo |
|sea peach |
|Rigging on the Borgin |
|The prow of the wreck |