The subterranean world of Transylvania
THERE WAS STILL NO REASON to turn on the torch, even 100m deep - the ambient light was out of this world. There, 30m below me, was the much talked-about but rarely dived wreck of the ss Transylvania, 17,000 tons of magnificent ocean liner, sitting upright in all her glory.
Even from my depth she looked like a hobbyists model in the far distance, but the excitement really set in moments later as I reached 120m, and realised that our shotline had found its way into the aft bridge section of the wreck.
I could make out the broken foredeck mast, and several telegraphs strategically placed across the bridge, from port to starboard. In 20 years of British wreck-diving, this moment still remains clear in my mind, as if it were yesterday.
Arriving at the wreck at 130m, my torch was still redundant. The ambient light embraced a row of what were now huge-looking telegraphs. Just moments before, they had appeared to be a suitable size for a model-makers thumb and index finger to pinch.
I didnt know it at the time but I was embarking on the best dive I would ever do in British waters!
THE BRIDGE IS ALWAYS THE BEST part of a wreck to dive. Whatever the wreck, and wherever your skippers shotline lands, a technical diver will always spend time hunting out this part of a vessel.
Luck was surely with us that day on the Transylvania, and no time would be wasted, because there in all its untouched splendour was the entire bridge in front of me.
Above, I could see my friends from the Dark Star diving team descending, silhouetted superbly against the rays of sunshine from the high-noon sun above.
I fired up my torch, just to peer beneath plates from the upper bridge deck that had fallen across the once-covered bridge section.
It was obvious that the upper bridge deck had collapsed, and was now level with the main bridge. This was indicated as soon as I saw an original exterior flood-lamp bolted to a section of upper deck lying tight to the upper bridge section of the wreck.
Close to this lamp, I could see the ships telemotor, a hydraulic steering position unlike any I had seen on a wreck before. To its lower right-hand side was a type of gear lever, perhaps a shifter, but I have no idea what it would have done.
The wood of the spoke-wheel had long since rotted away, but I noted the length of its shaft, which would have travelled through a wooden binnacle.
The helmsman back in the roaring 1920s, the Transylvanias heyday, would have stood abreast of this wheel and kept a close eye on the compass inside the binnacle. And there to my right was that compass, fallen from its fixings when its wooden stand rotted away.
My VR3 dive computer read 131m depth, but on the other side of its screen my time to surface was building by the second. What the hell! A dive on the Transylvania was worth its wait in gold, and no matter what deco was thrown at me, I would hang around until my very sphincter told me I must leave!
CENTRAL TO THE BRIDGE, I could see two massive double-header Robinson telegraphs, their heads fallen to the decks but still held by their tiny brass chains.
Each one was securely fixed to the decks by their proud brass pedestal stands, even after well over 60 years under water, a truly amazing sight in these waters.
All the ingredients for an out-of-this-world dive were cooking up. Would anyone believe what we had seen down here
Clenched firmly was my Aquatica deepwater camera system, 30m deeper than its rating, and my flashguns, well over twice the manufacturers rating.
On the aperture lever side of the housing, my fingers were firmly crossed that pressure would not take its toll.
I recalled pressure problems I had encountered with another camera on the Britannic, a wreck shallower than my current depth! I fired off a number of shots of the splendid-looking telegraphs.
My mind was playing games, telling me that my bottom time was now well-cooked, and that I had no right to stay here any longer. A stable PO2 on my Inspiration rebreather handset eased my mind a little, but I was too excited to concentrate on proper focusing or even metering the light levels. There was no time for that, not here, not at this depth!
None of the team had seen enough, but we had to leave this beautiful shipwreck for another day. Already my total time to surface was well over five hours, and being the last off the wreck after a healthy bottom time would mean that I would also be last out of the water.
It would be leftovers for me at dinner, if I got anything at all!
Decompressing for five or six hours in the North Atlantic waters really takes it out of you. The ocean is constantly keeping you on the move, which slowly saps your energy.
I was grateful when our captain George Mair, aboard the support vessel Loyal Mediator, greeted me with a cup of tea, but I also found the Dark Star team still in their drysuits, still all telling each other the story of their dive.
There might be food left after all!
A once-in-a-lifetime dive this may have been, but our captain had the weather forecast in his hands, and it was good.
We were set in for the next three days, 40 miles offshore, above the best wreck dive off the British Isles!
THE MID-1920S, when ss Transylvania was built, was the age of celebration.
Jazz had arrived, radio became popular, first-class passengers would be entertained by Charleston dance music, and immigrants aboard the great transatlantic passenger ships were dreaming of their new life in America.
Transylvania was to serve the transatlantic route, taking around 1400 passengers on each crossing between Glasgow and New York via Donegal.
One of several ships, pride of the Anchor Line, she took her name from her predecessor, which had sunk due to enemy action during World War One.
This all-new Transylvania was, however, almost twice the size, and powered by state-of-the-art steam-turbine engines. She would bask in the glory years of the decade and on well into the great depression of the 1930s, transporting many Scottish families to a new life. But World War Two was looming, and with it would come Transylvanias fate as a wreck-in-waiting for the technical divers of the future.
In August 1939, the Admiralty requisitioned the liner for conversion into an armed merchant cruiser.
From that October she was HMS Transylvania, but on 10 August the following year, enemy submarine action sank her 35 miles north-west of Inishtrahull.
Diving the Transylvania is easier said than done, if only because the weather 40 miles north of Ireland is so temperamental. Liveaboard charter-boats tend to lurk around Malin Head off Donegal, waiting for a weather slot to allow them to head offshore. Anxious technical divers eager to dive the great wreck have been known to wait weeks without a sniff at it.
Those with enough willpower wait their turn. My return to the wreck was as exciting as my first dive, if only because I knew what to expect.
Because of the depth, using a scooter is the best way to dive Transylvania. You see a lot more of it, and can cruise along the upper decks in fabulous visibility, often returning to tell mouth-watering tales to the free-swimming divers.
Fantastic, beautifully designed windows can be seen along the promenade decks, along with interestingly sculpted bench-ends, fallen from their positions as the timber benches have rotted away.
The wreck lies upright east to west, with a 15° list to port. The greater part of the upper superstructure has collapsed onto itself, and it is here that most visitors spend their time.
Average depths are around 129-130m, although 135m has been recorded by divers dropping over the side of the hull.
The clean white sand on which the wreck lies boosts the visibility, as the light penetrating the clear water reflects off it and onto the wreck.
At the bow, the foremast can be seen lying out towards the sand on the port side, and several deck hatches are open, allowing the diver to see within.
Because of the relatively collapsed state of the upper superstructure, the wreck is not so much a penetration, more a run along the exterior of the superstructure. This wreck is in relatively good condition, especially taking into account its position of 50 50N, 08 03W in the exposed Atlantic ocean, where the big swells from the west batter other nearby wrecks.
THERE ARE TORPEDO HOLES abreast of no 2 hold on the starboard side. Transylvanias captain had just turned in, and it was bang on midnight when a G7e torpedo from the German submarine U56 struck the ship.
The engines were stopped almost at once, and all the lights went out minutes later. Within five minutes, reports from the first commander and the engineer made clear that the engine-room was flooded, the aft end under water and C-deck awash; depth charges and no 4 gun were submerged as well.
The ship had taken a list of 6° to port, and was slowly sinking. Weather conditions were steadily deteriorating, and a light gale would blow up as the night wore on.
Between 3 and 4am, Transylvania steadily settled by the stern, her list increasing to 12°. Nearby destroyers had taken everyone off except the captain and his direct commanders, but as the situation deteriorated further, they abandoned ship.
They had hardly pulled clear when their great ship sank, at 4.30.
The captain believed that the ship had been struck by two torpedoes simultaneously, one in the vicinity of the engine-room, the other under no 4 gun.
This gun can still be seen - there are four 6in guns on the wreck, as to be expected on an armed merchant cruiser, all standing proud for divers to see.
One such gun on the port side of the bow, pointing west and standing high above seabed level, makes for excellent photography when silhouetted against the mid-day sun.
The Transylvania wreck was first examined by salvage company Risdon Beazley back in July 1967.
One assumes from the reports that its dive was for purposes of elimination, because it was looking for another, more specific cargo wreck close by.
Transylvania was not dived again until September 2000, when it greeted three divers operating from Loyal Watcher, then owned by technical diving instructor Richard Stevenson.
Diver Chris Hutchison, one of the divers who dropped onto the wreck that summer, was quoted later as calling it the best dive Ive ever done other than Britannic.
IN 2002, THE DARK STAR technical diving team under Mark Dixon began a series of dives on Transylvania and have continued to make their own surveys as weather permitted.
In 2005, well-known technical diver Dave Apperley travelled all the way from Australia to dive the wreck with the Dark Star team.
A lucky weather window allowed Apperley and the team to set into the wreck once more, and remain offshore for a productive three-day period.
Irish technical divers have meanwhile been examining the stern, and have reported fantastic diving conditions, and many interesting artefacts to be seen.
There are few if any tidal problems when diving Transylvania - its a turn-up-and-dive situation in that sense - but it is a serious undertaking that requires a well-conceived standard operating procedure.
All diving procedures at the site should take into consideration the need for sufficient bail-out measures, and safety is vital diving at this depth.
Surface support is a must, and having a separate in-water support team is highly recommended.