The broken-off bow section is the first thing that greets you as you arrive on the remains of ss Zonnewyk
Treasures of Latvia
DO YOU LIKE WRECK DIVING Imagine a place where untouched war wrecks are just a short boat trip away! You dont need mixed gas or decompression cylinders, either - the wrecks are easy to reach at sport-diving depths, and with visibility often in the 30-40m range, the diving is simple and enjoyable.
Now imagine a German Mauser rifle lying in the open on a deck, where a sailor who was desperately trying to protect his ship from attacking aircraft dropped it 50 years ago - a moment frozen in time.
Imagine being met on a wreck by an anti-aircraft gun intact on its mounting, optics still in place and muzzle pointing at the shotline. Welcome to Latvia, a small country on the Baltic Sea shores, formerly part of the Soviet Union.
I was there last May, visiting from Stockholm aboard mv Langesund with Pelle Lundvall, who discovered many of these wrecks in the course of numerous visits over the past ten years.
Pelle built up our expectations only slowly. The first wreck we dived, the ss Carl Cords, verged on the disappointing. It looked like a typical wreck found off Stockholm - barren, broken up and in bad visibility.
It was a steamer, complete with midships superstructure and four cargo bays. Somebody had been diving there before us, as we soon discovered.
A big sign in Russian was tied to the engine-room skylight. It read: Private Property: Sergejs Wreck.
Back on our dive-boat, Pelle smiled and told us that he had met Sergej on one of his first trips there. An ex-Soviet Navy officer, he had a commercial-diving operation in the harbour city of Liepaja, and claimed that all wrecks found here belonged to him.
He had asked Pelle if he was going to take any souvenirs. When Pelle said no, Sergej told him that he was allowed to dive there.He came down to the harbour every time Langesund and Pelle visited Liepaja, and eventually they had become good friends, exchanging marks and lot of stories.
The Carl Cords was just a warm-up dive for our eight-day trip.
A STOP ON THE WAY
The journey across the Baltic from Sweden had taken about 20 hours, and we had stopped halfway, near the Swedish island of Gotland. It offers fantastic diving but has no dive-boats - an unfortunate combination.
Thirty-metre visibility is not uncommon here, and you get that feeling of light vertigo as you descend towards ss Hornstein, which remains beautiful despite the harsh weather conditions and fishing trawls that have combined to destroy its superstructure.
The visibility allows you to view the whole wreck from amidships.
Its quite an experience to swim a short distance out from the stern or bow and see the whole ship towering above you.
At the stern is an enormous auxiliary steering-wheel, intact as is the original railing around the ship. Both have survived the fishing trawls.
Hornstein is at the depth limit for sport divers, with the deck at 39m and the seabed at 45m. Two dives were not enough to get acquainted with the wreck from the outside. We found so many old artefacts lying around it, but with many inviting holes and hatches down to the engine-room and new interesting areas, it called for a visit on another occasion.
The seabed around Hornstein is all rock and sand. A slight but constant current clears small particles and creates the good vis, though this is not the case on all wreck sites around Gotland. When we started our descent to mv Thea the next day, it had dropped to only 2-3m.
Only very dim sunlight illuminated the mud and silt seabed at 41m, and no wreck was in sight. Disappointed, we deployed a reel to make a circular search.
It took about 10 minutes, but in the end we literally crashed into the starboard side of the wreck.
The ship was supposed have been carrying china, but we later determined that this cargo in fact consisted of clay drainage pipes.
The rest of the group was already on the wreck. It turned out that you could almost see the bow from the shotline - we just hadnt looked hard enough.
So when everybody else started their ascent, we still had some reeling to do!
A CARGO OF ACOUSTIC MINES
Diving a shipwreck containing live ammunition is a unique feeling. Not knowing how stable the ammo is does make you a little more cautious.
Dozens of cylinders of shining white metal lie all over and around the wreck of a WW2 cargo steamer off the Latvian coast, and the nervous feeling became even more intense on this dive.
This, the third day of our journey, promised special surprises. Pelle took us to ss Zonnewyk, one of his favourite wrecks. He had told us about the mines in the cargo bays and around the wreck.
Slightly intimidated, we asked David, a fellow-diver aboard Langesund, if we should be concerned about the mines.
A former lieutenant in Swedish Navy mine-clearance, he explained to us that these devices were of the magnetic-acoustic type, and were supposed to be deployed from an aircraft.
In transit the fuses were removed, so the mines were relatively harmless cargo - nothing to worry about.
The dive turned out to be one of the best on the trip, and the vis was certainly the best, at around 40m.
The wreck was pretty broken up, with only the stern and bow standing upright on the bottom. All cargo holds, engine-room and superstructure had collapsed, leaving the inside of the ship open for inspection.
The 110m steamer was otherwise remarkably untouched, with dozens of artefacts lying around.
There were four deck-guns and, also on deck, a couple of handheld rifles. Gas-masks and china lay everywhere, reminding us of the days when Zonnewyk was still on war duty.
The most impressive part of the wreck was in the centre, where the engine-room walls had collapsed to reveal two huge boilers, and a massive frame supporting the cylinders.
From here, shafts led down to the deck below to be connected to the propshaft through a series of bearings.
It was the perfect chance for a wreck-diving enthusiast to study how a steam engine operated - and the enormous rudder and propeller offered fantastic photo-opportunities.
Over the years, wrecks can be systematically stripped by divers. So I was surprised to see the ss Ammerland, the most complete and extraordinary wreck we dived on our trip to Latvia.
The German armed cargo ship rested in 30m on its port side, and was full of surprises. On the bow was an anti-aircraft gun. Another lay on the seabed beside the wreck, with one more mounted on the starboard midships.
In the front of the cargo bay, we found a huge piece of grey fabric. Attached to it were thick rubber lines that went all the way up to the deck, beneath the keel and all the way to the other side
Ammerland was a blockade vessel, and her protection against air attack was a barrage balloon constantly hanging overhead to block Stuka bombing attacks. This did not seem to have saved the vessel, although there is another theory that she was sunk by a submarine.
Many divers must have visited Ammerland, but quite a few interesting artefacts remain visible. As it rests on its side, the wrecks lower decks are even more accessible for divers. You need swim only a couple of metres to one side to be at the lower deck level.
The depth gives you a lot of time on the wreck, though the water temperature was only about 4°C in May. The bridge and much of the superstructure were swept aside during the sinking and now rest on the bottom next to the wreck, remarkably intact but upside-down.
Within the ship lay one of the most exciting discoveries of our trip. Deep within corridors and behind the bridge, in the telegraphers cabin, we noticed a mysterious machine in a wooden box.
This device, we believe, was used by the German military to send secret coded messages, though the Enigma code was soon broken by English and Polish mathematicians. Some historians believe that this breakthrough may have shortened the war by a year.
As we explored the bridge, we also found uniforms and other clothes.
We tried lifting the fragile material gently, but it turned to dust as soon as we tried to pull it out of the silt, having deteriorated over the years.
OLD FRIENDS IN THE HARBOUR
When we arrived at Liepaja one evening, we were pleasantly surprised to meet some old friends. Peter and Eva had arrived in their boat the M24 the night before. We enjoyed spending time with them in the harbour city, where everybody appeared to be just starting to wake up after a long winter.
The divers from M24 told us about a wreck they had dived the day before, one they had identified from a plate they found beneath the hull. We had dived the same wreck earlier, thinking it to be an armed trawler, but it turned out to be a German minesweeper, M305!
My knowledge of the Russian language came in useful when we began to study and compare the histories of these different wrecks, assisted by the websites of various local diving clubs.
Not all the wrecks in Latvia are from World War Two - one very special one we dived was rather more modern.
PSK Sevan was a timber-carrier built in the USSR during the 1950s, and one of the first completely Soviet-designed ships. Soon obsolete, a better use was found for Sevan by the Soviet Navy.
We descended on the wreck and were met by a strange sight. The Sevan, a huge ship about 140m long, was resting to starboard on a sandy bottom at about 25m. It was immediately apparent that the vessel had not been used to transport timber for a long time. The deck once used to store this cargo had been rebuilt.
Four thick masts rose like tall towers, with the remains of antennae and other radar equipment still attached.
Pelle later explained that PSK stood for Search and Recovery in Russian, Sevan being one of the few ships in the USSR used to control the MIR space station and its satellites.
Equipped with all kinds of transmitting and receiving radio equipment, the vessel could carry out its tasks, including search and recovery missions, anywhere in the world.
During the mid-1990s, when the MIR station burned in the atmosphere and the Cold War ended, Russia offered its PSK vessels to the highest bidder for scrap. All the important equipment was removed from Sevan, and she was being towed to Liepaja by a large tugboat when she started listing to one side.
The angle grew more acute, and Sevan gradually began to take in water.
The tugboat crew could only watch from afar. They finally saw the ship invert and disappear.
This is a perfect shipwreck for those fond of wreck penetration. We spent many hours inspecting the endless corridors and giant engine-room.
Diving in Latvia is world-class, with great visibility and untouched wrecks, but the area is sensitive to bad weather conditions, as all these wrecks are in the open sea.
If you decide to do some serious wreck-diving, I would recommend that you use liveaboards from Sweden.