Diving into Donegal 2021

Diving into Donegal 2021
Diving into Donegal 2021

Adventures with Mine Fields and U-boats - North Coast of Ireland

Barry McGill (Indepth Technical Diving)

THE NORTH COAST OF DONEGAL has become synonymous with technical divers from all over the world. The importance of this remote stretch of water off the North coast of Ireland during both World Wars becomes apparent by the numerous records and accounts of combat which resulted in the loss of countless ships and brave souls. This has resulted in a uniquely rich maritime history, which lies silently below the crisp blue waters of the North Atlantic, just within sight of the Emerald Isle. The opportunity to dive ocean liners, a super-dreadnought battleship, cargo ships (one strewn with Sherman tanks) as well as countless submarines is made even more awe-inspiring by the clear and ambient light rich waters in this part of the North Atlantic.

Exploration of these untouched wrecks started in the late 1990’s and developed significantly into the 2000’s, with much of the diving being undertaken by large-scale expeditions using live-aboard type vessels and rebreather diving technology. As the popularity of technical diving increased, the demand for diving off the north coast of Donegal followed. Based on this, the number of boats providing technical divers access to these wrecks has slowly increased in the intervening years.

A must-do dive on many technical divers’ bucket list is the wreck of HMS Audacious, which lies in 64 metres. The wreck is a mere 12 miles offshore. This King George V class battleship which was part of a 2nd Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet, struck a mine on the 27th October 1914, while undertaking gunnery exercises. After a number of failed attempts to tow the floundering super-dreadnought battleship to shore, Audacious capsized and sank following several large internal explosions. Today the wreck lies upside down on the seabed with the upturned twin 13.5” guns & turret near the forward break and the mostly intact stern section being the most mesmerising areas of the wreck to explore. The sheer scale of the wreck allows for countless exploratory dives to be undertaken without diving the same areas twice. The wreck is also a perfect site to unlock the full potential of a dive scooter, given the stunning visibility that is often experienced on the wreck.

A shipwreck with a unique story as well as a unique cargo is that of the SS Empire Heritage, which lies in 66 metres of water. It was one of the biggest merchant ship losses of the war and yet for many years the full story has gone untold. SS Empire Heritage was constructed in 1930 and started life as the Tafelberg operating as a whale factory ship off the coast of South Africa. The ship has the undesirous record of being sank twice during its war time service. Firstly, in January 1941, while on route from England to America when it struck a mine and had to be beached. The ship broke in two parts and was declared a total loss. That is until February 1943, when the wreckage was repaired and re-floated by the British Ministry of Transport and renamed the SS Empire Heritage. Under her new name, the Empire Heritage was used to carry heavy cargos of war supplies across the Atlantic between New York and Liverpool. On the 8th September 1944, the Empire Heritage was 20 miles off the North Coast of Ireland as part of a large convoy (HX-305) carrying a cargo which included 16,000 tons of fuel oil and a deck cargo which included Sherman tanks, half-tracks and trucks. The German U-boat U-482 encountered the convoy at fired a torpedo which resulted in the sinking of the ship in a matter of minutes. The Pinto, a rescue ship that had been accompanying the convoy rushed to help the survivors floating in the water and was hit herself shortly afterwards by a second torpedo having taken just two of the survivors aboard. The loss of the Empire Heritage right on their own doorstep was a devastating blow to the British Admiralty. She was one of their largest ships, carrying a valuable and much needed cargo (Empire Heritage was the 18th biggest merchant ship to be lost in the whole of World War Two). In total there were 158 men aboard Empire Heritage when she was attacked, because alongside the normal crew there were a large number of passengers as well as signalmen and gunners. The passengers were DBS or Distressed British Seamen, who were survivors from other shipwrecks that had been sunk and were travelling as passengers on their way back to Britain to be assigned to new ships. In total 110 men were lost from Empire Heritage – the majority of the crew and passengers. Twenty-one of the crew from the Pinto were also lost along with the two survivors of Empire Heritage sinking who had just been taken aboard. Today, lying in 66 metres of water, the wreck of the Empire Heritage is regarded as one of Europe's foremost dive sites - not least for the fact that its cargo of US Sherman tanks lie scattered across the sea bed as a silent reminder of an age when the world was at war. The wreckage is also just over 800 m from the wreck of the SS Pinto. The main attraction for Technical divers to the Empire Heritage is her cargo of Sherman tanks which lie like a half-spilled toy box from a young child. Countless Sherman tanks lie scattered on the seabed off the starboard side of the wreck and within the body of the main wreck itself. While the bow is virtually destroyed other than massive piles of anchor chain, one of the Empire Heritages massive stern propellers is an impressive sight standing off the seabed beside the unturned stern section. This wreck really lends itself to a scooter dive which allows visiting divers to explore the full extents of the wreckage including its numerous deck guns, boilers and its engine.  

On the white sand seabed 30 miles off the North Coast of Ireland, time has stood still on a very impress ware machine. The wreck site of the World War 1 German submarine U-89 has become a very special part of many technical divers’ adventures. The large U-boats of the Kaiserliche Marine is an uncommon find in shallow coastal water, which makes a visit to this wreck site a very special experience. U-89 was one of the 329 submarines serving in the Imperial German Navy in World War I. U-89 took part in the First Battle of the Atlantic and unfortunately for the U-89 it only operated for 6 months before it sank in the cold waters of the North Atlantic in February 1918. While on war patrol off the North Coast of Ireland under the command of Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Bauck, U-89 surfaced directly in front of a British naval cruiser HMS Roxburgh, which without hesitation rammed the submarine, directly in front of the conning tower over the engine room. This resulted in the submarine sinking within a matter of moments with the loss of all 42 sailor’s onboard. The wreck site today lies in 62 metre on a bright sandy seabed with lot of ambient light covering in the wreck. Given it has been on the seabed for over 102 years the wreck outer pressure hull has started the deteriorated significantly giving a unique insight into the internals of this amazing piece of technology such as the engine rooms, stern and after torpedo rooms and also the main control rooms below the conning tower itself. Some of the most iconic views of this wreck are of its fully intact conning tower and intact deck guns which are pointing skywards on either end of the conning tower. One of the nicest parts of any dive to this wreck site is when the divers start to make their final ascent up the shot line and the entire wreck is laid out below them as they make their slow ascent to the surface after a very memorable dive.             

No diving expedition to North Donegal would be complete without a dive on the iconic White Star ocean liner HMT Justicia, which lies in 72 metres. Initially launched as the Statendam in 1914, the Justicia was assigned to the White Star Line and operated as a troop transport.  While sailing from Belfast to New York on the 19th July 1918, the Justicia was attacked by UB-64, which fired 4 torpedoes wounding the ship. The majority of the crew where evacuated and the ship was taken into tow by a recuse party. Subsequently, however, UB-124 attacked Justicia while under tow on the 20th July, resulting in the sinking of the ship and the loss of 16 crew. The bow of this once great ocean liner has become one of the most iconic images of technical diving and is the main focus of the majority of dives on this wreck. The wreck itself sits upright on the seabed and has mostly collapsed due to the severe North Atlantic storms. Nonetheless, at 225 metres in length, the wreck provides endless possibilities for exploration and photography.    

The sense of adventure when diving off the North Coast of Donegal can be captured by diving one of the many seldom-dived wrecks. Many of these wrecks contain a wealth of untold history, no more so than the wreck of HMS Viknor in 86 metres. Originally called the RMS Atrato, it was launched in 1888 and later renamed SS Viking before finally being requisitioned as a naval auxiliary and renamed Viknor by the Admiralty, at the outbreak of the First World War. The Viknor was originally thought to have been lost in heavy seas while on patrol on the 13th January 1915 with the loss of all hands. However, in 2007, this long forgotten wreck was discovered again by a group of British and Irish technical divers led by the British technical diving team Darkstar. Since this initial dive, many untold aspects of the story have been uncovered, including the fact that the Viknor was likely lost due to contact with a mine from the same minefield that had previously sealed the fate of HMS Audacious.

The north coast of Donegal has a wealth of maritime history that has yet to be fully discovered. Coupled with the natural beauty of the rugged coastline and the warm and welcoming atmosphere of the local village with its many pubs and restaurants, the potential for a unique diving expedition makes it a must-do on every technical diver’s wish list. Diving the wrecks in this area of the North Atlantic with its clear ‘blue’ water allows the diver to fully comprehend the sheer scale and significance of these once great vessels and offers a unique experience in technical diving exploration. An experience that you find many divers coming back to year after year!   

 For more information on Donegal Maritime, check out: https://www.govisitdonegal.com/explore-donegal/maritime