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Diving in Estonia: Wrecks, Atlantis and a Flooded Prison

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Our plan was to go for a diving and caving trip to Norway this summer with a diver/caver group we didn’t know previously, but being low on funds we had to cancel that. The same group was going to Estonia for a long diving weekend and we downgraded our plan to that, which was a huge success: exciting and fun diving locations, interesting people and total relaxation.

Panga cliff in Saarenmaa

We left for Estonia and a big island called Saarenmaa on Thursday. As it happens, my family has probably made a pit stop in Estonia when moving to Finland a couple of centuries back, so in theory there might be some living distant relatives of mine in the area. Susi and I shared a car with a guy who has been a composer for five decades and his wife, who was the diver of the family. The boat trip over to Estonia and the car trip through the country to the west coast was spent in a really interesting conversation about music and art in general, rhetorics, writing, games, linguistics and culture, just to name a few topics. The conversation made the trip fly by.

(More photos in the full Flickr photoset!)

Panga Diving Resort is a surprisingly large operation.

Our dive operator was Panga Diving Resort, which turned out to be this big log house with smaller cabins around it. The room we had was comfy, with a private bathroom across the hallway. We arrived quite late at night, so after a dinner which they had kept warm for us we crashed more or less right away in anticipation of the morning’s dives.

A boulder on the shoreline.

Two Wrecks And A Night Dive

The first dive day consisted of three dives: the wreck of a British merchantman Marta, which sunk under unknown circumstances. Whatever they were, they involved a huge explosion in midship, which left more or less only the bow and stern in some kind of shape. In midship there were remains of an engine and a long wooden cylinder that must have been some kind of axel casing. The wreck was really pleasant to dive, the visibility was good and there were no currents or other complications.

On the zodiac, heading out to the dive location.

The second wreck was a Russian minesweeper called Stag that was lost in 1941 with 15 casualties. The ship was armed with 56mm, 45mm and 20mm guns, and apparently at least the some of the 45mm ammunition was still in the stern of the ship. There was also a 200 kg bomb embedded on the sea floor right next to the wreck, nose first. The detonator has been removed, so technically you could take a hammer to the bomb without any danger, but as tempting as it sounds, we didn’t take the chance. This wreck was also very pleasant to dive, the visibility was again around 10 meters, which is plenty for the Baltic Sea. It was a shame that the site briefing didn’t come with a map, though, since I managed to miss some details because I’m more of a visually oriented person.

Some portholes still had the glass in place, if not intact.

Looks like some kind of cooling equipment on Stag.

After the first two dives there would’ve been a sauna, but Susi and I agreed that if we’d go there, we’d just liquify into bed and never make it to the night dive, so we had our dinner and a short reading and napping pause instead.

The final dive of the day was a night dive, where we were carried a couple of hundred of meters out of the shore, dropped into the water and left to dive back to the shore. The shore was a very pleasant bio dive. There were plenty of flounders, viviparous eelpouts, straightnose pipefish, all manners of gobies and shrimps, and we even saw a couple of vaskikala-sticklebacks. When coming ashore, we ran into an enormous school of three-spined sticklebacks. We more or less swam through the school of flashy silvery little fish for the last ten minutes of the dive, and I managed to accidentally catch at least one of them – when I was taking off my kit in the dive center, one of the little fish fell on the floor.

A flounder, aka The Stingray of the Baltic, aka Picasso’s Leftovers.

A viviparous eelpout

A vaskikala

A needle nosed pipefish.

Shy Seals and Atlantis

The Saturday had two dives: one to a seal colony that took some traveling, the other to a “reef” closer to the dive center. To get to the seals took a longish drive to another harbour, and an one hour boat ride. The place was a rocky almost-island, around which there was usually hundreds of the seals. We saw a few on the shoreline and Susi and I started off to the direction indicated for us.

Mullah Underwear-Head & Consort on the boat. Yeah, I did forget my hat and had to use the thermal underwear for headwear (yes, the shirt part). It was cloudless and really hot the whole time – our pasty skin is so crisp right now.

In the end we had a pleasant dive over a sunlit prairie of yellow-green algae, but didn’t really get to interact with the seals. Susi saw one of them bolt up from the sea bottom and escape, but I missed that completely. About half of the people got to see seals, which came to play and nibble at peoples’ fins. Not seeing the animals was a real bummer, but that’s nature for you. The only place you are guaranteed to see wildlife is on DVD, even in a zoo they might be asleep. The videos and stories of the lucky ones were motivation enough to come back to dive at that location.

Sunshine on the surface. Sometimes you just have to lie down on the bottom of the sea and look up.

After the seal dive Susi and I took a short walk under the Panga cliffs, enoying the sunshine and looking for fossils that really weren’t hard to find. Part of the cliff had collapsed some time earlier, so walking under that mass of cracked stone was slightly unnerving, but the blazing evening sun and the euphoria brought on by exercise were a perfect interlude to diving.

The Sun is a spider. She is really warm.

Looking for fossils below Panga cliffs.

The fossils of ancient shellfish were easy to find, in addition to small drill like shapes.

The second dive of the day was a bio-location, which might have turned into a wreck dive with a bit of luck. The place was called Ninase Cliffs, and it was one of the operative locations of a 1917 Operation Albion, this little skirmish between German Empire and Russian Republic that involved some 23000 men, 5000 horses and quite a lot of ships. The area hasn’t been examined properly with a sonar, but the guys at the dive center were just about to start it this summer.

The first ever Minecraft dive I’ve done.

In the end we didn’t find relics from the Great War, but instead we found Atlantis. The area has a lot of limestone which forms incredibly geometric shapes under water. It’s no wonder that early archaeologists have been finding sunken cities here and there. The limestone had cracked into totally even rectangular blocks that formed amphitheaters with seats, stairs and remains of pillars, there were long paved boulevards and low stone walls – all covered with undulating yellowish algae and full of life.

An ancient paved road, or a natural formation?

“What the hell is that thing! Oh my god, it’s looking at me, it’s coming straight at me!”

After the dive it was the time for barbecue, sauna and soaking in a hot  tub outdoors. The food was good and the sauna was just what the doctor ordered, but the incredible amount of mosquitoes outside drove people indoors pretty fast. I was just about to hit the bed when the final treat of the evening arrived. Flounders are stupidly easy to catch, just pick them up and bag them. Some members of our group had gathered a bagful and smoked them. Mmm-mm – encountering funny animals and then eating them.

Uh… on the photo these smoked flounders look like some sort of horribly infected genitals, but trust me, they were really very tasty!

Limestone Canyons, Castles and a Flooded Prison

The last dive in Panga was near the shoreline, on a location called Panga Pank, which was pretty much like Ninase Cliffs but not quite as impressive “architecturally”. What it had going were these pretty massive limestone canyons with a lot of sealife, and a visibility that was something ridiculous like 15 meters. Susi and I also found an old anchor at the bottom, but not a boat that went with it.

Going out for a night dive. There was a pollen halo around the sun, about one degree from the sun horizontally and oval.

That was it for us at Panga Diving Resort. I can recommend the place for everybody who’s interested in diving in the Baltic Sea. The staff is friendly and helpful, the dive locations are varied and interesting, and the price for six dives including air fills, accommodation and three good meals is a very reasonable 265€ per person. The sound proofing of the rooms was zero, though, and in our corner room there was a weird insectile gnawing noise coming from the wall, as if a beetle had been making its way through the logs. Nevertheless, very small gripes and the overall experience was very positive.

People were really slow to leave, and we were on the road three hours late. On our way we stopped to see the ruins of a hilltop castle called Maasi Stronghold. On the surface it was more or less just a pile of rocks, but inside there were still several tall vaulted rooms intact.

The vaulted halls were surprisingly spacious.

Swallows were nesting in the vaults, and they kept flapping around nervously with all the people around.

Our last dive location was a bit out there: a flooded Rummu prison. The location is a quarry that is now full of water. One side of the quarry used to have some heavy machinery that was left on the bottom, but they have been raised, so there’s very little to see there nowadays. On the other side of the quarry there’s at least one totally submerged building, and another ruin jutting up from the water.

“Stop! A prison perimeter, do not approach!”

It started to look annoyingly like we’d have to skip the location to get to our ferry, but luckily we managed to squeeze in a half an hour dive in the ruins – and that dive was an icing on the cake for this trip.

One of the flooded buildings. The one we explored was completely submerged.

Susi, Elina and I went under a few meters outside of the submerged prison perimeter. The first thing we encountered was a chain link fence. Behind it was a small area with a lot of razor wire, looking all soft and fuzzy under its deceptive cover of algae. Then we had to cross a tall brick wall to get to the actual prison area. The visibility wasn’t stellar, something like three meters at the best. We didn’t have a reel with us, since the time was limited and we didn’t think there’d be time for proper penetration, but when we took a peek through the first dark doorway, there were several exits visible in form of windows.

The area between the outer and inner fence had coils of razor wire lying around. Warning: not compatible with a dry suit!

This was what we did, dove in through doors, examined small rooms with random junk left, like stools, machine parts and thoroughly rusted furniture. There were a lot of jutting rusty nails, some of them quite hard to spot, and in one room the window was covered with a metal grille. The panes of glass had been broken and through the window you could see branches of long-dead submerged trees.

A view out to some submerged trees.

We came up with a firm conviction to come back later in the autumn, when the water is clearer. One of the guides in Panga had told that in wintertime under the ice the visibility might be as much as 40 meters, which sounds quite awesome.

Looks like the guards abandoned their post.
Yes, as a matter of fact this photo is here just so I could make that joke. 

Relaxing, Exciting and Fun

The heading tells it all – for me the long weekend was very very relaxing, exciting and fun. Interesting dive locations, interesting and easygoing new people, nature stuff like the fossil hunt, and to top it all the first chance I’ve ever had of exploring a submerged building. The bad things were few and far in between, the worst of them being my drysuit turning out to be more of a demisec suit. It has a leak somewhere in the general ass area, and I was soaked from the butt down after every dive. This was bearable in the cloudless, sunny and hot weather we were having, but it won’t do in worse circumstances. Well, I bought the trusty Ursuit 905 during my AOWD course and it was a rental suit with some mileage already behind it. After that it has survived three Rescue Diver courses, assorted other course stuff and 160 dives in all kinds of circumstances, so no wonder it’s getting a bit ragged around the edges.

But bloody hell I had a good time, I feel like I’d just had a two week holiday. Now I have my diving legs back under me, there’s a lot more fun-diving to do and the Divemaster course to continue, and a new nice group of people to do this stuff with. This might end up being an another good year.

(More photos in the full Flickr photoset!)

Our group.

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  1. Pingback: 2011 – Welcome To The Roller Coaster | Vornasblogi

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