Wreck Diving in Åland III – The Seal Whisperers

July 26, 2011 · Posted in Adventure!, Diving 

Our summer wreck diving trips to Åland have become a yearly tradition. This time the trip was completely awesome, featuring plenty of new wrecks, great dives and good weather, and a fun night of music, cars and beer to top it off.

(Check out the full Flickr photo set of the trip!)

This is the third year a bunch of us headed over to Åland in June to dive some local wrecks, and go and meet our dive pal from the Red Sea, Gunnar. This time he had managed to get some of his Swedish diver pals to join us too. The trip coincides with a local American car show, so the city of Marienhamn is full of classic vintage cars, some of them rebuilt to within an inch of their lives. In addition to diving Gunnar also brings his car for the show, for a night of cruising around the downtown.

Our first trip to Åland was pretty awesome, but last year the bad weather and the high winds got us stuck on one shipwreck for most of the trip. This time the weather smiled upon us and we were in for a treat or a three.

M/S Skiftet & Good Old Plus

The trip started in a bit of a mood for me. Because of the horrible heatwave and assorted other stuff I haven’t been sleeping too well lately. We arrived to Marienhamn at four in the morning, and got three theoretical hours of sleep before it was the time to pack our stuff and head for the dive center. I had got maybe a total of four hours of sleep in the last two nights, so I wasn’t really feeling on the top of my game.

Luckily the weather was great, it was quite calm and I had a couple of hours to nap in the mercifully cool bunk area of the dive boat. Our first dive location was S/S Skiftet, an ice breaking passenger steamship that sank in 1916. At that time the ship had been in military use, and it was carrying 91 people, most of whom were Russian soldiers. The ship hit a mine and sank, taking 86 people with it.

Feeling frustrated or pissed off is water soluble. I usually leave mine under water.

The dive was a bit freaky for me – I was feeling very sleep deprived and somewhat nauseous, and it had been a while since the last time I had been diving in the murky waters of the Baltic. Underwater I was feeling kind of gloomy, thinking about all the people who were lost with the ship, which is now lying in two pieces. We didn’t go looking for the bow, but stayed at the aft, finding stuff like a decorative old porcelain sink which is still remarkably intact, a piece of a decorative glass lamp shade, and a piece of a porcelain plate that was lying on the hull of the ship. Items like that are weirdly melancholy when you spot them on a shipwreck, which are usually heaps of rust and mollusk covered metal. A white sink with a soap tray that has a seashell motif, or a plate with the decorative paints still visible really stands out against that background.

When we were in safety stop, I started feeling really nauseous, probably due to the slight waves and the particles on the water going really fast in the water past me, creating the inner ear wrecking illusion of moving sideways. I started seriously getting ready for hurling through the regulator, but managed to keep the breakfast in until we got back on the boat, and I got into the quiet bunk area for another nap. As it turns out, this nausea theme was pretty pervasive on this trip, and there was a whole lot of Seal Whispering going on during the three days of diving.

Waiting to get back on board, hanging on to a rope to avoid having to kick against the current.

The second wreck of the day was the good old Plus we spent so much time on last year. The visibility was not great in the beginning, and in midships area it was like diving in milk, but when Jori and I pushed through it to the bow area, the water suddenly cleared up remarkably well. For the first time ever I got a really good look into the bow compartments, and the tool compartment with the blowtorch and other stuff was crystal clear. It was a stroke of luck for Jori and me, since the others stayed mostly in the aft and midship, so there was no silting due to a lot of divers either.

A teisti, or a rock gunnel, hanging out on top of a shipwreck.

Continuing with the nausea theme, in the evening one of our group got a food poisoning. I was in a private room of sorts, that was hot as hell, and I was woken up from my light heat hibernation several times during the night by the sound of loud retching outdoors, which seemed to move from place to place. The last thing I had seen outside had been a bunch of Swedish bikers boozing at the picnic table. I kept having weird dreams of bunch of bikers just wandering around the yard and vomiting here and there. In the morning it turned out it had been our pal, who had dashed out of his room to be sick outside several times, so he wouldn’t disturb the others. Well, almost a success. What really sucked was that he had to obviously skip the next day’s dives.

Two Dives at M/S Gävle

In the next day we were supposed to go and see S/S Hesperius, but the wind and waves had picked up so much that we ended up doing two dives on M/S Gävle instead. This was not a bad deal, since Gävle is an awesome wreck. It used to be a state of the art marine research vessel right up to when it sank in 1975. The shipwreck is lying in a canyon of sorts, heavily listed, but very much intact. You can still see instrumentation on the bridge, the name of the ship is still visible on the bow and aft (although some shithead has stolen the letter G from the aft) and there’s an equipment locker that someone has wedged open, and now there’s a firefighter’s mask hanging out from there.

A firefighter's mask hanging out of M/S Gävle's equipment locker.

On the first dive I took Jori and Ville to see the main attractions of the wreck, while enjoying the great 10+ meter visibility and the cool water. Everybody else kept bitching about it being cold down there, but after the damn heatwave spending 40 minutes in +4C water was just what I needed to get my core temperature down. On the second dive Ville led the group and I just enjoyed sightseeing. I was supposed to take some photos, but my damn camera case had fogged up from the inside.

Instrumentation inside M/S Gävle's bridge.

On the surface the waves were rolling and the boat was rocking enough to make our tanks and storage boxes slide around the deck if they weren’t properly stowed. Not surprisingly most of the people on the boat were slightly sea sick, some badly enough that instead of diving they had to stay on board serving frutti di magen to the fish and Whisper to the Seals. And yeah, this time there were actual seals frolicking in the waves, around the boat and close to where the waves were hammering the stones M/S Gävle hit, sending up several meter tall sprays of white foam. Unfortunately we didn’t see any of them under the waves.

In the aft the Gävle's name is still intact. In the bow some asshole has stolen the letter G.

A rusty chain that's part of the tackle.

Thunder Diving, Upright Shipwrecks and Bloody Goddamn Camera

The third and last day of diving was made of pure awesome. We had two different wrecks, Briggen – which is simply “brig” in Swedish – and S/S L’Esperance, which is quite a special shipwreck.

The morning dawned rainy and cloudy, and throughout our trip to the dive site we watched the leaden rain and thunder clouds creeping closer from the horizon, until it started to rain just as we started to dress up for the dive. The waves were quite high, the ship was rocking, the thunder rumbled and an occasional lightning flashed in the sky. Having already dodged one lightning this summer by a measly 5-7 meters (it hit the lake in our cabin shore when we were there in June, leaving my left eye seeing only violet blotches and my ears going beeeep for some while), being on a metal boat wearing 30 kg of metal in middle of open sea made me a bit fidgety.

Rain actually makes it fun to put on a dry suit, which otherwise is not that comfortable.

It was also one of those moments when you start to appreciate the force of the elements. It’s kind of impressive to jump in the sea and realize that those gentle looking waves you see on the boat are over a meter high, which is pretty much when your face is on the level with them. The world is an undulating plain, where the boat may at times vanish totally from the view, and an errant wave can as well just wash over you instead of picking you up. You also start to respect the bulk of the boat that looks so of small when you are on it. The story is different when the waves make the boat hammer up and down a couple of meters from your face, while you are hanging on to the buoy rope waiting to get down. Add to that some rain and rolling thunder, and you’ll get a really impressive atmosphere.

…and then you start to descend on the rope, going down into the deep green that slowly turns into black, until the tons of rusting metal of the shipwreck suddenly just appear before you from the dark.

Thunder rolling, rain coming down, the waves tossing you here and there and at times reducing the visibility to a few meters - and the realization that without the boat you'd be totally fucked.

Briggen was an excellent dive. It was at about 30 meters, a remarkably intact wooden brig that was loaded with charcoal. On the deck you could find the ship’s bell, a grindstone, an axe, some kind of a metal hook, an iron stove and even a pocket watch, which is apparently quite hard to find (none of us did).

The Briggen ship's bell (photo: Carl Peppe Schauman)

The visibility was good and it would have been a great place to take some detail photos – except my piece of shit fucking crappy Canon Ixus 860IS refused to turn on, again. I could see the underwater case button mechanism working and not sticking, but nothing happened. This is the second time the camera jammed, the first one being in Greece, where I missed an awesome octopus shot because of that. The only thing in common with those events was that the depth was under 20 meters. Not this or the previous camera has done this before, and I can’t figure out what would be the logic in that. The temperature dropped a bit, for sure, but in Greece it was to +14C, in here to +4C. The pressure inside the case is supposed to stay at one atmosphere, since it’s rigid – so go and figure.

The Briggen ship's wheel (photo: Carl Peppe Schauman)

The last dive of the trip was on S/S L’Esperance, and it was one for collecting experience points. The ship had ran on some rocks in late 19th century, stayed on them for some time and then slid down during an autumn storm. Some divers had found it using a side scan sonar, but when they had gone looking for it, diving in a certain depth past the site, they had found nothing, which had been quite weird. A bit later some other divers went to look for the wreck, and realized what had happened to the first guys: they had managed to dive under the shipwreck without seeing it (this may tell you something about the visibility and the lighting conditions of the Baltic…). The shipwreck is standing on its nose, almost vertical, leaning against the rocks and at one point leaving some room under it. The upper part of the wreck is at 11 meters, the lower part at 35 meters, which makes it a pretty interesting dive.

Back on the buoy that's attached to the wreck.

When we went out, the visibility was not super good, and there was a sideways current that made people bump into each other and the wreck. One thing non-divers may not realize: it’s kind of hard to keep yourself on a certain depth, and it requires a lot of practice to do it well. Basically staying on a certain depth is handled by regulating the amount of air in your vest or your dry suit. Going up and down, while looking straight forward, let alone upward, is quite challenging with a dry suit, since the dump valve for the suit air is on your left sleeve, and it’s activated by raising your arm, which creates an air bubble with enough pressure to open the valve. When you get upright, all the air in the suit gets up into your upper body, and the pressure is enough for the suit to start dumping air, which makes you sink (and waste gas). If you close the valve and go a bit upwards, you start to accelerate towards the surface, until you dump some air. So, going up and down on a wreck where you have to look forward and up a lot is pretty interesting.

I ditched my camera pretty quickly and concentrated on controlling my buoyancy and keeping an eye on the guys. Our nitrox air/oxygen mixture had a maximum operating depth of about 30 meters (after that you risk convulsions from oxygen poisoning), so we had to be careful about not going in too deep. We didn’t get to go under the wreck, since it was quite a dark and oppressing place and we had a bit of a light problem. We ended up doing a totally horrible dive profile, going down to 30 meters and back up to 11m, back to 26m and up  to 11m again, then going back to 24 meters, before finally going up. But damn it was interesting!

American Cars and Thai Metal Covers

The sleep deprivation and other factors had made me a bit unsocial during the trip, and I had mostly skipped the carousing in the evenings, staying in our accommodation to read and to sleep instead. This had nothing to do with the people, mind you, who were a really nice bunch. On our last night I had decided to do the same after the dinner, but luckily Gunnar managed to gently manhandle me to hit the road, which was totally the right choice.

Our ride for the night: Gunnar's Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu from 1971.

We hopped into Gunnar’s Chevy, which Christina was driving, and headed for downtown to Dino’s Bar & Grill, which is a pretty sweet metal bar in downtown Marienhamn. We went there to check out Made in Thailand, which is a band consisting of a bunch of Thai guys playing metal covers. This sounds like a funny and comical gimmick band, but it’s not – Made in Thailand is hands down the best and most skilled cover band I’ve ever heard, and they can really get the audience pogoing, moshing and shouting.

A fun night with fun people, after a string of awesome dives. Just what the doctor ordered.

Made in Thailand - the best cover band I've encountered.


On the next day our ferry back to mainland left at two in the afternoon, which left us some time to kill in downtown. We went to see the Marienhamn maritime museum, which is still closed. We resorted to our backup plan and went for a full round of mini golf instead. ‘Cause that’s how we roll.

When you stop thinking whether what you do is cool or looks silly, and concentrate on having fun, then you are free.

FORE! That damn loop is hard.

(Check out the full Flickr photo set of the trip!)

Shout Out To The Dive Center

As I mentioned, this is the third time we did this wreck diving trip in Åland, and we’ve been using the same dive center on each of the trips: OceanicTech Åland. It’s one of those centers where things just seem to work effortlessly. The briefings are interesting and thorough, their boat is roomy and nice, and it doesn’t hurt that they have an extremely interesting selection of wrecks to dive on. So if you want to come and see what wreck diving in Baltics is all about, you could do far worse than to drop in to Åland – with a bit of a weather warning, since if the winds pick up, you might end up spending a couple of days on just one wreck. But them’s the odds in a hobby like this.



2 Responses to “Wreck Diving in Åland III – The Seal Whisperers”

  1. Pellicle on July 27th, 2011 07:24

    looks like a great place … if only I had more time

  2. […] place I’ve ever dived, a sunken Estonian prison complex in a quarry. Then, of course, we went to Åland for the third time, and in spite of a slightly wonky weather we made it to some really interesting wrecks – like […]

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