A 65m Shipwreck and a technical diving ‘career’ hanging by a thread. The not-so secret sinking of a British Batttleship and a chance encounter with an apex predator. 100 years on since the sinking of HMS Audacious, I recount my dive on the most famous of the Malin Head shipwrecks.
I sat on the deck of MV Salutay strapped in to my rebreather in the sweltering heat. “Final buddy check?” asked my friend Simon. It would’ve made sense seeing as we were about to drop almost 65m into the Atlantic Ocean, but I was so constrained by the two emergency bailout cylinders clipped under my arms and the cramped kitting up bench that I couldn’t reach any of the rebreathers controls. “Not possible” I replied, more than a little concerned about the way this dive was starting to pan out.
My technical diving ‘career’ was already hanging by the slightest of threads. I’d spent almost two years building up to this trip and now I was sat here wondering what the hell I’d been thinking. The previous day on passage from Stranraer to Malin we’d dived the SS Tiberia. A 55m ‘shake down’ dive, it was meant to be provide us with a opportunity to check kit over and acclimatise us to the deeper diving that we had ahead of us. What it actually did was scare the shit out of me. It left me questioning whether technical diving was for me at all.
Twenty four hours previously I’d made the same jump from the side of Salutay with my friend Marty. Grabbing the shotline on the surface we signalled ‘OK’ and started our descent below the choppy waves of the Irish Sea. We hit the seabed at 60m having seen no sign of the wreck on our way down. I could just about make out Marty’s torch and we sat there, cursing through our rebreather mouthpieces. What did we do now? I recalled stories of people dropping down shot lines that had landed inside shipwrecks in low visibility before. Not realising they were inside the wreck they would then swim away from the safety of the line only to find themselves trapped inside overhead environments. I didn’t fancy that at 60m in near zero visibility. I stretched my hand out in front of me, more in hope than anything else, and was gobsmacked to find myself touching the side of the hull. I signalled to Marty and we started to ascend up the side of the ship whilst also tying to maintain contact with the shot. At around 52m, still shrouded in darkness, we found the edge of the ship. Well at least we’re not inside the wreck I thought to myself as we left the shot behind us. We followed the edge towards the stern but turned back once it started to descend again. We thought we might be able to reach the bow, but by the time we got back to mid ships we were already facing over 30 minutes of deco and we’d both had enough. We launched delayed surface marker buoys from 50 metres and started our long ascent to the surface.
I spent most of the 30 minutes at 6 metres trying to figure out how I was going to tell Simon that I wouldn’t be diving the remainder of the week. As it turned out I wasn’t the only one who thought the wreck had been challenging due to the conditions. We were also assured by the skipper that conditions would be much better by the time we arrived in Malin.
So, 24 hours later I was once again strapped into my kit and preparing to dive. This was the main reason I’d joined the trip, to dive the wreck of a WW1 British Battleship – specifically HMS Audacious.
Launched in 1912, the ‘super dreadnought’ Audacious was commissioned into the 1st Division of the 2nd Battle Squadron in October 1913. At the beginning of the First World War, on the 27th October 1914, Audacious was conducting gunnery exercises in conjunction with other battleships of the Northern coast of Ireland. At around 8:45 she ran upon a mine and began to take on water. Thinking that the explosion was a result of a U-boat torpedo, the rest of the battleships were forced to steam away from the potential danger.
Despite the initial damage and flooding, Audacious’ starboard engine was still operational and she made for land hoping to beach. By 11:00 both engine rooms were flooded, and Audacious was dead in the water. The light cruiser Liverpool and the White Star Liner Olympic (older sister of Titanic) began taking on the crew of Audacious. In a vain attempt to save Audacious the Olympic took her in tow, but she was now so low in the water that the tow line parted.
With darkness approaching, the remaining crew were taken off Audacious at 19:15. As the quarterdeck flooded, the whaler broke loose and damaged hatches and ventilators on the deck increasing the rate at which she was taking on water. At around 20:45, with the decks now submerged, Audacious capsized. The upturned ship floated another 15 minutes or so before a large explosion in one of the magazines sent shrapnel and debris into the air and HMS Audacious to the seabed. A piece of shrapnel killed an officer on the Liverpool that was standing by almost 750 metres away – the only casualty of the sinking.
As the story unfolded it emerged that two other vessels had been mined in the same area in the previous twenty hour hours. Whether it was to avoid embarrassment or the potential shock to the public of losing a ship such as Audacious, the Admiralty proposed that the sinking be kept secret – for the rest of the war her name renamed on the lists of ship movements and activities – despite the fact that photographs and footage were taken by American passengers onboard the Olympic. She wasn’t declared lost until the end of the war in 1918. Almost 100 years later we were getting ready to dive her.
Despite the apprehension I couldn’t wait to get into the water. The deck was cramped and we were quickly overheating in our dry-suits. We drank as much as we could to cool down and ensure we were hydrated. Eventually we got the go ahead from the skipper, we shuffled along the deck to the side and threw ourselves into the water. We drifted onto the shotline on the surface, grabbed hold, and started our descent.
The first 30 metres of the water column was full of plankton. These tiny plants and animals formed a thick green soup near the surface, reducing underwater visibility and blocking out the sunlight from above. As we got deeper the water become much clearer, however there was now very little ambient light penetrating down to us below. These were conditions I was used to though, having done most of my training and build up dives in inland quarry sites during the winter. Then, just as the seabed came in to view, my primary torch failed and I was plunged into darkness once more. No big deal I thought, deploying my smaller backup torch and letting my eyes adjust to the gloom all around us.
I adjusted my buoyancy and hovered above the seabed. “Where’s the wreck?” I thought to myself. I then realised I was hovering right above one of the main 13” gun turrets – it was just so big I hadn’t realised it was part of the wreck! Simon quickly attached a flashing strobe to the shotline to mark it for our return journey, then he pointed into the distance and started swimming away. I couldn’t make out where he was going at first, but as my eyes grew more accustomed to the low light I could make out the upturned hull of Audacious. It was an amazing site. The lack of light made me feel like I was watching an old black and white movie, and whether it was the depth or just the awareness of being so deep, it seemed like the dive was being played out in slow motion.
We got to the back of the wreck to find the props still attached and a number of the massive rudders still in position. Simon was completely dwarfed in comparison as he swam between them creating an epic sense of scale. I wished at this point that I had a camera capable of taking pictures at these depths – but I knew the lack of available light would’ve made photography almost impossible. We lingered a few minutes at the stern of the ship, before we turned the dive and headed back towards the shot. We could see the flashing strobe in the distance, and it wasn’t too long before we were back near the barbette of the gun turret. As Simon collected his strobe, I noticed something glinting in the corner of my eye. A stainless steel diving reel dropped through the water and landed a little way from me – I dropped down to pick it up before joining Simon on the line and starting our ascent to the surface.
We were just about to reach our first decompression stop at around 32m when we noticed Alan on the line above us. It was Alan’s reel we’d picked up off the seabed and we were looking forward to deriding him about it during the long stop at 6 metres. Something wasn’t quite right though; Alan was practically vertical in the water and holding his underwater scooter out in front of him. It was if he was trying to ward off something unsavoury that we couldn’t see. Then I heard Simon shouting through his rebreather mouthpiece and pointing out into open water. I scanned the horizon… I couldn’t believe my eyes! The steely grey outline of a shark. If I was diving in the Red Sea I would’ve swore it was an Oceanic White Tip – the three metre shark was accompanied by dozens of smaller fish swimming in front, alongside and behind it. In the waters of the UK & Ireland there was only one shark this could be – a Porbeagle Shark. While these sharks belong to the same family as the Great White they’re predominantly fish eaters – we were likely the first people it had ever seen and it was no doubt curious. It made one long slow pass of us, dropped it pectoral fins and quickly disappeared in to the distance.
Seeing a free swimming pelagic shark in UK (or Irish!) waters is almost unheard of. It was such a privilege to see one up close and personal and gave us an amazing memory to go with our dive on HMS Audacious. It still counts as my most memorable dive.
The rest of the week passed without incident and I regained my confidence doing this deeper technical diving. The conditions we experienced in Malin Head weren’t the best. That said, it gives us a great excuse to go back!
Underwater photographs of HMS Audacious with kind permission of Barry McGill, Indepth Technical Diving; http://indepthtechnical.com