This month JOHN LIDDIARD is up in Scotland for an absorbing dive in the Sound of Mull. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
Although usually sheltered, in stormy weather and poor visibility the Sound of Mull can be treacherous. Just a few degrees off course from a safe route along the sound, and a ship can strike the rocks. Which is exactly what happened to the Swedish steamship Hispania in 1954 (see panel below).
Her cargo of sheet metal, asbestos, rubber and fishing-line was salvaged soon after the sinking. The wreck then lay relatively undisturbed before becoming a popular dive site in the 1970s. Today the Hispania lies pointing towards the shore on the Mull side of the sound, on a slope with the stern in 32m and the bows in 24m, lying upright with a slight list to starboard.
At just over 70m long and a lowly 1337 tons gross, the Hispania is not a particularly large wreck, but it has plenty to occupy several dives. In the early 1980s I spent a whole week diving nothing but this wreck, yet I still come back for more whenever I am in the area.
I think this is because the Hispania is an amazingly intact wreck, and the strong currents feed some of the densest anemones, tunicates and hydroids I have ever seen. The Hispania is covered in marine life.
It is impossible to recommend a single route through this wreck; there is just too much to see and explore. The one I have selected to describe starts at the stern, simply because that is where a buoy is usually attached to the wreck (1). There is sometimes a second line from the buoy, or a second buoy attached to the bridge.
At the stern, it is worth having a look at the auxiliary steering gear (2) before dropping below the stern to check out the rudder and propshaft (3). Ascending back to deck level, it is easy to explore the stern accommodation (4), as the roofs have all rotted away.
Cabins and corridors are brightly lit from above. No matter how interesting, don’t spend too long here at the start of the dive. Save your air for those last few minutes before ascending on your return route.
Moving forward, attached to the front of the accommodation is a large, steel, spare propeller. I like to follow the deeper starboard side of the wreck towards the bows, then return along the shallower port side. The stern holds (5) do not contain anything particularly interesting, but it can be fun to have a quick rummage; you never know what you might find in the silt.
It is possible to swim below decks between the stern holds to the midships superstructure (6), or alternatively to stay above the deck and check out the masts, spars and winches, festooned with yet more marine life.
From No 4 hold, tunnels run either side of the midships superstructure to the forward No 3 hold. Both are a bit silty, and the port tunnel is partly blocked towards the forward end. These are amusing enough holes, but I find the superstructure far more interesting.
Here, as at the stern, the ceilings have rotted away to provide clear access to cabins and corridors. First there is a block of cabins (7), then the engine-room (8) and the bridge (9).
Access to the upper levels of the engine-room is easy, but getting further down can be a bit of a squeeze. The way is partially blocked with debris. Catwalks and ladders may have provided room for the crew to get down there, but they were never designed for the bulk of a fully kitted diver.
Below the bridge is what is possibly the galley. Various bottles and scraps of plate have been found in the silt here. There is also a hatch through to the portside tunnel connecting the holds. Another attraction of this part of the ship is the large enamel bath, and some divers seem to enjoy sitting in it!
In front of the bridge are three more holds, with a further array of masts, winches and spars. The foremast and a large winch at its base are particularly photogenic (10). Provided it is still slack water by the time I get to the bows, in good visibility I like to drop over the side and swim out to look back at the ship spread out before me (11), and at the starboard anchor lying on the seabed below.
Returning along the shallower port side, there is nothing significantly different from the starboard side. A double helping of spectacular. Passing the bridge, you notice a small triangular hole about halfway down the hull (12). This used to provide an alternative means of accessing the lower levels of the engine-room, but either I am getting fatter or the hole is getting smaller, because last time I checked there was no way I could fit through it.
Now might be the time to explore any parts of the superstructure you could have missed on the way forward.
Back at the stern, any time remaining can now be used for another look around the cabins (13) before ascending the buoy line.
The captain saluted
On Saturday, 18 December, 1954, the storm wind, rain and sleet became so bad that Captain Ivan Dahn took the Hispania into the waters of the Scottish islands for shelter, writes Kendall McDonald. The Swedish steamer, built in 1912, had left Liverpool the previous day bound for Varberg with a cargo of steel, asbestos and rubber sheeting.
In the Sound of Mull, visibility was almost nil, but the Hispania got nearly all the way up it before striking Sgeir More (the Big Rock), half a mile off the western shore of Mull, at 9pm.
Her engines were immediately put to full astern, and that dragged her off backwards. But it was clear that she was badly holed forward, and was soon listing heavily to port. The crew of 21 had plenty of time to launch their two lifeboats, but Captain Dahn refused to join them.
During a lull in the storm the crew rowed around their ship for nearly an hour pleading with him, but suddenly a bulkhead gave way, and she started sinking fast. Some of the survivors said they saw their captain on the bridge, hand to forehead in a salute as he and his ship disappeared.
Getting there: Heading into Glasgow from the south, take the M8 west and cross the Erskine Bridge. Follow the A82 along Loch Lomond and the A85 to Oban. To avoid Loch Lomond and summer traffic jams, a longer but sometimes faster route is to follow the A80 east from Glasgow, then the M80 and M9 past Stirling and the A84 through Callander before joining the A85. Lochaline is considerably further than Oban. Turn right across the Connel Bridge just before Oban. Follow the A828 north past Tralee, take a short ferry ride across Loch Linhe at Corran, then head south again on the A861 and A884. Ferries to Mull run from Oban to Craignure and Lochaline to Fishnish.
Diving and air: Air is available from Oban Divers, Puffin Dive Centre, Tralee Dive Centre, Lochaline Dive Centre and Seafare in Tobermory. Day boats operate from Oban and the surrounding area – try the Gannet. Puffin, and Alchemy Diving at Tralee, operate regular RIB shuttles. Some of these can also supply air. Many liveaboard boats that work the west of Scotland are based in Oban, and will dive the Hispania on the way through the Sound of Mull.
Launching: Closest slip is at Lochaline. Further afield, there are a number of slips in Oban, a rather tight slip at Tralee, or from Mull at Tobermory.
Tides: Slack water is between 2 and 1 hours before high or low water Oban, varying from spring to neap tides.
How to find it: The Hispania is at 56.34.55 N, 5.59.13 W (degrees, minutes and seconds). Locating it is fairly easy, because there is a big, red channel marker buoy about 100m to the north-east of the site. The wreck is usually marked by a small plastic buoy tied to the stern. If not, it is simple to pick it up on an echo-sounder.
Qualifications: Best suited to Sports Divers or equivalent and above.
Further information: Admiralty Chart 2390, Sound of Mull. Ordnance Survey Map 47, Tobermory & North Mull. Ordnance Survey Map 49, Oban & East Mull. Dive Scotland Vol 2 – Dive North-west Scotland, by Gordon Ridley. Shipwrecks of the West of Scotland by Bob Baird. Dive Scotland’s Greatest Wrecks by Rod Macdonald. Shipwreck Index of the British Isles Vol 4, by Richard & Bridget Larn.
Pros: An amazingly intact wreck that is covered from bow to stern in densely packed marine life. Shallow enough to get a good long dive. Sheltered from all but the worst weather. Usually excellent visibility.
Cons: Strong tides. A long boat ride from Oban. Can be very crowded on a bank holiday weekend.
Appeared in Diver, April 1999