It’s a bit out of the way, and more than a bit broken up, but the Iberian is a 19th-century casualty that repays investigation, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
This month’s wreck is a bit out of the way, but if you are diving in County Cork at the extreme south-west of Ireland, it’s well worth a look.
The steamship Iberian struck the rocks just south-west of Bird Island in Dunmanas Bay, to the north of Mizen Head, in November, 1885. The wreck then slipped back and has since broken up on the shelving rocks.
One of the challenges I enjoy when sketching a wreck is to work out how it all fits together, and the Iberian was a real puzzler. The wreck has broken into multiple sections that have then somehow become zig-zagged across the slope from 6m down to 36m. Looking back to Anatomy of a Shipwreck (Diver, March 2002), the Iberian doesn’t fit any of the usual patterns.
With a shelving rocky slope and well-broken wreckage, it isn’t the sort of wreck that shows up easily on an echo-sounder. John Kearney of Baltimore Diving dropped me just south-west of the wreck in about 20m, with instructions to follow my nose to the north-east.
It would have been quite a nice dive even without the wreck, the rocks being covered with all the usual West Coast marine life.
I strayed a little deeper and the first bit of wreckage I found was a section of propeller-shaft (1) at about 24m, resting on a ledge in the rock and facing slightly into the shore. Shaft is always a good sign, because it’s too heavy to disperse far from the body of a wreck and there is usually something at one or other end of it.
Following the shaft along, in what it will soon become apparent is a forward direction, the next development is pile on pile of copper condenser tubing (2).
It is quite unusual to find a steamship on which such valuable tubing has not been salvaged, and with the Iberian coming under Ireland’s 100-year protection law, it is now likely that this tubing never will be recovered.
Just across and downhill from the tubing, the remains of the engine lie upside-down and spread-eagled, with two pistons (3) lying towards the condenser tubing, the crank obscured by the mounting-plate (4), and the third piston pointing the other way (5).
Continuing down-slope, the slope is crossed by a heavy girder and some partly buried hull-plates (6). Then, at 32m, another section of propeller-shaft (7) rests inside a more intact section of keel (8).
There is nothing further along or downhill from this, but the rudder (9) rests slightly back and downhill at 36m. Visibility in these waters is usually extremely good, but I was here at the tail-end of a plankton bloom with a vengeance. Visibility was a very grainy 7-10m, and at 36m it was almost black.
Now looping back slightly, a section of frame that would have held the rudder in place (10) lies flat on the seabed before the propeller (11). The prop is still attached to the shaft in another section of keel. This aftmost section lies along the slope, away from the previous section of keel (8).
Above the propeller, the rudder-post stands clear of the seabed, with the remains of the steering-quadrant at the top (12).
Hidden from view behind the keel section in the illustration are the remains of a winch and some small bollards. Just in view, I could not identify a very obvious large circular fitting (13). At the end of the keel section, the propeller-shaft is broken at a flange (14).
From the engine-room aft, the ship must have broken into at least three sections, each skewed across the slope and out of alignment with the preceding section.
Following the edge of the wreckage up-slope, a section of hull and keel lies curved out of the seabed (15), obviously a continuation of an earlier keel section, but with no section of propeller-shaft beneath it. Perhaps this was originally associated with the first section of shaft (1).
Back across the engine (4) and along the slope from the area of wreck so far explored, a section of hull lies with ribs exposed (16), suggesting further wreckage along the slope.
A few loose ribs are followed by another section of hull at a depth of 18m (17). It suggests that further wreckage could be found along the slope, but all I could find was a diminishing trail of scraps of wreckage (18).
Now moving back across the wreck, the pile of condenser tubing continues up a shallow gully above the engine (18). This is followed by a section of hull (19), which suggests that the wreck continues shallower, but ends against a ridge of rock.
To the right when facing the slope, a boiler rests tilted slightly up and wedged along the slope (20). Considering the size of the ship, I would have expected it to have been fitted with two boilers, but I was unable to find any trace of a second. I asked the local divers who were on the boat with me about this. None of them had seen any sign of a second boiler either, so perhaps there was only the one.
The wreck continues further into the shallows. From the hull section (19), the rocks rise to 12m, where scraps of wreckage can be found over the lip of the next shelf (21). They continue as shallow as 6m, where a pile of anchor-chain can be found (22).
As to how the remains of the Iberian became spread out like this, all I can think is that the wreck rolled over and was progressively snapped into sections while it was aground in shallow water.
Exposed on the Atlantic coast like this, a north-westerly storm could bring some enormous waves straight in on the wreck-site. The individual parts could then have been shifted along the rocks as they slid into their current positions on the slope.
CAPTAIN, CREW AND A HERD OF COWS
The captain of the 18-year-old, 2,930-ton steamship Iberian knew that he was lost from the moment the weather turned so thick that he couldn’t take a bearing, writes Kendall Mcdonald.
For the rest of that November day he steamed slowly through a rain-sodden murk with his 350hp inverted engines scarcely turning over. He thought he was well out to sea but he was wrong. In fact, that night he was well into Dunmanus Bay, Cork.
In the early morning of 21 November, 1885, the 118m Iberian ran onto rocks half a mile south of Bird Island, near Mizen Head. The captain and crew of 53 took to four boats. Three of them landed without difficulty on the rocks and the fourth was swept away, but was later found without any loss.
On board, mooing madly at their desertion, was the ship’s main cargo – a herd of cattle that had been brought from Boston to be landed in Liverpool. The cattle were ferried to shore from the wreck, but the Iberian was stuck fast and stayed on the rocks until being broken up by a storm 11 months later.
GETTING THERE: Take the ferry from Swansea to Cork, then the N71 to Skibbereen and R595 to Baltimore.
ACCOMMODATION: The dive-centre has hostel-style bunkroom accommodation and a purpose-built house with seven bedrooms accommodating up to 18 divers. Other accommodation available in Baltimore ranges from hostels through B&B to hotels.
TIDES: There are no currents.
HOW TO FIND IT: GPS co-ordinates are 51.30.489N, 09.46.439W. There is little to show on an echo-sounder, so best bet is to drop in 20m just south-west of the position and then follow the 20m contour north-east.
QUALIFICATIONS: There is wreckage at whatever depth you want to dive to, but it might be unsuitable for inexperienced divers if there is a heavy groundswell.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2184, Mizzen Head To Gascanane Sound. Ordnance Survey of Ireland Discovery Series Map 88. Shipwrecks Of The Irish Coast, Volume 1 by Edward J Bourke. Underwater Ireland, Irish Underwater Council.
PROS: An interesting wreck spread across a depth range ideal for making the most of a dive computer.
CONS: Remote and exposed.
Thanks to John Kearney & Patrick Sweeny.
Appeared in Diver, August 2002