The Wild West of Europe
Ireland has one of the world's greatest soccer fans, who most recently fervently expressed their strong support for their home team at EURO 2016. The fact that Ireland has equally fantastic diving spots remains unknown to most, though. In fact, along The Wild Atlantic Way, divers can find wrecks, sea lions, basking sharks, whales and – they are simply some of the world's best.
The Belmullet region, with the surrounding islands of Inishkea, Duivlaun and Achill, is a wild, almost unspoilt land. Here, you'll find that the people here are among the friendliest and most open-minded in Europe. The region comprises mostly sleepy fields, with no industrial activities and little tourism. The Wild Atlantic Way stretches 2,600 kilometres from the peninsula of Inishowen north to the small coastal town of Kinsale, deep in the south. Where the sea meets land, the landscape forms a rough and rugged fascade, appearing almost mystical with golden beaches and secluded bays. You would hardly find any area that's unsuitable for diving.
Malin Head is the northernmost point of the Irish mainland. It offers, as British underwater photographer Steve Jones puts it, one of the best wreck dives in the world. Almost 200 wrecks have been found so far, and the list reads like a diver's Christmas wish list for wrecks. There are scores of luxurious ocean liners, German submarines, countless freighters, and even warships with their cannons still posed to fire. One of these vessels is the HMS Audacious, a 182-metre-long King George class battleship that hit a mine on 27 October 1914. The entire crew was rescued by the crew of the Olympic, a sister ship of the Titanic. There is also the SS Empire Heritage, a 15,702-ton freighter that was torpedoed by a German submarine U-482 in September 1944 en route from New York to Liverpool. Today, the giant is at rest, lying at a depth of 60 metres and awaits to receive visitors eager to marvel at her past majesty, complete with Sherman tanks, trucks and other war relics.
Diving the SS Laurentic, suitable for advanced sport divers, may just make one rich. When it sank in January 1917, this White Star Line passenger ship was transporting 43 tons of gold bound for Halifax. This was one of the largest payload of gold ever lost in a shipwreck. Although much of the gold has been recovered, 20 bars are still missing, a bounty equivalent to more than three million British pounds.
At a length of 226 metres, the 32,234 gross-tonne liners were about 40 metres shorter than the Titanic. However, both looked similar and both were constructed in Belfast's Harland & Wolff shipyard. In 1912, the keel of the ship was laid; allowing the Justicia to transport up to 3,430 passengers from Europe to America, and back. Then, the war broke out. When the ocean liner was finally completed in 1917, the British government immediately acquired it and used it as a troop carrier. Its tour of duty was supposed to last only a year. Hit by several torpedoes from German U-boats UB-64 and UB-124, she sank about 28 miles northwest of Malin Head. Since then, she had laid at the seabed on her portside at 64 metres depth. According to underwater photographer Steve Jones, everyone talks about the Andrea Doria, but the Justicia wreck is much more spectacular. Apart from that, there is the fantastic visibility which, unlike the Andrea Doria, can be 25 metres on good days.
Indeed, there are lots to see for sports divers around Malin Head, but the real treasure here doesn't just cater to technical divers. This is because it was here, at the northern tip of Ireland, that Lucasfilm shot a good number of sequences for the new Star Wars movies, Episode VII and Episode VIII in May 2016. So, for several weeks, the ancient land bore witness as Luke Skywalker and Chewbacca battled the dark side of the Force, the wrecks patiently stand their ground, proving to all that Malin Head can hold its own when visitors from a galaxy far far away come a-calling.
With seals and sharks all around
Three kilometres away, Belmullet looks quite different. It is much more tranquil here. Most sport divers feel at home here, even though the diving is not as planned out as in other parts of the world. “It is quite simple in principle,” explained Dive West Ireland owner Sean Lavelle. “I have three boats, which I rent out at prices between 300 to 500 Euros per day. The smallest can hold twelve people, and the largest up to thirty. Then, we'll do whatever the divers want to do on that day.”
All divers want to see sea lions. And there must be hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of sea lions swimming at the Inishkea islands. In just minutes, they are circling the divers underwater. Then, they are speeding around like furry torpedoes in the next instant. Sometimes, these “torpedoes” strike the divers, an experience that is a cross between cute and painful. One of the divers, camera in hand, has to convince a particularly curious sea lion that his camera is neither food nor a toy.
During times like this, you can almost feel as if you are in South Africa – in spring and early summer when the basking sharks come. These animals, which can grow up to ten metres in length, are the largest shark species after the whale shark, and feed on mainly plankton (like whale sharks). Sluggish and tame, they usually swim with their mouth wide open – making for great photo subjects.
Sean Lavelle organises dive trips in the region of County Mayo, which The Irish Times has called the “Wildest of the Wild Atlantic Way”. Here, “wild” means “secluded”; and the Westport town, with its nearly 6,000 inhabitants, is considered a metropolis. It stands at the end of Clew Bay, and it would be a shame if one had to leave County Mayo without spending at least one night there.
The region where Sean Lavelle embarked on his dive trips is located in County Mayo, which has chosen Irish Times to be the "Wildest of Wild Atlantic Ways". Where "wild" here means mainly secluded and the town of Westport with its nearly 6000 inhabitants is already considered a metropolis. It is on the edge of the fishing-rich Clew Bay, and it would be a shame to leave County Mayo without having spent at least one night there.