By Christian Skauge.
Cold water diving will never be the same after you visit Gulen, just north of Bergen on the Norwegian west coast. This is where history meets present day, the deep ocean meets the kelp forest and where the gargantuan meets the miniscule.
Whatever you want to see under water, chances are good that you will find it at Gulen Dive Resort. The area at the mouth of the Sognefjord, the world’s longest fjord cutting some 220 kilometres into the Norwegian west coast, is as rich in marine splendour as it is beautiful above the surface. The area was of great strategic importance during World War II, and consequently it is also littered with spectacular wrecks of freighters and warships. In terms of rusty WWII action few places in the world can compete, and spending a week at Gulen leaves you with the chance of being properly ‘wrecked’.
Norway’s Best Wreck
One of the signature dives at Gulen Dive Resort is the 122m-long German freighter SS Frankenwald. Frankenwald is a virtual window into history, a piece of WWII memorabilia. The five-tonne wreck is so well-preserved and offers so many different dives that people come back year after year. The deck slopes from 24–34m toward the bow of the ship, and even though bottom time is decent, many dives are required to explore the superstructure, cargo holds and the interior laid bare by corrosion and the strains of time.
The stern rests at the sandy bottom 44m below the surface, and looks almost like the conning tower of a giant submarine when viewed from behind. After spending as much time as possible on the wreck, deco and safety stops await the divers. This can be done along the spectacular aft mast of the ship, which is completely covered in anemones and teeming with little fish and critters all the way from 20–7m. A couple years ago, Frankenwald was voted the best wreck in Norway by the readers of Norwegian dive magazine Dykking – and they were right. Hovering motionless above Frankenwald in good visibility is an out-of-this-world experience, and it is a dive every wreck diver simply cannot miss.
The Unique Twin Wrecks at Sail Rock
Another wreck dive impossible to overlook, are the stunning twin wrecks of SS Fernedale and SS Parat. On December 16 1944 Fernedale was heading north in the darkness when she ran aground on Sail Rock. A sitting duck, Fernedale came under attack from allied aircraft. In the fierce battle that ensued, the allies lost two Mosquito fighter-bombers, but still managed shoot into flames and sink both Fernedale and the salvage vessel Parat, which had been called in to rescue the 116m-long freighter.
Today, the wreck sits upright on a slope ending at just 8–10m depth. The bow area was salvaged after the war, and bits and pieces are all that is left up there – in stark contrast to the intact midship and stern at 34m. From this vantage point you can look down at the wreck of Parat, which lies just a metre or so behind Fernedale – it’s almost a miracle that the large freighter did not crush the small salvage vessel when she sank. Parat is a dive for the more technically inclined among us, and trimix is required to explore all her glorious details from 45–60m depth.
Deco and safety stops are done around the spectacular Sail Rock, the sides of which are completely covered with sea plumes, dead man’s finger coral, dahlia anemones and sea squirts. The amount of fish and invertebrates found here is simply astonishing, and it is wise to make room for an extra-long deco stop – you don’t want to miss out on the rock. Some underwater photographers have been known to leave rusty metal alone and just dive Sail Rock– It is a world-class dive in its own right, with the plethora of marine life.
Gulen Dive Resort frequently takes visiting divers to no less than 15 different wrecks, and offers everything from the beginner-friendly Solvang at 15m to the technical deep-dive of SS Lynx at 90–100m. In between, most divers will find a wreck at suitable depth, be it Havda, Bandak, Server, Welheim, Oldenburg, Inger Seks or the newly discovered minelayer KNM Uller at 55m depth – the only wreck known to have been sunk by Norwegian seaplanes during WWII. Scattered on the bottom beside the beautiful 27m-long wreck lie several ominous-looking mines, and her cannon is elevated towards the surface as if she’s still trying to fend off her aggressors.
A Professional Dive Resort – For 10 Years
Gulen Dive Resort does not just offer top-class diving. The resort itself is also high quality, with modern RIB dive boats, nitrox and trimix on demand, a great house reef, its own pub, sauna and outdoor hot tub – not forgetting a friendly and knowledgeable staff. Everything at the Resort is professionally run, and they are rebreather-friendly and able to handle large groups of technical divers, as well as hosting photography and marine biology workshops. The post-dive Norwegian speciality waffles sometimes served at the dive shop upon returning from a trip is a good example of the effort that goes into catering for the divers and their needs.
The visitors stay in cosy twin rooms, and can mingle and swap dive stories in the spacious living room and kitchen area. A special area is dedicated to laptops, chargers and camera gear, and editing and admiring pictures taken during the day is a popular pastime in the evenings. Almost anything is possible at Gulen Dive Resort, you just have to let owners Monica Bakkeli and Ørjan Sandnes know what you want, and they will most likely be able to provide it.
Gulen Dive Resort offers much more than great wreck diving. The House Reef is world famous for the high number of nudibranch species. Norway boasts close to a hundred species of nudibranchs, but only two-thirds of these can be found at diveable depths. So far, a staggering 73 different species of nudibranchs have been found on the House Reef.
Alien of the Deep
If you are looking for even more exotic and unique marine life experiences, you should come to Gulen at the end of January. This is the time when the mysterious deep-sea helmet jellyfish Periphylla periphylla comes to the surface to mate, something which can only be witnessed in a very few locations in the world. These strange creatures normally live from several hundred to thousands of metres deep in the ocean, but in the middle of the night in the winter you will be able to see hundreds if not thousands of them on awesome night dives with the bottom 300 metres below you. The jellyfish grow to almost a metre across when their 12 tentacles are spread out, and these blood-red wheels of ancient biology drift slowly by in the pitch-black water.
Stunning House Reef
During the fall, things start to change noticeably in the water off the Norwegian coast. As the days grow shorter and evenings get darker, thousands of strange creatures begin to appear at night on the House Reef. Covered in spiky protrusions or algae camouflage, with snapping claws and wary eyes, an army of crustaceans begin their march towards domination. Camouflage crabs, nut crabs, swimming crabs, spider crabs, stone crabs, hermit crabs, squat lobsters, shrimp and sea spiders crawl and creep in the darkness, and there are little eyes glowing in the dark almost everywhere.
At night, little squid are popping up from the fine-grained sand at shallow depths on the House Reef, fluttering gently in the dark. Patient and careful divers can see them hunt, feed and maybe even mate, ensuring that the visiting divers next year also get to experience these delicate creatures.
The House Reef also offers rare gobies lingering in the sand, and super-cute clingfish guarding their eggs deposited inside empty seashells. Squid eggs are often found on the kelp during springtime, and lobsters, metre-long wolffish and large monkfish are frequent visitors.
Sitting almost at the very end of the gentle, warm flow of the Gulfstream, Gulen is part of an ever-changing marine ecosystem that never ceases to amaze. The seasonal changes make every visit special, and the marine life is different and unique each time. Spring brings excellent opportunities to discover colourful nudibranchs and see how the ecosystem prepares to go into high gear for mating season at the beginning of the summer. The following warmer months offer an abundance of algae, fish and plenty of action in the sea, while in the autumn, crustaceans and cephalopods are the main players. When winter knocks on the door again it is time to put on extra undergarments and explore the fabulous WWII wrecks for which Gulen is so famous.
About the author: Christian Skauge is currently the editor of the Norwegian dive magazine Dykking. He is a world renowned photographer, winning a number of international underwater photographic competitions. To see more of Christian’s images, please visit www.scubapixel.com