from our archive
Northern Highlights: Diving Norway's West Coast
Deep ocean, kelp forest, gargantuan wrecks and miniscule critters – Christian Skauge introduces us to Gulen on Norway’s west coast
Gulen lies at the mouth of the Sognefjord, one of the world’s longest fjords, cutting some 220km (136 miles) into the Norwegian west coast. It’s as rich in marine splendour as it is beautiful above the surface. This is an area which was of great strategic importance during the Second World War, and as a consequence is littered with spectacular wrecks of freighters and warships.
One of the most famous wrecks in Gulen is the 122m-long Frankenwald, a German ship that sank after hitting a reef in 1940. The 5,032 tonne wreck is extremely well-preserved and offers so many different dives that people come back year after year to see the old lady again. The deck slopes from 24m to 34m towards the bow of the ship, giving ample time to explore the superstructure, cargo holds and the interior laid bare by corrosion and the strains of time. The stern rests on a sandy bottom 44m below the surface, and looks almost like the conning tower of a giant submarine. Even decompression and safety stops are spectacular on the Frankenwald – the aft mast is completely covered with anemones all the way from 20 to 7m. Hovering motionless above Frankenwald in good visibility is an out-of-this-world experience.
Another spectacular wreck dive involves the twin wrecks of Ferndale and Parat. On 16 December 1944, the Ferndale was heading north in the darkness when she ran aground on Sail Rock, 40 minutes north of Gulen. The salvage vessel Parat was called in to save the 116m-long freighter, but the next morning they were shot into flames by Allied aircraft and both ships were lost – Parat going down a few hours before her larger companion.
The bow area of the Ferndale was salvaged after the war, but the midship and stern at 34m are still intact. From this vantage point you can look down at the wreck of Parat, which somehow was not crushed by the large freighter – the wrecks are just over a metre apart. To explore the glorious details of Parat, trimix is needed, as the wreck lies 45m to 60m below the surface.
After visiting the twin wrecks, safety stops are done around the spectacular Sail Rock, which is completely covered with sea plumes, dead men’s fingers and anemones. The amount of fish and invertebrates found here is simply astonishing. Underwater photographers often leave the rusty metal alone and just dive Sail Rock to feast on the colourful plethora of marine wildlife – it is a world-class dive in its own right.
Out of Gulen Dive Resort, you can dive 15 different wrecks, from the beginner-friendly Solvang at 15m to the technical deep-dive of SS Lynx at 90–100m. In between, most divers find wrecks at suitable depths – Havda, Bandak, Server, Welheim, Oldenburg or the newly discovered minelayer KNM Uller at 55m – the only wreck known to have been sunk by Norwegian seaplanes during the Second World War. Before diving you will get a thorough briefing, including the history of the wreck you are about to dive.
Gulen’s house reef is famous for its varied marine life, and a nudibranch safari is held there each March. Scientists from the university in Trondheim teach participants all about these exquisite, colourful creatures. A staggering 52 out of Norway’s estimated 90 species of nudibranchs have been found at the house reef, which is nothing less than a scientific sensation. Even a couple of species never before seen in Norway have turned up, and there are definitely more to be found. A little deeper, rare gobies linger in the sand, super-cute clingfish guard their eggs deposited inside empty seashells, and lobsters, metre-long wolf-fish and large monkfish are frequent visitors.
A night dive on the reef in January will reveal an exotic creature – the deep-sea crown or helmet jellyfish Periphylla periphylla, which comes to the surface to mate. These alien-looking animals normally live between 1,000m and 7,000m deep, and seeing them close to the surface is only possible in a few locations in the world. The Periphylla is almost a metre across when the 12 tentacles are spread out. Seeing hundreds of them drifting slowly by in the pitch-black water is a true wonder.
Also at night, little squid pop up from the fine-grained sand in the shallows, fluttering gently in the dark. Patient and careful divers can see them hunt, feed and maybe even mate.
Elasmobranch lovers will have a field day at the dive site Stingray City, so called because of the almost 100 per cent success rate finding thorny rays at the sandy bottom. These flat bottom feeders grow up to a metre in length and aren’t camera shy. The site’s shallow depth, 14–18m, ensures long dives even for the less experienced. Dogsharks can sometimes be seen congregating on some of the deeper wrecks during the summer, and they have even been spotted several times at the house reef – much to the astonishment of divers expecting nudibranchs and other macro life.
Just 200m north of Gulen’s pier is another signature dive: The Troll Wall. This magnificent drop-off starts well above the surface and plummets to 45m – you feel quite small next to the towering wall, which is full of large pink and little white starry-looking anemones. In shallower water, kelp harbours lumpfish guarding their eggs and thousands of wrasse going about their business. If you don’t venture too deeply, it’s possible to swim back to the pier where the evening’s attractions are waiting for you – a barbecue in the summer, a hot-tub and a pint all year round.
NEED TO KNOW
When to go
Spring brings excellent opportunities to discover colourful nudibranchs, and the following warmer months offer an abundance of algae and fish when nature goes into high gear for the mating season.
In the autumn, crustaceans and cephalopods are the main players.
All kinds of crabs, squat lobsters, shrimp and sea spiders crawl and creep in the darkness, and there are little eyes glowing in the dark almost everywhere. You might see stone crabs seeking shelter under big, pink sea anemones as they wait to shed their spiky carapaces when they are moulting, or you may find whole families of bright-red blade shrimp, using the stinging tentacles for shelter. When winter knocks on the door again it is time to explore the fabulous wrecks for which Gulen is so famous.
Gulen Dive Resort
Gulen Dive Resort runs a professional, rebreather-friendly resort with modern RIB dive boats, nitrox and trimix on demand, its own pub, sauna and outdoor hot tub. It’s the only resort in the area and its staff are knowledgeable and friendly, with ten years' experience. Guests stay in modern, cosy twin rooms, and can mingle and swap dive stories in the spacious living room and kitchen area. You can choose between self-catering or all-inclusive, and pick-up at the airport will be arranged if necessary. Prices for a week’s accommodation and five days' diving is around £1,000 depending on exchange rates.
Where: Gulen Dive Resort is located two hours north of the western city of Bergen, at the mouth of the Sognefjord.
Language: Norwegian, but everyone speaks good English.
Currency: Norwegian Kroner, 100 NOK = £11. Water temperature: Between 2 and 4ºC in the winter. Not only is this definitely drysuit territory, you will also need to bring lots of warm undergarments. In late summer, water temperatures might reach 17–18ºC at the surface, but will still be cool at depth. Getting there: There are direct flights to Bergen from the UK, or you can fly via Oslo. Gulen Dive Resort offers group transfers from the airport.