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Impressions of Underwater Norway

by Brian Pitkin

Reproduced from in focus 56 (January 1996)


Cold water diving is not everyone's cup of tea. Those of you based in Scotland and the north of England and northern Ireland, however, undoubtedly appreciate the benefits of the clearer water and generally more profuse marine life to be found in northern waters. Although we have visited numerous tropical locations around the globe we have never neglected our own British waters, having dived around much of the coast. We have also dived in the very cold waters of British Columbia, Canada.

As part of a forthcoming book on northern waters Linda's publishers wanted some photographs taken from other parts of northern Europe. After some discussion we opted for Norway, about which friend and fellow underwater photographer Nils Aukan, Norway's top photographer, enthused at great length. He recommended we stay at the Stromsholmen Sjosportsenter near Kristiansund on the west coast, near Trondheim and arranged that we stay there for a week in early August.

We flew from Heathrow to Bergen and then north to Kristiansund on Norway's national airline Braathens Safe. Nils was at the airport to meet us and quickly whisked us off to his home to meet his charming wife and children and enjoy a meal before setting off by road and car ferry for Stromsholmen.

After a short ferry ride in fresh breezy conditions and an attractive drive through Averoy, we embarked on the recently completed Atlanterhavsveien or Atlantic Ocean Road, which links Averoy and Eide via the outer islands of the Komstadflordes, and obviously served as the model for our own road link to Skye, hopping from island to island until we reached our destination.

The Stromsholmen Diving Centre is situated on the westerly end of the small island of Stromsholmen, facing Komstadflordes, but immediately surrounded on three of its sides by water. The well equipped centre overhangs the fjord. A broad gang plank leads down to a floating jetty which slowly and almost imperceptibly rises and falls with the tide. There is a bar and meeting room on the first floor where we were entertained one evening, when we weren't underwater, by a splendid audio-visual.

Accomodation at the centre is provided either in a very grand two storied house (with dormitories, two large lounges, two kitchens and a sauna) facing the fjord or in a far smaller, cosier, house standing on stone piers, over the water at high tide. Although not all that inviting from the outside, due in part to the traditional grass covered roof providing thermal insulation, the inside was a delight with pine everywhere, a small bathroom/shower with heated tiled floor, adequate self catering facilities, a lounge area and sufficient space in the sloping roof's two rooms for four to six to sleep, though barely stand up.

Nils had arranged to stay overnight with his family, so that he could join us for a couple of dives on our first day. He introduced us to one of our hosts, Hilmar, and our Swedish dive guide and Killer Whale enthusiast, Torben Larsson, that first evening. After a good night's sleep we rose early to investigate the possibilities. Nils suggested we start by diving from the floating jetty and once cameras were loaded and diving equipment assembled, the three of us slipped into the calm waters of the fjord.

The visibilty was not brilliant, the grey overcast sky and a plankton bloom constrained our photography, initially at least, to macro photography. However, there was plenty to see and photograph. Scallops, starfish, mating sea hares and pipe-fish were encountered in a few metres of water on the outward leg of our first dive towards a small drop off, leading to a sandy bottom. We had been advised to turn back once we encountered the Vevangstrommen current, which thankfully we did, as there was no way that we could have returned to our entry point had we pressed on. The current builds, the nearer to the channel between the island and the mainland one gets, until it reaches 5-8 knots, running in or out of the fjord depending on the state of the tide. The channel was, as we were to discover later in the week, a brilliant drift dive and a fantastic place for underwater photography - at slack water only. Our return to the jetty was equally rewarding as we came across three angler fish lying almost unseen amongst the kelp, again in just a few metres of water.

We repeated the dive after lunch, despite the fact that my dry suit had leaked, taking yet more photographs of animals we seldom see in British waters. Fortunately there is a heated changing room, which doubles as a suit drying area, so my suit was warm and almost dry by the time I gingerly squeezed myself into it for the second dive. It was during this second dive I realised that it was the automatic dump valve in my dry suit sleeve that was causing so much of cold waters of the fjord to migrate to the warmer regions of my body. Some PVC electrical tape on the inside of the valve soon fixed this and I spent the rest of the week blissfully warm and dry during numerous 90 minute dives!

On Sunday evening we went by boat to Höholmen Havstuer with Hilmar's partner Olav and Torben, their friends and the Aukan family. This small island, within the fjord, has a restauraunt and Viking ship museum. we were introduced to Ragnor Thorseth adventurer and Viking ship builder, who gave a presentation on the voyage of the replica ship 'Saga Sigla', which sailed around the world arriving in Rio de Janeiro in time for the Earth Summit to present a petition on behalf of the children of the world to conserve our fragile planet. The 'Saga Siglar' unfortunately sunk in the Mediterranean, but her restored remains formed the bulk of the display in the purpose built museum. Her sister ship 'Kvitser', however, road proudly at anchor alonside the jetty, as we retired to the restaurant for an excellent meal.

After dinner Nils and his family took their leave and returned home on Sunday evening, leaving us to enjoy Norway's beautiful scenery and the fascinating marine life to which he had introduced us. Day two saw us boarding the dive centres fast dive boat. This can best be described as an aluminium Inflatable* with inboard diesel engines, the large 'tubes' providing seating. Once up on the plane, it flew across the water so that within minutes we had arrived at our destination, scarcely having time to fit our hoods as protection against the cold air prior to kitting up.

We dived within the fjord during the early part of the week, due to the strong north westerly winds. One site on the landward side of the fjord, beyond a commercial fish farm, was an almost vertical wall leading down to a ledge at 30 metres where we were told we should find large sea spiders and basket stars. Indeed, once our eyes had become accustomed to the gloom, there they were just waiting to be photographed - the largest sea spiders I have ever seen!

Later in the week, as the weather slowly improved, the boat took us out to some small offshore islands surrounded by kelp gullies littered with hundreds of starfish. 1 found the largest and most battle scared common lobster I have seen, plus large numbers of tiny sea slugs browsing on the sea mats covering the kelp fronds.

We found a young wolf fish at one site, mistaking it for a large unknown blenny because of its bright orange colouration. Flatfish - plaice, top knot and norwegian haddock - and huge starfish of several species were abundant The latter included the familar sun stars and cushion stars of Scottish waters plus purple sun stars, reminiscent of those found in British Columbia. Common lobsters, edible crabs, velvet swimming crabs, shore crabs and hermit crabs were common. At another site we encountered rock fish and Norway lobsters, although the later were camera shy.

At one point, towards the end of a dive, I found myself rushing to the surface when my direct feed free flowed into my dry suit, due, it later transpired, to the small circlip that secures the push button breaking. Fortunately I dumped air from my jacket and suit to slow my progress and miraculously stayed dry as the push button didn't actually fall out until I was safely back on board the cover boat.

Large squat lobsters, hidden by day, spread themselves on the flat stone slabs forming the foundations of the dive centre by night, unbelievably posing for several pictures before tiring of the flash, flash, flash of our camera strobes. The only problem of trying to photograph them was the lateness of the hour. So far north were we that it hardly started to get dark until nearly mid-night and we often found ourselves crawling into bed in the wee small hours of the morning.

The most exciting dives were those in the Vevangstrornmen channel. We made three such dives late at night, the first from the jetty and the others by boat. Dropping into the slack water just as the sun was setting at about 11 one night is perhaps one of the most memorable dives I have ever made. The clear sky was a vivid pink colour, and, as there was not a breath of wind, the glassy surface of the water shone with the same beautiful hue. In the silence following my roll into the water I remember calling out to the boat cover 'I've never dived in pink water before!'. It was one of those truly magical moments. As I descended into the mystical waters below I felt mightily pleased to be alive. Around me the water was moving slowly through the channel towards the fjord. On nearing the bottom at about 18 metres, my torch light picked out a carpet of creamy dead man's fingers which gave way on either side of the 15 metre wide channel to walls of pink plumose anemones. Not one piece of the rocky substrate which I knew must lie concealed beneath this deep pile could be seen! Here we found gobies, blennies and butterfish hiding amongst the anemones. Larger, yet still immature, Wolf fish, and Scorpion fish peered curiously at us from crevices in the rock, waiting no doubt for a passing meal or the opportunity to dart out and seize some unsuspecting prey. Poor man's cod hung effortlessly in the water column facing out to sea. Whilst exposing several frames of film on these creatures, the current slowly dropped and then picked up again in the opposite, seaward, direction. It was time to leave this wonderland. We moved upwards and into the fjord, finishing our dive in the shallows as we made our way back to the jetty and the Dive Centre.

By Friday the weather had changed dramatically, the sun shone, the bright blue sky and the clean air made the fjord and surrounding islands appear even more beautiful. Snow peaked mountains could be seen in the distance. The colourful houses lining the fjord were mirrored in the calm surface. A large shoal of small fish swirled, danced and leapt from the water in the morning light as we set off for a deep wreck dive.

Our route by boat took us via a string of small islands and islets and narrow channels past the Viking ship to the open sea. The wreck, discovered by Nils Aukan, is called the Borghild. She lies upright on the sea bed just off shore from a lighthouse and her decks are at 42 metres. Our group on this occasion comprised a mixture of divers from Norway, Sweden and Germany, almost all in dry suits. The descent to the wreck took us out of the sunlight into darkness. Once on the deck we could still make out the green waters above us, but there was precious little light to take photographs. I tried a couple of long exposures, trusting my Nikonos V to automatically close the shutter some three seconds after pressing the release, but the results were not good and did not do justice to this impressive wreck. We saw ling and a few dead man's fingers on the wreck as we made our way towards the bow and the huge winch gear. However, as we were no stop diving on single 12 litre tanks, we had not gone far before it was time to surface. It was on the ascent that we had a great opportunity to photograph divers on the shot line as they decompressed from their even deeper dives.

Following a shallower second dive, we washed and dried our kit in the late afternoon sun and packed away our camera equipment ready for the return to London.

The next morning, after biding our farewells, we flew home from Molde, south of Eide, on a beautiful sunny morning. As we travelled down the coast the sun sparkled on the fjords and glaciers below. Looking down on the rugged scenery, we recounted the many dives and new friends we had made on a memorable trip to one of Norway's finest diving areas.

The dive centre's address is Stromholmen Sjosportsenter, N-6494 Vevang, Norway and they can be contacted by telephone on 47 71 29 81 74 or by fax on 47 71 29 83 18. They also organise Killer Whale watching trips in far northern Norway.

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