Cold water diving will never be the same after a visit to Gulen situated north of Bergen on the Norwegian west coast. Here, history meets present day, the deep ocean meets kelp forest and the gargantuan meets the minuscule.
Whatever you want to see underwater, chances are good that you will find it at the Gulen Dive Resort.
Christian Skauge is the current Nordic Champion of underwater photography, and has won several national and international photo contests.
He is currently the publisher and editor for the Norwegian dive magazine Dykking.
To see more of Christian’s images, please visit www.scubapixel.com.
The area at the mouth of the Sognefjord is as rich in marine splendour as it is beautiful above the surface. The world’s longest fjord, it cuts some 220 kilometres into the Norwegian west coast and an area of great strategic importance during World War II. Consequently, the area is strewn with spectacular wrecks of freighters and warships and in terms of rusty WWII action, few places in the world can compete. A week at Gulen leaves one with the chance of being properly “wrecked”.
Norway’s best wreck
One of Gulen’s signature dives is the 122 meter long German freighter SS Frankenwald. Practically a cliché, the Frankenwald is a virtual window into history, a piece of WWII memorabilia found nowhere else. Laid bare by corrosion, the deck slopes from 24 to 34 meters toward the bow of the ship. Even though bottom time is decent, many dives are required to properly explore the superstructure, cargo holds and the interior. Weighing in at 5,032 tons, the grand old lady wreck is extremely well-preserved, offering so many different dives that people come back year after year.
The stern rests on the sandy bottom 44 meters and almost resembles a submarine conning tower when viewed from behind. After spending as much time as possible on the wreck, divers can ascend to the ship’s spectacular aft mast for a safety stop. Rising from 20 to 7 meters, the structure is entirely encased with anemones and teeming with critters and little fish. Several years ago, the Frankenwald was voted best wreck in Norway by the readers of Norwegian dive magazine Dykking. And rightly so! Hovering motionless above the Frankenwald in good visibility is an out-of-this-world experience not to be missed.
Twin wrecks at Sail Rock
Also not to be missed are the stunning twin wrecks of SS Ferndale and SS Parat. On 16 December 1944, the 116-meter long freighter Ferndale was heading north in the darkness when she ran aground on Sail Rock, 40 minutes north of Gulen Dive Resort. A sitting duck, the Ferndale came under attack from allied aircraft the next morning. In the fierce battle that ensued, the allies lost two Mosquito fighter-bombers, but still managed to sink both Ferndale and the salvage vessel Parat which had been called in for the rescue.
Today, the Ferndale sits upright on a slope ending at a depth of only 8-10 meters. The bow area was salvaged after the war, with only bits and pieces remaining. In stark contrast, the intact midship and stern remain at 34 meters. From this vantage point, one can look down on the Parat, resting a meter or so behind Fernedale. It is almost a miracle that the large freighter did not crush the small salvage vessel when she sank. The Parat is a dive for experienced tech divers, with trimix required between depths of 45 to 60 meters.
After admiring both wrecks, deco and safety stops are done around the spectacular Sail Rock, the sides of which are completely covered with sea plumes, dead men’s finger coral, dahlia anemones and sea squirts. The quantity of fish and invertebrates found here is simply astonishing. It is wise to make room for an extra long deco stop if you don’t want to miss out on the rock. Some underwater photographers have been known to ignore the wrecks entirely and concentrate on Sail Rock’s colourful plethora of marine wildlife. Even with the unique twin wrecks close by, it is a world-class dive in its own right.
Rust for everyone
Gulen Dive Resort takes divers to no less than 15 different wrecks, ranging from the beginner-friendly Solvang at 15 meters to the technical deep-dive of SS Lynx at 90-100 meters. In between, most divers will find a wreck at suitable depth, be it the Havda, Bandak, Server, Welheim, Oldenburg, Inger Seks or the newly discovered minelayer KNM Uller at 55 meters. The latter is the only wreck known to have been sunk by Norwegian seaplanes during WWII. Scattered on the bottom beside the beautiful 27 meter long vessel are ominous-looking mines and a cannon elevated towards the surface as if she’s still trying to fend off her aggressors.
On the boat ride out, divers are briefed not only on the dive itself, but you will also the often exciting and violent history of the wrecks. At Gulen, history is never more than a few meters below the surface.
Celebrating its tenth anniversary this fall, the Gulen Dive Resort comes complete with modern RIB dive boats, nitrox and trimix on demand, a great house reef, its own pub, sauna and outdoor hot tub and a friendly and knowledgeable staff. Dive courses are offered from Open Water to Divemaster and many dive shops and clubs use the resort for their own courses. Rebreather-friendly, the resort is able to handle large groups of technical divers, as well as hosting photography and marine biology workshops every year. The post-dive Norwegian speciality waffles served at the dive shop are a good example of the effort that goes into catering for the divers and their needs.
Visitors stay in up-to-date, clean and cosy twin rooms and can swap dive stories in the spacious living room and kitchen area. A special area is dedicated to laptops, chargers and camera gear. Editing and admiring pictures taken during the day is a popular past-time in the evenings. Most divers choose to tend to their own meals and enjoy the luxury of complete flexibility, while others prefer the all-inclusive treatment. Almost anything is possible at Gulen Dive Resort; just let owners Monica Bakkeli and Ørjan Sandnes know what you want, and they will most likely be able to provide it. If arriving by air from Bergen, group transfers can be arranged from the airport.
Gulen Dive Resort offers much more than great wreck diving. The house reef is world-famous for its high number of nudibranch species. Every year at the end of March, people gather for the annual Nudibranch Safari, with scientists from the university in Trondheim teaching participants all about these exquisite creatures.
All the diving is done locally to ensure maximum time under water as well as in the classroom. Although Norway boasts close to a hundred nudibranch species, only two thirds can be found at diveable depths. At the Gulen house reef, more than 50 species have been found in just the last two years, attracting divers from all over Scandinavia.
Aliens of the deep
If you are looking for even more exotic and unique marine life experiences, come to Gulen at the end of January. At this time,the mysterious deep-sea helmet jellyfish Periphylla periphylla comes to the surface to mate, an event that can only be witnessed in very few locations the worldwide. These strange creatures normally live from several hundred to thousands of meters deep in the ocean, but in the middle of the night during winter, divers can witness hundreds if not thousands of them with the bottom 300 meters below.
The jellyfish grow to almost a meter across when their 12 tentacles are spread out.
Like blood-red wheels drifting in the pitch-black water, the Periphylla has been around for some 650 million years, with scientists only recently beginning to unlock their secrets. Many visiting divers count these dives among the best they have ever had.
Sharks and rays
Elasmobranch and cephalopod lovers will also find rare treats in the Gulen area. Although Norwegian waters are not exactly shark-infested, the summer months of June and July offer opportunities to see congregations of dogfish at some of the deeper wrecks at the mouth of the Sognefjord. They have even been spotted several times on the house reef, much to the astonishment of divers expecting nudibranchs and crustaceans. (Naturally, with the wrong lens on the camera!) I have myself been surprised by 1.2-meter-long sharks swimming close by to investigate what I am doing. The calmness and elegant grace of these apex predators never cease to amaze me.
More cartilage can be found at Stingray City, so dubbed because of the near 100 percent success rate at finding thorny rays on the sandy bottom. These flat bottom feeders grow up to about a meter in length, and are normally not very camera shy. Depths of 14-18 meters ensure long dives even for the less experienced and smiles will be in abundance upon leaving the water.
Stunning house reef
During the fall, things start to noticeably change off the Norwegian coast and Gulen is no exception. As the days grow shorter and evenings darker, thousands of strange creatures begin to appear at nights on the house reef. Covered in spiky protrusions or algae camouflage, an army of crustaceans begin their march towards domination. With snapping claws and glowing eyes punctuating the darkness, camouflage crabs, nut crabs, swimming crabs, spider crabs, stone crabs, hermit crabs, squat lobsters, different shrimp and sea spiders crawl and creep.
At 30+ meters on the house reef, really lucky divers may encounter stone crabs seeking shelter under the big, pink sea anemones as they wait to shed their spiky carapace when they are moult. The anemones also house whole families of bright red Spirontocaris shrimp, using the stinging tentacles for shelter like clownfish.
At night, little squid emerge from the fine-grained sand at the house reef’s shallow depths. Patient divers can see them hunt, feed and maybe even mate, ensuring that the following year’s divers can experience these delicate creatures as they flutter gently in the dark.
The house reef also features rare gobies lingering in the sand and super-cute clingfish guarding their eggs deposited inside empty seashells. Squid’s eggs are often found on the kelp during springtime and lobsters, meter-long wolffish and large monkfish are frequent visitors. Even rare deep-sea sponges and stony coral have been found here, along with several species of nudibranchs never before seen in Norwegian waters. A macro heaven, the house reef is renowned among Scandinavian underwater photographers. Many award-winning images have been shot here with more to come in the future.
Just off the house reef, some 200 meters from the resort pier, another signature dive awaits the visiting divers: The Troll Wall. This magnificent drop-off starts well above the surface and plummets to 45 meters and deeper, and one feels quite small next to the towering mass of granite. The wall is full of large pink and little white starry-looking anemones, and shallower the kelp harbours lumpfish guarding their eggs and thousands of wrasse going about their business. If one does not venture too deep, it is even possible to swim all the way back to the pier where the evenings attractions are waiting—barbecue in the summer, hot-tub and a pint in the pub all year round.
Sitting near the very end of the warm flow of the Gulf Stream, 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 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 in the beginning of the summer. The following warmer months offer an abundance of algae, fish and plenty of action in the sea. During the the fall, crustaceans and cephalopods are the main players. When winter knocks, it is time to put on extra undergarments and explore the fabulous WWII wrecks for which Gulen is justly famous.
These are just a few of the highlights to be experienced during a visit to the Gulen Dive Resort. Depending on the time of year, they offer drift dives, awesome kelp forests, pick-your-own-clams, a fabulous house reef, world-class wreck diving and an assembly of marine life most people wouldn’t think possible outside the tropics. No article could ever have room for all the experiences on offer. Whenever you visit, a different adventure awaits. ■