My Story of a Found Submarine in Shetland

It's Christmas 2019 and we're in Egypt recapping our Christmas Eve morning dives. We've just returned from diving off Elphinstone Reef where we managed some funny photos with longfin sharks. One photo is of a diver from Belgium who was part of our group.

Both of our nations have a generally positive relationship with beer, so we exchange photos at the bar in the evening. The discussion revealed that we have both been rebreather diving for a long time and are interested in wrecks. But why am I starting my story about diving off Shetland in Scotland in Egypt?

From Norway to Shetland

Roel and I continue to keep in touch and occasionally like each other's interesting photos and experiences. Once Roel approached me about the possibility of a CCR safari in Norway, organised by Scottish Shetland. After a moment's thought, I nodded and pondered the risks of diving with a buddy I'd never been in the water with, a group of people I didn't know at all, and a boat that was actually a converted fishing barge. Over the next few months, two more spots opened up on the boat and so my fears were greatly diminished by the participation of Tomas Zloch, who I had already dived with and was glad to have joined. And why are we still in Norway?

We were impressed by the Norwegian expedition and understood the rules and procedures that apply on a Scottish ship. Apparently our approach to diving, based on an emphasis on safety and a positive experience, also attracted the attention of the Scottish divers, who after an initial distance began to communicate with us warmly. Therefore, when the invitation to participate in an expedition aimed at discovering deep wrecks off the Scottish Shatlands came, there was nothing to think about!

The planning of the trip was clear after the experience in Norway - we would be on ferries for most of the route and minimize driving time - especially in England. The plane option was out of the question due to the amount of gear. As the plan was to dive wrecks at depths of up to 120m, it was clear that the only way to plan and safely execute such dives was to use two CCRs. In my case, these were the primary unit, the CCR Liberty in the FMCL variant and the CCR Liberty in the Sidemount variant as the Bailout unit. Currently, I don't think there is a more ideal solution as Divesoft has developed firmware that supports just the use of two units in Primary - Bailout mode.

The Unpredictable North Sea

The diving in the North Sea around Shetland is wonderful, but highly dependent on the weather. The combination of ocean waves with tidal current and local wind is particularly problematic. This unfortunately only allowed us to make one of the planned deep dives. The remaining 5 days we dived known wrecks in areas outside the open sea at depths of up to 70m. These WWI era wrecks were no longer in a fully compact state, but contained a large number of beautiful details and artifacts. What was particularly nice was that, unlike Egypt or the Mediterranean, these artefacts are not salvaged.

The uncompromising weather forecast was exactly confirmed and finally the last day of our expedition came with calmer water. Due to our planned departure, we had to wake up very early to make our dive in the morning tidal window when conditions are at their best. The original, ideal dive plan for the expedition was to discover more wrecks.

The Pinnacle Dive - The German Submarine UC-55

For one dive, the site where the German submarine UC-55 was sunk in 1917 was chosen. The minelaying submarine was operating in the North Sea and a total of 9 ships fell victim to it. It suffered a fatal malfunction leading to loss of control and submergence below operational depth. Subsequent water in the engine room caused chlorine leakage from the batteries and the need to surface, where the submarine was already an easy target for Allied ships.

The information from the Royal Navy archives and the sonar scan of the bottom clearly indicated that we were descending to UC-55. But still, I had an adrenaline rush and a curiosity to see what condition the submarine was in after 106 years of not being seen by the human eye. The descent down the rope was not so idyllic and the considerable current that tilted the descent rope extended our descent to 105 meters. The middle part of the descent in particular seemed interminable, the daylight had already completely disappeared and our torches were still not reaching the bottom. We were "kicking" against the current. And suddenly we see her !!! Quickly place the strobe light on the rope, turn on the camera and video lights and hurray to discover.

Identification Challenges Underwater

To identify the wreck accurately, we had two plans. Plan "A", based on finding the serial number of anything, was rejected from the first moments. The propeller was so overgrown with vegetation that accessing its serial number would have meant some time of cleaning and scraping, followed by sediment floating away. On one dive below 100 metres there really wasn't time for that. Hence plan "B" - to monitor the damage to the submarine and compare it with the description of events and the condition of the submarine just before it sank, recorded by the Royal Navy directly from the ships that had a hand in the disposal. In the allotted time we just manage to swim around the submarine and stop for a moment at the guns, turret, mines and a few other details.

Last we leave the submarine in the agreed runtime and climb up. During the ascent we disconnect the decompression trap from the descent rope and for the next 2 and a half hours we and three other divers will be carried by the current. The decompression option with the trapeze unattached completely eliminates the influence of the current and the need to hold on to the trapeze. But the effect of the waves does not leave us and therefore the whole decompression we are in a fully neutral buoyancy with minimal chance to be helped by the constantly bouncing trapeze.

The Euphoric Return

We are on board and euphoria reigns. We are debating the details of the dive and still on the camera displays showing the captain the details of the submarine. It's clear, confirmed, it's UC-55. The submarine is compact with some damage but well-preserved features. We agree that for the completeness of our experience, the submarine deserves at least two more dives. The euphoria slowly fades and the next step is to pack up the gear and leave.

Upon returning home, a pleasant mood of interest in our discovery begins to prevail. The BBC issues a report on its homepage and a prime time interview with a Scottish colleague follows. Various diving magazines and websites ask permission to publish photos, and requests for interviews and lectures come in. It's very enjoyable and keeps me coming back to UC-55 in my thoughts.

I think that discovering a wreck is a dream of most divers, it came true for me and I am grateful for it and only in the corner of my soul I dare to dream that it could ever happen again to me, a Central European.

About the author

Martin Mako Janeček

"I've been diving since 2002, when I first did several "intro" dives in different locations around the world such as: Kenya, Dominican Republic, and Egypt. Subsequently, I completed my OWD and AOWD in Egypt, and started diving recreationally on a regular basis.

In 2010 I combined my diving with Kapr Divers where I gradually became a technical, cave, and trimix diver. In 2015 I became the happy owner of a CCR Liberty Rebreather, and underwater adventure took on a new dimension. I became interested in "drowned" history and gradually dived the wrecks of Egypt, the Baltic, Florida, South Africa and the Mediterranean. I had the opportunity to be present at the identification of the B-24 bomber in Croatia, and the exploration of the foundations of the Judith Bridge in Prague.

I was enchanted by the history under the surface of both the Slap and Orlíkka reservoirs, where I had the opportunity to be part of the team that filmed a documentary focused on the flooded Těchnice church, which is regularly broadcast on several TV stations. The biggest bonus of diving for me is my wife Lucie, who I met in the Kapr Divers team and we continue to happily go through life together, not only underwater."