(This was first written as an article for Scuba magazine and is archived here for curiosity)
The Russian factory ship Lunokhods was driven up the geo under the Bressay lighthouse in November 1993. Her bow and stern broke free and rolled down the sharp slope so the wreck now lies between 42m to 8m on the boulder slope in clear Shetland waters.
The Russian factory ship Lunokhods 1 came to grief on a stormy Shetland night on the 9th November 1993. The large crew of 156 were all successfully airlifted by the Shetland Coastguard rescue helicopter, Oscar Charlie. Despite only being rated for 18 passengers, one of the runs that night crowded 32 bedraggled seamen into the cramped helicopter. This rescue still counts as the single biggest rescue lift by one helicopter in the uk.
Happily the ships cat was also rescued albeit several days later!
This ship reflected the consequences of a wider world history. At the end of the cold war when the iron curtain came down, factory ships came from these former soviet block countries to buy fish from the Scottish fishing fleet to process and take home. The ships were often poorly maintained shadows of their former selves and many came to grief in the Shetland storms when they failed to start their engines as anchors dragged. With inevitable consequence they were washed ashore and broken by the waves. Today the Lunokhods is one of three notable wrecks from this era. Nine days later the Borodinskoye Poleye went aground on the Unicorn north of Lerwick. The lifeboat crew remember the sound of suitcases hitting the lifeboat roof came alongside to rescue the men! Thirdly, the Pionersk is now a classic Shetland dive lying slightly further south.
The Klondike ended in 1996 as reduced EU fishing quotas drove fish prices up and the whole operation became uneconomic.
- Depth 8 – 42m
- Location Just below the Bressay Lighthouse, Lerwick Harbour, Shetland
- Lat Long 60° 07.169N 001° 07.250W
- Tide Info Any time
Diving the Lunokhods
At heart, I am something of a puritan. I like my wrecks to be from that classic steamship era so they have history, pedigree and some of that seafaring glamour from a by gone era. The prospect of a Russian Factory ship that ran ashore in a storm because she failed to start her engines when the anchor dragged would ordinarily do little to excite me.
But in the water, the Shetland magic does something to this underwhelming description and lifts the shipwreck to create something special. When I shut my eyes, the best way I can describe the picture is to imagine a finely drawn technical illustration you would find in a Dorling Kindersley book. The picture is the blueprint you would see if you cut a ship in half and made a 3d schematic of the holds from the deck to the bilge.
In life the bow has split from the wreck as if cleaved with a precision tool. The section rolled down the slope and came to rest on the seabed at 42m on its port side with the nose pointing west. As you look down from what would have been above, the view is typical ship. Hand rails widen as they travel aft with the usual fixtures that allow ropes through, the hawse pipe still opens onto the hollow that would have housed the anchor. The anchor winch itself lies on the deck with the chain still shackled securely. Small windows on the winch show the hydraulic oil pressure gauges housed within, all reminders of the modern technology that can still to be seem on ship plying their trade today. A small deck house has doors open on either side and the daily paraphernalia of ships life can be seen stowed within, from shackles to wires to other marine hardware.
Turn the corner and a surprise awaits. The ship must have split down a seam so the cut looks as precise as if by a knife. Laid out before is that schematic: to the left the bilge and the keel. Then there are three stories of refrigerated hold each lined with a thick wall of insulating polystyrene and laced with the cooling coils (so it is a bit like swimming around the back of your fridge!). Lastly on top, is the deck accommodation with a loo and shower to one side, an eerie reminder of the humdrum human shipboard life that would have passed the daily routine in an ordinary day.
Like the bow section, most of the boulders that also tumble down the slope also come to rest here so that there is a distinct line where the rocks hit the sand. If you swim off the tip of the bow, follow this seam and head east there is a debris trail that ends with another big section of ship. Large fishing boats often have a ramp up which they would pull their nets and onto the deck. Stripped reinforcement on the transom stern to either side would protect the hull from the clashing otter boards that would be stowed here when not fishing. Both the bow and the stern sections are 180deg out of whack so you swim from the end of the wreckage, which was the middle of the ship, onwards to the bow and then across a gap. You then hit the stern and before swimming on to the middle of the ship where the wreck ends. If you think that is confusing, try adding a little narcosis to the mix!
The journey itself is part of the pleasure. Visibility deep in Shetland is often superb and the weeks this year put even Norway vis to shame. I am not an advocate for deep for deeps sake but with the lack of tide and clear water, depths are tempered with these more benevolent conditions. I do however encourage exploring depth where there is something interesting to see and Shetland allows an extension to peoples usual comfort zones. Swimming the gap myself on one occasion, I met an enormous barndoor skate cruising the otherway. I looked at him as he looked at me and after a glimpse of doubletake we both carried on in our separate directions, each rubbing our eyes in a moment that needed a pinch to be believed!
With depth comes decompression obligations and with the meter always running, the exit can never be far away. Fortunately however, there is interest all the way up the slope so the ascent can be done slowly while still exploring the wreck. All the large sections have now fallen behind us but large recognisable components still lie in a breadcrumb trail up the rocks. The midships would have held much of the fish processing rooms and much of the stainless steel machinery litters the route despite being bent and twisted into Dali-esqe contortions. A generator room still houses the engines though it would be a major engineering feat to start the rusty clumps nowadays.
The slope itself is home to curious Ling that dart out of their boulder homes, nervous of divers’ torches. Large shoals of fish stay just to the edge of vision but keep a constant reminder of the vibrancy of life in Shetland seas. I always think this is how the sea would be, should be, if humanity didn’t extract such a heavy toll and harvest life to the limits.
With the shallows comes light and the start of the kelp. The reef starts to take precedence as the wave-ground shipwreck pieces start to diminish smaller and smaller. In the shallows is a second dive that engrosses thoughts whilst the decompression tolls tick quietly away.
The mangled prop lies trapped in the rocks but to me the wreck only finally ends when the tortuous gully is wriggled to the final shallow terminus. Lifting your head out the water you will see the Bressy light house to your left and in a large steel trawl float wedged into a crevice in the rock to the left. The float is wedged tight, never to move, driven home with the same forces of nature that brought the life of this ship to its untimely end.