by Preeda Harish Kumar & Elaine Hendry
Lesson 1: Yes, Poland does have a coastline – it is one of nine countries bordering the Baltic.
Lesson 2: Yes, the Baltic does have wrecks. Nowhere else in the world has as many well preserved wooden wrecks – an estimated 100,000, of which some 20,000 have been discovered to date. They originate from 10,000 years of trading, hunting, warring and iffy weather. They are still there due to the brackish nature of the Baltic, which is no friend to wood-eating shipworm larvae.
Lesson 3: No, there isn’t much life, due to the aforementioned brackish waters – too salty for fresh-water species and not salty enough for the cornucopia we enjoy in UK waters. That said, most of the wrecks are coated in mussels, butterfish are even more common than in the UK, and there are occasional cod and shoals of very tiny ‘fry’. Weirdly, the wrecks are often draped in fishing line, suggesting a high level of optimism among local fishing enthusiasts.
Lesson 4: The word ‘baltic’ is slang for very cold. Why? Probably because, normally, thermoclines in the Baltic take you rapidly from the reasonably balmy to the genuinely ‘baltic’. So, having had the date fixed in our calendars since February last year, the time finally arrived when 16 Clidivers – including not one but two national instructors – were off to Poland to dive the Baltic, led by our very own Polish wreckhead, Bart. On a balmy Thursday evening, the orange van was packed with the military precision required to squeeze in 16 dive bags, twinsets, a few gallant single cylinders and a rebreather.
On Saturday, Gillian and Bart started their epic 20-hour drive to northern Poland, and on Sunday the rest of us jumped on a plane to Gdansk. There we were met by Robert Grzesicki, another Polish wreckhead (there’s a theme developing here), who combines taxidriving in England with organising dive trips to the Baltic. Our adventure begins…
Our home for most of the trip was a large research vessel called Doctor Lubecki (pronounced ‘Lubeshki’). Very much a working vessel, it was not luxurious by any means, but the 10 simple cabins did the job. The dive lift was probably one of the fastest any of us have been on – at least it was until it got damaged towards the end of the week, of which more below. The massive deck provided plenty of space to store our gear, and a compressor and some tanks of oxygen ensured plenty of air and the possibility of nitrox.
The crew numbered five: the captain, the two owners, an engineer and the chef, and all did everything possible to make our trip as safe and successful as possible. Inevitably our favourite crew-member was the chef, who produced endless meals from the tiny galley, served up at what felt like completely random times. He also managed to cater for Dave, who can’t eat pork or cheese – which probably counts as a hanging offence in Poland – and Anne who has a bit of an aversion to any food that reminds her of her childhood which, as she comes from nearby Estonia, is also quite tricky.
So what of the diving? Well, unfortunately, the aforementioned bad weather prevented us from enjoying most of the dives Robert wanted to show us, and also churned up the waters so that they were generally a lot warmer than expected (18° rather than 5°!), but also a lot murkier.
On just one dive we experienced the ‘true’ Baltic. 10 of us dived Robert’s favourite wreck, the Terra – a German tanker, sunk in 1944 by a Soviet sub, with the deck at 39m and the seabed at 49m. The benefit of descending below the thermocline was 15m+ visibility lighted and silhouetted by the torches of the diver pairs.
Six of us decided that was a bit deep, and headed to the Żagłowiec, a small, wellpreserved wooden yacht, which lay in a mere 39m with the deck at 35m. Again, the water was dark but clear, so that once your eyes adjusted the vis was actually very good. It was cold, but you can’t spend long at 39m unless you’re on mixed gases or a rebreather, and the temperature rose markedly on ascent, so it didn’t seem that much of an issue.
The other dives that stood out were a shallow paddle steamer draped in fishing nets, which was quite atmospheric; and the Christa, which was an enjoyable 18m potter across stretches of sand between mussel-coated lumps of wreckage in relatively good vis.
Luckily, we enjoyed a ‘window’ of calm seas and sunshine, but this was quickly broken by a storm that rampaged up from the Mediterranean, leaving towns badly flooded and forcing us to turn tail for harbour. The seas gradually mounted (to the enjoyment of some of us, but the misery of others), and by the time we reached Łeba the wind was easily a force 7. This in itself was not an issue for such a large vessel, but the wind was from the north east, and there was a risk that we wouldn’t be able to get safely into the narrow, north-facing harbour entrance.
With hearts in mouths we stood on deck and watched as Captain Adam expertly manoeuvred through the entrance and round the dog-leg. A moment’s hesitation or a slight misjudgement would have seen the stern driven against the harbour wall. The round of applause we gave him was more than well deserved. Mooring up was also a challenge, with the ship being constantly battered against the stone jetty by wind and waves, resulting in the lift mechanism getting damaged.
The wind made moving around and going ashore quite a risky business, with timing of the essence as we leaped for dry land. Some of us did risk it, and enjoyed a great evening in a cosy bar, sampling local beers and bison grass vodka mixed with apple juice (yum!). The rest remained on board and managed to drink the boat dry, including two bottles of traditional cherry vodka brought back for them by Robert.
The storm called a halt to any further diving, resulting in some rapid changes to travel plans. Some returned to London over the weekend rather than wait until Tuesday as planned. Three of us decided to bring forward the sightseeing that had always been planned for the end of the trip, and headed to Gdynia for a night. We toured the town and The Błyskawica (pronounced ‘bwiskaveecha’) – a Polish destroyer built in England, which saw a great deal of action during WWII – and enjoyed a long sunny walk along the seafront and up onto wooded cliffs littered with wartime anti-aircraft guns and bunkers. Left without Robert, Bart or Tomek, we discovered that Polish was not completely impossible, but almost, and were grateful for the English-speaking skills of the local residents.
We then headed to Gdansk to meet up with the remainder of our group and enjoy some time in this attractive and interesting town, which is definitely worth a weekend’s visit.
So the overall verdict? Baltic diving has real potential, but is clearly as subject to the elements as the UK; Poland is a country well worth visiting, although it helps if you enjoy 6 pork and it definitely helps to have a bit of local knowledge (thanks Robert!); cherry vodka does nothing for your sense of balance.
[*Hel is one of the harbours on our original itinerary, unfortunately never visited.]