The S.S. Riverside is located around 4 miles N.E. from the Isle of Whithorn on a sandy, silty seabed. It is in the path of the main outfall from the River Cree as it pours into Wigtown Bay, consequently it is subject to strong tidal currents of up to 4 knots on a spring tide. The result of all this means that the wreck is very much an oasis in a barren area for all kinds of filter feeders and for those creatures which require holes to hide in. The wreck is not all that deep sitting at only 26 metres and depending upon the amount of recent rainfall and consequent output from the River Cree it is true that it can be a murky dive with the heavily sedimented water blocking out almost all sunlight below 15 metres. However, if the dive is planned carefully after periods of settled weather and timed at low water slack, when the clearer flood tide begins to stream over the wreck, then an excellent dive can be achieved. On this wreck divers do need to pay careful attention to their finning technique as it is all too easy to kick up a cloud of silt, so ruining the dive for others.
The most prominent section of the wreck is the intact stern (1) and this is usually where the shot line is dropped. Here the tidal streams have scoured the silt from the area and when you arrive at the seabed you can see the stern structure soaring up in front of you. It is completely covered in white, yellow and occasional orange dead men’s fingers and plumose anemones giving the hard, rusting steel a soft ‘cotton wool’ appearance. Below the stern (2) you can usually find schools of striped bib taking shelter around the rudder and propeller.
Swimming around to your left, the port side of the hull (3) is also completely covered in dead men’s fingers and plumose anemones feeding from the nutrient rich river water. Just visible amongst this life is the small hole where the bilge pump once drained out. This is now home to a ‘tom pot blenny’ who inquisitively looks out, only retreating when a diver with his camera gets too close for comfort.
Ascending up to the port gunwale it is interesting to explore the area where the bridge once stood (4). This structure was made of wood and has now long since rotted away. However the steel footings are easily seen as is the funnel flange protruding up from the boiler beneath. To either side are the openings of what were two ladder wells down to the engine room. These are now badly filled with silt, but in this area every hole and crevice seems to be occupied by conger eels, lobsters or crabs.
Looking towards the stern you can easily see the exposed steering quadrant and in front of it where a large tangle of netting, suspended by its own floats once towered above you, you can now look down between the deck beams into the top of the engine compartment. This area is heavily silted but exploration will most likely reveal in situ brass gauges and dials still fitted to the engine. The previously mentioned tangle of netting, which had been a distinctive site on the wreck, has now been pulled clear and sits on the seabed, snagged to a couple of lobster pots just to the starboard side of the wreck.
Moving forward of the bridge area is the step down to the deck area surrounding the main hold (5). To either side here are pairs of bollards next to the gunwale and on our last dive on the wreck in October 2009, through a rotted hole in the plating, we were able to observe a small compartment containing seven large conger eels all crushed together side by side like huge sardines in a tin. We were puzzled at this communal behaviour of what we had always imagined to be solitary creatures.
The hold itself (6) is still filled with the cargo of coal covered in a layer of silt but hiding around the edges and under fallen plates and girders are numerous lobsters and edible crabs. The occasional snagged lobster pots show that local fishermen know that this is a good if risky place to lay their pots. In the middle of the hold and also off to the starboard side are more suspended fishing nets showing that the wreck is very much an isolated obstacle in an otherwise flat seabed. These nets which cling to the wreck mean that divers have to be careful so as not to become entangled. Thankfully they are heavy trawl nets and not monofilament line which is more difficult to see and so more dangerous.
In this middle section the hull is very much intact. Often on wrecks of this age the weight of the corroding hull plates causes them to peel away and fall to the seabed. Here though the silt has built up on both sides of the wreck, well above the rubbing strake, and along with the in situ cargo of coal, the hull plates have been supported and so the ship remains relatively intact.
Proceeding forward towards the bow you come to the curved front hold faring (7) with the cargo winches sitting just behind it. In amongst these are more lobsters and congers. To your left are the footings of what was either a ladder way down to the bow section or the remains of the crew’s wash room. Here on either side the ribs which once held the sides of the bow protrude upwards, but just forward of this the actual bow of the vessel (8) has completely broken apart and collapsed. This area may have been weakened when the sinking vessel hit the seabed, but again a profusion of nets around the fallen hull plates and ribs show that snagged trawl nets may have been instrumental in its collapse. This area is again home to creatures that like to lurk in holes and it was in this area that I identified a Yarrel’s blenny on my last dive.
It was also here on the fallen hull plates that we found the brass letters which meant we could conclusively identify the wreck. R.I.V.E.R.S.D.E. were all easily found but the missing ‘ I.’ took a number of dives to locate. Its’ screws had rotted and the letter had slipped between two hull plates. This name lovingly cleaned, polished and mounted on a teak board is now on display at the Isle of Whithorn.
To finish the dive on this very scenic and atmospheric wreck you have to carefully swim back over the vessel to the stern. As you drift along with the current you will see numerous large Pollock which use the wreck for shelter swimming always just ahead of you and beneath you the pale dead men’s fingers and plumose anemones giving the wreck an almost ghostly appearance.
To find out more about this wreck, have a look at it’s wreck history page.