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Scuba Diving Southwest Coast of England, UK, Europe

Reader Reviews:

Dive Site: James Egan Layne

Location: 50°19.54N; 4°14.65W

Description: 7,000 ton wreck

Length: 130 metres (427 feet)

Depth: 24 metres (79 feet)

Visibility: 15 metres (50 feet)

Rating: ****

The James Egan Layne lies shotted in Whitsand Bay, Plymouth, and is an extremely popular British wreck because of its depth. It sank in March 1945 after ferrying men and materials across the world for the war effort. At the height of World War II, it was clear that cargo vessels were being sunk at a rate faster than which they could be built. In an effort to maintain the supply of food, vehicles and other equipment to the troops, the Americans found a way of welding aptly called 'Liberty' ships together that were 400 feet long weighing in at around 7000 tons in just 24 hours by an almost entirely female workforce. After being hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat near the Eddystone reef, the James Egan Layne was towed towards Plymouth in order to save as much of her cargo as possible. However on the way back, her stern collapsed causing her to sink in Whitsand bay, where she still sits upright, pointing north towards the shore.

After sinking her masts and funnel still stood proud out of the water and making it an easy dive location to find. However, in the late 1960's it was deemed a hazard to the local shipping traffic and so the bridge and the masts were razed to the seabed where they can still be seen to the port side. Most of the cargo was removed before she sank, but there are plenty of pick axe heads, pulleys and locomotive parts in her five holds.

If you only have the chance for one dive with a 12l cylinder, I would recommend you get the skipper to put you down on the bow (there is sometimes a buoy here if you are lucky). Descend down the bow to the seabed at a maximum of 23m and look back up. The silhouette of her intact bow is one on my favourite underwater views. Swimming up the port side then allows you to see the vast wall of her hull, covered in deadman's fingers and anemones, as well as the bridge and forward masts that now lie on the sea bed, home to a large variety of fish.

As you swim up the port side, you will eventually see an obvious opening in the hull, about 3m off the seabed, leading into hold number two. This opening is plenty big enough for easy penetration, and leads to an area which is uncovered overhead, making it safe for inexperienced divers to go in under supervision. You could have instead swam up the starboard side, however there is less to see on the seabed and the opening in the hull on this side goes into hold number three (where the torpedo originally struck), meaning you use more air to get inside the wreck!

Once in the wreck there are loads of bits of old cargo and ship paraphernalia to see, as well as plenty of fish and sometimes the odd conger eel. Penetration into hold number one forces you shallower still (about 11m), making a good overall dive profile. Storms have made access to this area easier for divers, also bringing a lot of the deck above down, meaning that a quick escape is possible if necessary. Ascending out of this hold brings you back to the bow at 6m, where you can carry out a safety stop, whilst looking along the length of the ship in awe of its shear size.

If you have more dives available, then the stern section and hold number four is also worth looking at. Penetration is also very safe here, but more areas are covered overhead. The back end of the main wreck is very dismantled, with the actual stern lying to the southwest of the rest of the ship, marked by the large red permanent buoy with 'James Egan Layne' written on it. Again, this section of the 'Layne' has more than its fair share of marine life, making it visually spectacular and one of my favourite dive sites for many years now!

Luke Cooper-Berry, BSAC Open Water Instructor

James Egan Layne Resources

Definately a firm favourite with regulars to Fort Bovisand. Approximately 20 mins on the rib heading west from Plymouth Sound. An excellent wreck for training dives, some skills (delayed SMB, navigation etc). The wreck is pretty intact and open, which is great for diving wrecks for the first time, some penetration and lots of inhabitants: bass, pollock and a large old cod!

Jenny Pickles, BSAC Dive Leader

One of the most famous wreck dives in the UK, probably only surpassed by the newly sunken artificial reef Scylla (and possibly the Akka). This wreck is a Holy Grail amongst many long established divers, who regard it as a fond favourite year after year, season after season - and that includes me also! One of the most exciting wreck dives in UK, for the marine life, the scale of the old wreck and its general popularity amongst divers.

Every Easter in years past, 50m to the north of a large red cylindrical wreck marker, could be seen a cluster of RIBs and a small selection of local hardboats, usually around a small buoy. Directly below this lie the remains of the liberty ship James Eagan Layne. These days, the majority of divers head for the more intact and modern purposefully sunk wreck of the artificial reef known as Scylla, which was sunk in March 2004.

The James Eagan Layne was not deliberately sunk, but torpedoed during the latter part of WWII, carrying valuable supplies for the war effort, much of which can be seen. It was built for one purpose: to get materials fast across the Atlantic during the last days of WWII but ended up on the seabed. To describe one dive is impossible, as over time the wreck has started to open up recently, and it takes many dives to really appreciate the extent of the wreck. Affectionately known as the "old girl" by some, its days are now numbered, but over the years has provided new divers with a superb introduction to UK wreck diving, and remains a firm favourite in the minds of many.

For the photographer, it is an excellent dive, and will keep the macro and wide-angle enthusiast very busy. The dive starts at the bow, where railing is still present (just), and on descent many old ropes can be seen. The light coating of kelp at 9-11m on the bright rusty forecastle deck can sometimes be bent over in the surge, which is not good as spiky bits of metal protrusions occur! If good visibility prevails, which it can, much of the wreck can be experienced. Average visibility certainly in recent Aprils has been between 10 and 20m! The bottom composition of coarse heavy shell sand helps. The bow section makes up about 80% of the wreck, the now split away stern section lying in deeper water represents about 10%, and the debris field between, of huge bits of hull wreckage is about 10%.

The stern section can be dived as a separate dive, and was possibly closer to the bow section, but winter storms may have moved it further away. On passing the point of the bow, hundreds of small white sagartia anemones may be seen tightly clustered in the nooks and crannies. Surge can be prevalent here and as one descends the edge of the bow, looking up is a wondrous sight. As you spread eagle either side of the bow, the "old girl's" sleek lines can be seen! Diving this on Nitrox has a big advantage, as the gas is ideal for mid-range diving, and the JEL rests on the seabed at 20-24m. It allows the diver to stay deeper for longer, and not incur nitrogen penalties if the dive was made on air. This allows a full tour of the wreck (assuming you are good on air consumption).

Taking the route along the sunlit port side (facing roughly south), a huge swathe of pure white & orange plumose anemones smatter the sweeping bow. Competing for position are dense patches of jewel anemones, and possibly the most delicately coloured lilac sagartia anemones you'll find. This "wall" is some 15m high, so you can imagine its visual impact. In the last 2 years much more of the hull plating has fallen off in places, and things have shifted around a bit, however a large piece of hull superstructure lies off to one side and can easily be visited. This was probably wire swept and its box like structure home to scorpionfish, large ballan wrasse, spider crabs and more importantly the rare pink sea fans. These fans (Eunnicella sp.) can reach 40cm+ across, and are usually found perpendicular to the currents. Look more closely and you may see "mermaids purses", dogfish egg sacks deliberately placed. Look even closer still to about 5mm, and you may just see a small nudibranch, which resembles a small section of the fan in both colour and form! Like many of the wrecks in the vicinity, pink sea fans grow on these, and should not be touched or damaged by divers.

Sadly on one dive in the last few years, at the base of the bow was some form of metal fitting, which had been filed to reveal brass. Obviously the fitting was too heavy for the sport diver to retrieve, and was a sad testament to some of the diving community who continue to abuse these wonderful wrecks. Cruising along the port side at around 15-18m, gaps reveal a tantalising glimpse into the interior, but the side here is coated in a jam-packed array of white dead men's fingers (Alcyonium digitatum) and sponges. In June 2005 we spotted a solitary healthy colony of red dead men's fingers, Alcyonium glomeratum, which still remains today.

After about a 100m of the (~150m now broken) hull, it peters out and here all manner of items can be found from piled stacks of pickaxe handles to pieces of winch gear, machinery, plating, mast and wheels for the old tractors. The remainder of the wreck is present, but is best appreciated in another dive. Turning into the open wreck and looking upwards, the wreck sides are now a cathedral like set of columns bathed in anemones and oatenpipe hydroids (tubularia). Shafts of strong sunlight course through into the interior, where large shoals of poor cod and bib hang. Large wrasse, swim and dart everywhere, the wreck providing a home for many a conger. Because of the proliferation of hydroids, many varieties of nudibranchs can be spotted. This means if you are not a wreck enthusiast, there is still plenty to see.

Heading back up the wreck towards the bow but within the wreck, the diver goes through many transverse bulkheads which have now eroded through, leaving skeletal columns of often jagged metal. The upper girder works can clearly be seen above, creating a latticework of metal and light. All over these in the corners are pink sea fans. Many rust coloured edible crabs are holed up. A large rectangular boiler reveals itself to port, as do the pistons and rods of the engine block. An impressive and recent sight, it is here some divers penetrate the smaller spaces and grilled walkways. Ahead and to the starboard side is a strange collection of cauldrons, presumably destined for army kitchens (it was a while before I figured out what these were)!

Passing another bulkhead the light levels drop slightly as the bow area is close and more intact. An exploration of the lower bow reveals more wrasse and metalwork, but it is at this time the main deck is sought. To the upper right starboard side, close to the bow, the upper hull plating has disappeared, which has created a hole out into open sea with its "roof" the underside of the deck, a very strange sight indeed, especially with a solitary piece of vertical piping. The main deck has a light covering of kelp, and plenty of green wrasse grazing. If the visibility is very good, one can see shoals of pollack in the bright green open water. An interesting diversion is to look at two long holes in the hull, both at the same 45 degree angle, to that of the main deck. These are the anchor chain shafts and contain even more hydroids.

Most divers unfamiliar with the wreck just undertake the bow section and few bother with the stern, or the debris field area. It's probably a comfort factor thing, but one thing is for sure, they are indeed missing out on a glorious piece of the wreck. The much smaller stern section is some fifty metres away and is either made as a completely separate dive, or a small dive where it is continued onto the larger bow section. Some of the more experienced and knowledgeable divers make "the jump" from the end of the bow section across to the stern, which is better achieved in good visibility.

The stern section lies in slightly deeper water to the southwest, the seabed at the end of the stern itself is markedly different to the seabed on the bow section, being made up of more silted mud sand. Resting mostly on its port side starting at around 15m it drops to about 24m, depending on tide. The small approx. 25m long section is a haven of marine life, and its "upper" areas are covered in a vast garden of plumose anemones, in light tones of gold, green and white, every scrap of metal has been colonised. The stanchions, boat davits (I think) and cross members have created "caves" and swimthroughs. It's a bit like swimming through Santa's cotton wool covered grotto (minus the Santa of course!).

As one descends, spiralling around the wreck, this dizzying array of colour and form is replaced by more recognisable features. The wound in cable of a large winch remains and on the seabed around the port corner is a winch assembly and spool, which is now home to more lilac coloured sagartia and spidery pink sea fans. The area of the stern away from the bow section reveals a large round object on the seabed, containing teeth from gearing, this is part of the rotating transport mechanism from the stern gun; the other piece is clearly visible on the hull deck. Touring the wreck at seabed level reveals a metal cave to swim into, and another small area under the hull near the aft part of the stern. Shoals of fish tend to congregate in these shadow zones.

If the diver has elected to stay on the stern, the return is pretty much the reverse. It is however more desirable, if conditions and experience allows, to continue the dive to the bow section. I've made the whole dive on several occasions. There are two ways to get to the bow section, either by jumping the large hull sections, or taking a (natural) bearing across and slightly perpendicular to the sand ridges. Personally I favour the large hull sections, which has its advantages. The large pieces of hull, two or so, are upturned and ridged, containing many of the usual suspects found. The notable thing is the amount of wrasse and bass that favour this section of the hull, especially during spring. These are very inquisitive of divers, and look out for occasional scorpionfish, making for a pleasant diversion.

Passing the sections, the tail end of the bow section is picked up, and a long cylindrical affair is spotted. This seabed area is heavily strewn with a dense mass of thick and large empty shells, mostly mussels and pectens. The metal cylinder is the remains of the propeller shaft tunnel, and is broken in places, revealing the large propeller shaft, which has also broken usually the sectional bolts have sheered away. It is purported that entrance can be gained to the tunnel, however I personally would not recommend this, as it's a tight squeeze. Vertical skeletal columns now reveal themselves, the start of the starboard side of the hull. A choice can be made to swim down the outside of the starboard hull, containing more wreckage creating "caves" for crabs and suchlike, or the inside, both leading towards the bow and exit.

During busier periods extra care must be exercised when surfacing, and if the bow ascent line is not reached a delayed SMB and reel should be used. Even at the buoy there are occasions when uncaring RIB drivers reverse their engines up to it!

Tony Gilbert

Good dive site, big conger.

Darren Trunley | 16/01/2009

On 08/04/09 I dived the JEL ten years after I last did so. Time has not been kind to her. I remember she was vaguely box shaped before but now seem to have subsided into heaps of plates with the occasional rib standing up like a tree trunk. The visibility was only about three metres that day and the current was surging over the wreck which, whilst not ideal for diving, seems to have encouraged a small forest of delicate seafans to spring up.

The wreck is extremely jagged as my buddy found out when his DSMB went up and came straight back down again. Back on the surface we had plenty of time to talk about the dive as the boat seemed to take forever to get to us. This turned out to be because she'd run over a rope which had to be disentangled from the prop. And the perfect finish to our day was one of the divers giving an outstanding display of projectile vomiting thankfully downwind. This dive was slightly more challenging than previously mainly due to the weather conditions.

Jef Proudfoot | 03/05/2009

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