To much of the world, stories of shipwrecks are accounts of drama and romance; thrilling tales of mankind’s struggles against the elements. But to scuba divers, these tales have taken on extra significance, because divers regularly visit all of these wrecks, and see for themselves the aftermath of events that most people only read about.
There are literally thousands upon thousands of shipwrecks in the oceans, seas, lakes and rivers of the world. Most of these wrecks lie within easy reach of ports and population centers, and many have gone to the bottom in waters shallow enough to be reached by recreational scuba divers.
Seeing history come alive is certainly part of the attraction. It’s almost impossible to hover over the silver teaspoon embedded into the coral covering the British Virgin Islands’ RMS Rhone and not think about the scores of passengers who perished when the great ship sank in a hurricane.
And it’s one thing to read that Bermuda was once a center for Confederate blockade runners. But it’s another thing entirely to hover next to the giant paddle wheels of the Marie Celestia and know that she was just one of dozens of vessels that sank while trying to avoid the ships of the Union Navy.
Focus on Wreck Diving
Shipwreck diving provides a specific focus for your dive – the wreck itself. Some wrecks are small enough that you can see the whole thing in a single dive, while others are of such a scope that it could take two, three, four or more dives to get even a passing acquaintance with the whole thing.
Many wrecks are like a frozen moment in time. The well-preserved wrecks of North America’s Great Lakes, for instance, often look as if they slipped beneath the waves just a few months or years ago – and not the century or more that has actually passed since some of these historic vessels were lost.
Other wrecks have long since become part of the natural environment. In tropical waters, it’s not unusual at all to see wrecks on which every bit of surface has become covered with hard and soft corals and colorful sponges.
Regardless of where they’ve gone down, virtually all shipwrecks also become magnets for wildlife. Explore the exposed steam engine of a wreck off Bermuda, and you might very well find a sea turtle sleeping in one of the giant machine’s nooks and crannies. Cruise past Australia’s Yongala wreck and you might find yourself accompanied by a friendly Maori wrasse about the size of a compact car. Even a recently placed “artificial reef” project such as the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, sunk in the Gulf of Mexico, can be home to gigantic groupers and as well as a port-of-call for a spectacular animals such as eagle rays, tuna and barracuda.
The recreational diving industry, through the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) helps groups of divers acquire retired US government ships like the Oriskany, and provides support to turn them into artificial reefs in suitable locations for diving. Since 2004, DEMA’s national Ships to Reefs Program (www.Ships2Reefs.com) has been providing economic and environmental information for those “sink groups” that wish to get involved with sinking a ship as a dive site. Any diver can do this with planning, some ambition and the help of the S2R program’s information.
Windows to the Past
Like a good ghost story? The underwater world is full of them:
- Nuestra Señora de Atocha, near the Dry Tortugas – Early in the 17th century, a Spanish galleon is driven far off-course by the winds and surge of an enormous hurricane. Finally, west of the Florida Keys, the great ship rolls and breaks apart, spilling a fortune in gold, silver and emeralds onto the sandy bottom.
- The Dunderburg, in southern Lake Huron – On the glassy midnight waters of the Great Lakes, a three-masted schooner lies becalmed, just a few years after the end of the American Civil War. Out of the darkness, a steamship collides with the sleeping wooden ship, sending it, and its cargo of grain, swiftly beneath the surface.
- The U-352, in the Graveyard of the Atlantic, off the Outer Banks of North Carolina – Off America’s Atlantic coast, a German U-boat hunts in the latter days of World War II. In error, it targets a Coast Guard cutter, which responds with depth charges, forcing the submarine to surface momentarily before it slips for all eternity beneath the waves.
- Chuuk Lagoon, in the Federated States of Micronesia – One of the greatest time capsules of World War II, a significant portion of the Japanese fleet lies on the bottom of a pristine lagoon in Micronesia after being bombed and strafed by American warplanes. Over 60 ships and several Japanese airplanes can be explored by divers in this beautiful Pacific lagoon.
- The Superior Producer, in Curacao – Early in the 1980s, a coastal freighter struggles out of a southern Caribbean port, its holds and deck loaded with building supplies and Christmas goods. It barely clears the harbor mouth when winds and waves catch it broadside, roll it over, and sink it.