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March 26, 2009

Memories of Wreck Diving - Past and Present

My experience Wreck Diving began in September of 1994 during a vacation to Grand Cayman when we dove the Oro Verde and the Balboa. Then again in the Bahamas in May of 1995 with the Sugar Wreck and the Theo. All of these dives were basically just exploring the outside of these wrecks and I did experience some desire to go inside, to explore, to see more ... But I knew I wasn’t prepared for that.

It really wasn't until a group of ten of us set out from Tennessee on a journey to Truk Lagoon, Palau, and Yap in February of 1996 that my interest in more advanced wreck diving became a reality. I decided that I didn't want to travel halfway around the world to simply see the outside of these wrecks, so my preparation for penetrating wrecks actually started in October of 1995 with the enrollment in an NACD & NSS-CDS Full Cave Diver class. I spent a week learning about penetrating overhead environments, decompression, safety issues, hazards, procedures, planning, teamwork, and a whole lot more. There's a huge difference in penetrating caves vs. wrecks, but our instructor taught us the skills to do both.

During the week at Truk Lagoon we penetrated over a dozen wrecks that had been on the ocean floor for 52 years. Our group leader was David Rhea, who had also been my overhead environment instructor. Our Captain and Dive Master were the grandsons of Kimiuo, the gentleman who discovered many of the wrecks, and these two young men had spent their lives diving on and leading other divers to these sites. On a few occasions we went to wrecks that were below recreational training limits, hence the second reason for further diving education. To simply hover 40 feet above the San Francisco Maru because it was out of range just wasn't an option. I HAD to see that wreck first hand, up close and personally -- an experience that will stay with me forever.

Most divers start out exploring wrecks on the outside only, while some venture into prepared areas, such as the wheel house, without ever losing site of daylight and the way out. Anyone who ventures deep inside any shipwreck without proper equipment and training is dancing with catastrophe and too often, death.

Shipwrecks have intrigued divers for decades, with many wrecks making it onto lots of 'bucket lists'. The Andrea Dorea is one of them. I, myself, have only had a mild fascination with that wreck as it's very expensive to get there, the conditions are often treacherous and many divers have lost their lives there.

I've enjoyed wreck diving off the coast of North Carolina -- the German Submarine U-352, the Papoose, the Proteus, and the Spar. Florida wreck dives include the 452 foot long Empire Mica, the Chippewa, the Grey Ghost, and the SS Tarpon. I have even made a dive or two on a schooner in the cold waters of Lake Huron, plus numerous dives on shipwrecks in the Caribbean over the years.

In August 1998 I journeyed to Vancouver Island to dive the Saskatchewan, the Chaudiere at Porpoise Bay, and a couple more wrecks, along with kelp dives. The Chaudiere is a beautiful dive in an out-of-the-way location. The Saskatchewan was sunk a year prior to my trip and my dive buddy had been there to watch the ship disappear from the horizon. He was on a live aboard and they were among the first to dive the wreck. He had since made numerous dives on that wreck, so he would be my guide. We made several dives there, despite the surface conditions and the cold water. Here's another secret: Along with getting properly trained to dive in overhead and deep environments, a drysuit certification comes in handy in these conditions, too! I was MORE than happy to don my White's neoprene drysuit! Marc and I were wearing double tanks, had powerful lights, had adequate decompression gas, and were ready to spend ample time exploring the wreck!

In December, 1999 I made it back to the cold waters of the Pacific, this time to dive the great kelp forests and sites around the Channel Islands. The color, temperature, huge starfish, harbor seals, and surroundings were constant reminders of my adventures off the coast of Vancouver Island, but without the wrecks, the wolf eels, and the giant snow-white anemones.

The following summer would bring the sinking of the Saskatchewan's sister ship, the Yukon. This ship would also be in the Pacific Ocean, but this time the sinking would be off the coast of San Diego, California. On July 14, 2000, the Yukon went to her final resting place, but it wasn't until last week that I finally made it over there to dive! This time Conrad would be my dive buddy. And since he's not drysuit certified ... yet ... I decided to dive in my trusty 7mm Scubapro Form wetsuit, hood, and gloves. Probably not my smartest move ever, but I just couldn't let him suffer the 50 degree water alone!

It's always amazing to see what happens to shipwrecks once they've been underwater for a while. Fish find new homes, corals, sponges, and anemones take root, divers come and go, conditions change, and decay happens. The one thing that a diver must remember is that a shipwreck is a man-made object of steel and iron. These materials rust, weaken, and eventually disintegrate. Edges can be rough or even jagged, so care must be taken when entering and exiting a wreck. Ships almost never land on the bottom the way the coordinators plan, and all too many were never intended to be on the bottom. Ships tear apart, they shift, they slide down sandy slopes, or hurricanes move them around. Wreck diving can be disorienting, too. It's often hard to distinguish one room from the next inside a ship. They can also be disorienting by their positioning on the ocean floor. The Chaudiere is just a few degrees off from being perfectly upright. It's certainly disorienting to be swimming along at what looks like upright then see your bubbles going up at an angle. Could that be? Nope! You're swimming at a slight angle to align with the walls and passageways while your exhaled bubbles are going straight up!

Conrad and I did not penetrate the Yukon on these dives. With so much going on, with trying to get used to the cold water and the limited visibility, and with testing a new video mask and a new camera, we decided to save going inside for another trip. Besides, at 70 - 90+ feet deep, bottom time is limited, and we felt like we should learn the outside of the wreck before we ventured inside. Our group made six dives over three days time. We went to the Yukon and the Ruby E the first day, the Ruby E and a kelp forest the second day, and the Yukon and a kelp forest the third day. It was great fun. A great mix of dive locations. We both left wanting more.

Posted by Carol at March 26, 2009 09:24 PM