By Steve Lewis
Wreck diving is, for some of us, the single most fascinating aspect of diving itself. Many of the divers who we look up to and hold as role models admit that the history, mystery and allure of diving shipwrecks is what initially motivated them to take up diving. Wreck diving is why we dive and really is at the very core of what makes divers tick.
I believe that if you were to tell someone that you are going “wreck diving” next weekend, she would immediately think ‘shipwreck,’ and even as divers we tend to use the phrases wreck diving and shipwreck diving interchangeably. However, to be perfectly correct, wrecks include just about anything that used to be on the surface, but which now sits on the bottom, from an old steam train or school bus, to a helicopter! But all that aside, I’d like to concentrate on wrecks that started life floating on the surface of the ocean (or river or lake) rather than sitting quietly on the bottom.
When purists talk about shipwrecks, they divide them into three main categories: artificial reefs (sometimes called intentional wrecks), accidental wrecks, and casualties of war or conflict. All three have their unique appeal and all three require a slightly different approach to be enjoyed to the fullest.
Within each of these categories are sub-categories such as wooden wrecks, steel wrecks, sailing ships, freighters, and navy vessels, with further refinements like schooners, liberty ships, hogbacks, brigs, U-boats, and so on. And the real aficionados even define wrecks by the type of engine that once powered the vessels! Needless to say, there are wrecks for all tastes.
Of particular interest to those divers who are lucky enough to live close to charter operations on either side of the Atlantic — but also in various other “hot-spots” around the globe — are WWI and WWII casualties. These include all shapes and sizes of freighters, ore-carriers, oil tankers and the various escort vessels that accompanied them during the years that raw materials, gasoline, food, and other wartime supplies were being shipping between North America and Europe in order to keep the allied war-effort on track. As well, the list of sinking’s includes a great number of Nazi U-Boats that preyed on those convoys.
The wrecks of Truk Lagoon in the Pacific nation of Micronesia, are famous as perhaps the pinnacle of war casualty shipwrecks. A great part of their appeal is that many still have in their holds and on their decks an assortment of the materials they carried including aircraft, tanks, trucks, and of course, bombs, torpedoes, guns and ammunition. What makes them especially attractive visually is the marine life, both invertebrate and vertebrate, that has colonized them, and it is not unusual to see more than a hundred different species of fish, coral and sponges on one dive.
Another destination for those who appreciate this type of historic wreck is Scapa Flow off the coast of Scotland. It is home to the scuttled WWI fleet of the German Imperial Navy and it’s a must see for those who appreciate diving on full-sized fully-armed warships.
Those divers fortunate enough to live within striking distance of North America’s Great Lakes have the largest collection of accidental wrecks to visit. These range from the remains of old barges and working boats sunk in a few metres/feet of fresh water, to gloriously intact schooners and steam yachts well below the thermocline at depths that can only be explored by technical divers. The scope is vast and as Cris Khol — a well-known author of diving books once commented — the history of the brave souls who built Canada and the United States is written large on the bottom of the Great Lakes.
I like diving all wrecks, but a special favorite of mine is artificial reefs, or intentional wrecks. These are often working boats and sometimes decommissioned fighting ships that have been cleaned and made ready for sinking as playgrounds for divers to visit and wildlife to use as a habitat. The West Coast of Canada and the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of Florida are home to some especially neat wrecks of this type and each year, more are being added to the inventory, thanks to various organizations that do the massive amounts of leg-work needed to get the permission to put a huge “diver attraction” on the ocean floor.
What appeals to me is that these wrecks are made much safer for divers to explore. Wires, bulkheads and other potential entanglements have been removed, along with contaminants such as bunker oil. However, much of their original equipment has been left intact, making them safer to dive than the average war casualty, but nevertheless interesting to explore.
One of the best treats I can imagine for a new diver is to discover just how much there is to learn about making wreck diving fun. If you’re new to diving — or even if you have a bunch of logged dives under your belt, but have not discovered the pleasure of wreck diving — sign-up for an SDI Wreck Specialty Course and a whole new and exciting world of opportunity opens up!