Diver floating over shipwreck

Wrecks’ Curse – The World of Wreck Diving

By Pablo Mir

We all enjoy those unexpected encounters that come with wreck diving, no matter how small, during our open water scuba dives. Exploring those nearly vanished remains of a ship scattered across the ocean floor is frequently the climax of the otherwise regular dive.

What is Wreck Diving?

Wreck diving involves exploring underwater shipwrecks while scuba diving. Sometimes, the wreck we encounter is more than just the remnants of a small and forgotten old vessel. Or perhaps we didn’t deliberately choose it, but the charter we boarded had that destination planned that day. The Benwood, less than 14 meters or 45 feet deep, in the clear waters of the National Marine Sanctuary in Key Largo, Florida, or the Copenhagen of Fort Lauderdale, also Florida, are good examples. Divers, many beginners who haven’t even devoted half a second to thinking about wreck diving, enjoy exploring their remains and the fauna that inhabit them. In some way, and at different levels, we all seem to potentially be wreck divers, even without a higher and explicit intention.

First Encounters: The Unplanned Dive into Wreck Exploration

But the trek is long and has many branches. Wrecks present themselves in vast possibilities, from shallow and clear waters to deep and dark ones. The Ancient Mariner, Captain Dan, U352, Great Isaac, Grecian, Lady Luck, Hyde, Aeolus, Hydro Atlantic, RBJ & CC, Algol, U869, and the Andrea Doria -the Grand Dame of the Sea- are some of the names that resonate among thousands in the minds of many wreck divers on the East Coast of the USA. For many of us, getting ready to traverse that path of increasing challenges, increasingly demanding environments, and more astonishing, transcendent dives is a life goal in terms of recreation.

A Diverse World: The Spectrum of Wreck Diving Experiences

Now, it is well known that the label of wreck diving is not only applied to shipwrecks. It is common to extend it to any artificial structure or piece of it that can be explored during our dives. For example, Texas Tower #4, an Air Force radar station off the coast of New Jersey, toppled in 1961 by a storm, is frequently visited by numerous local technical divers and visitors who want to test their skills in those demanding waters. Similar structures of different natures and purposes exist in many other places, with the most different levels of certification and experience requirements we can imagine.

Is Wreck Diving Dangerous?

Wreck diving is not inherently dangerous, but proper training is required. Describing with words the feeling of wonder and the adventure involved in wreck diving is not easy. In the same way that regular open water diving is the entry point to another world, a unique, fascinating world, wreck diving is also an entry point to one of the additional levels of enjoyment and fascination the world of recreational diving poses. Wreck diving, we live the adventures others just dream or fear. We are there, explorers of a distant land. Often, we witness the remains of real human tragedies; other times, we are visitors to the most wonderful amusement park we can imagine.

Learning Curve: The Path from Novice to Experienced Wreck Diver

Sometimes, watching groups of recreational divers exploring a wreck might seem like witnessing a scene from a pirate movie. Two or three divers here, two or three more there, ascending and descending along its sides, from bow to stern, sticking their heads in to look inside compartments and passages. In some cases, entering and exiting the bridge or any space allows penetration in areas with abundant natural light and generous access points. Their expressions and body language make it easy to notice that they are having a great time. There is no doubt they are enjoying it, and it will be an experience they will vividly remember.

If they are a group traveling together, an instructor or divemaster may be there to ensure everything goes well. The passion for exploration, for discovery, and that thirst for adventures we all have within us can sometimes hinder us in making our best decisions. Therefore, to become actual wreck divers, we must not only desire to do so but also have the will to learn and gain experience, slowly and safely, in everything this specialty implies. While it is true that exploring the exterior of a wreck may seem like something that doesn’t require specific training, the reality is that it does. Fishing lines, sharp surfaces, parts that can easily come off, suddenly disappearing visibility, disorientation, etc., are dangers we must have learned about, developed strategies to avoid, and implemented procedures to solve with the proper tools.

And so it will be; many will traverse the paths of wreck diving by starting with proper training. Sometimes, the first step is part of the regular advanced diver certification many divers take; other times, it is going straight for a wreck diving specialty. They will learn and start practicing, gaining experience and ease in their procedures. They will fall more and more in love with those twisted iron environments and proudly display the rust stains on their diving suits as if they were scars from a well-fought battle.

Advanced divers above wreck

Photo By: Cezary Abramowski

Deepening the Dive: Advanced Wreck Exploration Techniques

But the journey continues. Sooner or later, some will want more than just hovering around the wrecks. Crossing well-lit passages with the exit in sight will no longer be enough for them. What they recently may have told themselves they wouldn’t do will begin to intrigue them, and they will want to continue training “just in case.” They will want to start moving away from those open corridors and see with their own eyes what lies beyond. They will no longer see wrecks as enemies to overwhelm in large groups but as a mystery to unravel slowly, passage by passage, room by room. They will split into small groups. They pursue a specific goal, have a specific plan, and seek to minimize unexpected situations, and this is more controllable and achievable when done by two or three rather than four or five.

They will keep learning, venture through narrow passages, dodge cables and pieces of metal hanging from what is now the ceiling, and proceed cautiously to avoid stirring up sediments. They will use different methods to establish positions at crossroads, place strobe lights, carry multiple penetration reels, and carry substantial knives, the kind they used to laugh at not long ago, thinking they were unnecessary exaggerations.

The Wreck Diver’s Journey: A Path of Endless Discovery

Over time, they will penetrate deeper and deeper into larger, darker, gloomier, more frightening wreck structures, simply because they can. They will descend to greater depths because that’s where they are in better condition and farther away from the boarding hordes.

They will transition from Air to Nitrox, later return to Air, and later delve into the world of Trimix. They will start planning and executing dives with decompression stops, as otherwise, their bottom times will be insufficient for their intentions. From one decompression gas cylinder, they will move to two, and in some cases, three or more. Those who can afford it will buy rebreathers; those who can’t will stick to open circuit, carrying multiple large cylinders.

The Eternal Call of the Deep

But genuine amazement will hit them hard on the day they, thinking carefully about all the steps they have taken and accounting for the time and effort dedicated, conclude without a shadow of a doubt that it was worth it. It will be too late for them; they will have fallen victim to this curse of shipwrecks that has trapped so many. There will be no escape for them; from now on, they will be wreck divers without cure or remedy. They will be condemned to spend the rest of their vacations and days off among twisted irons at the bottom of rivers, lakes, and oceans. Cheers buddies! And a warm welcome to all those newcomers to recreational diving who, unknowingly, may be destined to wander among old wood and rusted metal, seeking to put out that thirst for real-life adventures.

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