Probably the first motivation for people to attempt diving was the pursuit of shipwrecks, either for commercial salvage purposes or to recover sunken cargoes that included classic treasure riches. And while there are countless interesting subjects to keep us enthralled underwater, the chance to explore a shipwreck, no matter how small or deteriorated, holds a special spot in the hearts of all divers.
So before jumping into the water to explore that wreck you’ve been dying to see, make sure you have your gear in check. Most all gear for wreck diving can be divided into two categories; i.e., equipment to help you locate a wreck and personal equipment to help increase your safety and enjoyment while wreck diving. The equipment that will help you locate a wreck is not essential unless you are diving from a small boat and attempting to locate a wreck on your own. The personal equipment for wreck diving includes items that will be useful to every diver who explores shipwrecks.
Gear for Locating Shipwrecks
While locating a previously unexplored shipwreck is never easy, modern electronic navigation equipment and surveying devices have made this task much simpler. There are many tools that can help you including charts (paper or electronic), magnetometers, side-scan sonars, fathometers, and metal detectors.
These electronics have dropped enough in price that many of them are within reach of the serious wreck diver. Charter vessels that cater to serious wreck divers may be equipped with some or all of these aids to navigation as well.
Personal Equipment for Wreck Diving
Personal equipment for wreck diving includes items such as high-performance regulators, bail-out systems, dive lights, knives, and other accessories. Although these items are not essential for sport wreck diving, they are highly recommended.
Since many wrecks are in deep water, some divers consider a high-performance regulator to be essential for wreck diving. The regulator should have a low work of breathing, meaning that it should not take much effort to either inhale or exhale through the regulator. It should also have a rugged, reliable design.
In addition, be sure to select a regulator that can accommodate a sufficient number of low-pressure accessories including, at a minimum, a BC inflator, dry suit, and additional second stage. Additional low pressure ports will allow you to route your hoses wherever the least amount of strain on the hoses will occur.
A bail-out system is a completely separate and independent breathing system to provide you with emergency air in the event that you run out of air for any reason. The typical bail-out system for sport diving includes a small scuba cylinder (usually 13 cubic feet/2 litres), a regulator, a submersible pressure gauge, and some type of mounting system to attach the cylinder to your primary air supply.
The use of a bail-out bottle (sometimes referred to as a “pony bottle”) and regulator is much preferred to the use of an octopus rig. This allows you to be completely independent of the need to share air with your dive partner in an emergency.
A dive light is a recommended accessory for wreck diving, even during daytime dives. A light will allow you to look back inside “pockets” under the wreck and will reveal the true colors of the marine life on deeper wrecks.
Dive lights need not to be big to be efficient. There are many excellent smaller lights on the market that are more than adequate for recreational wreck diving.
In selecting a light, look for the following features:
- Sinking light – to prevent the light from floating away if you need to set it down.
- Locking switch – to prevent the light from accidentally turning on while it’s in your dive bag.
- Long burn time with maximum candlepower.
- Rubber shroud – protects front of light from damage.
- Lanyard – attaches to your wrist but easily removed in the event of entanglement.
Between dives, be sure to avoid leaving your dive light in the sun, especially if the weather is hot. The temperature inside the sealed case can get extremely warm and cause the o-ring seal to fail, or your batteries to leak, ruining the light.
Be sure to rinse your dive light with fresh water after each diving day and loosen the battery compartment “door” if you won’t be using the light again for awhile. On most lights, the batteries are installed by unscrewing the lens, which also holds the bulb. If you allow the light to sit with the lens screwed down tight, the o-ring may be permanently compressed which could cause your light to leak. When you loosen the lens, if the light is still wet, be sure to set it down so that any water will not run inside the light.
Before you go diving again, remove the lens completely and clean and lubricate the o-ring. Wipe the o-ring with a clean paper towel and clean out the groove where the o-ring sits in the light. Lightly coat the o-ring with a thin film of silicone grease and screw the lens back down until it is snug. The o-ring must be properly installed, or the light will flood.
Any dive knife used for wreck diving must have a sharp blade to enable you to cut through fishing line, rope, or netting easily. You should have at least one knife and preferably two, especially for diving wrecks that are known to be frequented by fishermen.
Your primary knife should have a large blade that has both a straight blade and a serrated edge. You can mount this knife on the inside of your calf or on your weight belt.
Your back-up knife can be smaller, but it should still have a sharp blade. Many manufacturers make small knives that can easily attach to your buoyancy compensator or a low pressure hose using a special sheath.
One of the trade-offs in selecting a knife is finding a knife that will maintain a sharp edge and that will not rust. Although all dive knives are made of “stainless steel,” there are different types of stainless material and almost all will rust. You can help prolong the life of your blade by taking the time to rinse it with fresh water after each diving day, drying it, ensuring that the sheath is dry, and spraying the blade with a light coat of WD-40® or other anti-corrosion agent. Wipe the blade dry of any excess corrosion inhibitor with a clean cloth or paper towel.
Sidecutters, linemen’s pliers, or boater’s scissors are tools designed to cut wire. For a wreck diver, a pair of sidecutters can be an important tool, since many wrecks are strewn with wires and cables. Some fishing nets are also easier to cut with a pair of sidecutters than with a knife.
To prepare your sidecutters for diving, you’ll need to attach a line to them so that you won’t lose them. A three foot length of braided nylon line works well for this purpose. Tie a knot around one of the grips on the sidecutters and wrap the knot generously, and tightly, with waterproof electrical tape. Stretch the tape as you wrap it around the grip and it will adhere better.
Tie a loop in the other end of the nylon line, or connect the line to a brass snap hook that can be connected to a “D” ring on your BC. Some BCs will have rings fastened inside their pockets that can also be used for this purpose. Place the sidecutters in your BC pocket where they will be out of the way until you need them.
Since most sidecutters are made of ordinary steel, they will rust when removed from the water. For this reason, it’s important to remember to remove them promptly from your BC pocket, rinse them well with fresh water, dry them, and spray them with a corrosion inhibitor.
A plastic slate can be extremely useful during any dive, but are particularly useful for wreck diving. You can write on the slate with an ordinary lead pencil. There are also plastic pencils (non-mechanical) that have replaceable lead that work quite well underwater.
The slate can help you to communicate with your dive partner, but for wreck exploration, its main function is to help you map the wreck so that you better understand how the site is laid out on the bottom. You can use either a wrist slate or a flat slate, although a flat slate tends to work better for drawing the features of a large or widely scattered wreck.
The more detailed your notes, the easier it will be to map out the wreck so that you know where the artifacts are located and how the wreck is situated. The larger the wreck and the deeper the water, the more time it will take you to see the entire wreck and complete your sketch.
To clean your slate, use a plastic scouring pad with an abrasive cleaner. You can also use an ordinary eraser, but a scouring pad and cleaner are much more effective.
Although reels are used primarily for penetration dives inside wrecks or caves, they can also be useful for exploring the exposed portions of a wreck, particularly on a site where the visibility is poor and the wreck is broken up. Learning how to use a reel effectively is not difficult, but it does take a little practice.
Most underwater reels are made of stainless steel, brass, or plastic parts. They are designed to be hand-held, but can be clipped to your BC when not in use. The crank should be large and easily gripped with gloves. The reel must also have a lock to prevent line from feeding out when the reel is not in use.
Most reels are rigged with several hundred feet (60-90 metres) of braided nylon line. You can attach a brass snap hook or other similar type of fastener to the free end of the line so that it is simple to attach the line to the wreck.
Reels should be rinsed with fresh water at the end of each diving day, and any metal parts should be sprayed with a light coating of corrosion inhibiting spray to keep the reel turning smoothly. The line must be replaced whenever it shows signs of wear. If the line breaks while you are underwater, you could find it difficult or impossible to return to your starting point on the bottom.
If you are diving a new wreck, and you have just located it for the first time, you may want to use a marker buoy to identify the central portion of the wreck, or other key points, to which you want to return. The buoy can be used to take surface fixes, too, by using either visual line-ups (triangulation) or using electronic navigation instruments, such as GPS.
Buoys for use underwater usually consist of some type of small float, 100 feet (30 metres) or more of braided white nylon line or polypropylene, and a small weight to compensate for the buoyancy of the float. Since polypropylene floats, it tends to work better underwater and the line has less of a tendency to end up in a knotted mass. A brass snap hook may be used to attach the marker buoy to your buoyancy compensator, or depending on the size of the marker, it may fit in your BC pocket.
When you’re finished using the buoy, tightly wind the line back onto it, and rinse it with fresh water. Store the buoy out of the sun to help avoid deterioration.
Up-Line Reel and Float
If you regularly dive wrecks in deep water, far from shore, you may sometimes find yourself in a situation where the boat either drags its anchor off the wreck or the anchor breaks free. In either case, these situations usually arise due to sudden changes in weather.
In a situation where you return to the spot where the anchor was fixed, only to find it gone, there is no substitute for an “up-line reel” and/or a float (buoy). This allows you to make a safety stop without the need to hover in mid-water.
Divers may use a variety of reels underwater to assist them in making safety stops when the boat has pulled off site or if they were unable to return to the anchor underwater, if the boat has dragged anchor or the anchor line has been severed. In situations where there is no strong current, you fasten your line to the wreck and unreel it as you make your ascent to your safety stop. When you are at the appropriate depth for your stop, you inflate the lift bag to mark your position. Once you have completed your stop, you release the line from the wreck, surface, deflate the bag, and signal the boat to pick you up.
The preferred type of line to be used on a reel for this application is manila, which is a natural fiber line that will eventually disintegrate underwater, leaving no trace of its existence. This is preferred over nylon lines, which will last for many years.
If manila is chosen, it must be wetted down and stretched before it is used on a reel. If it is not, there is a good chance it will constrict and knot itself into a ball, making it very difficult to handle.
Whether you’re gearing up to explore a new wreck or to revisit that mysterious ship in the Caribbean, you always want to make sure your dive equipment is in check. Take that extra time to ensure all your gear is rinsed thoroughly, dried and stowed away in a safe environment so that it can be re-used on your next diving adventure. Happy and Safe Diving!