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The World’s Best Wreck Dive Is…

TDI asked 3 accomplished divers what they thought was the world’s best wreck dive, and here is what we they said.

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by John Chatterton
“I am incredibly fortunate to have had all the opportunities in diving that I have had. I have been to big steel wrecks like the Andrea Doria, the Lusitania, the Britannic, and yes, even the Titanic. I have dived and excavated wreck sites far more subdued, like the Spanish ship Concepcion, and the pirate wreck Golden Fleece. I have been part of finding and identifying more than a few wrecks, like the German submarine U-869.” Some of these wrecks have been very kind to me, while others have challenged me almost to the breaking point.
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by Steve Lewis
“Not trying to cop-out of making a definitive choice, but this is an impossible question to answer. Well, not impossible perhaps but whatever choice i make today, it would be changed by next month or at least the next time I get the chance to dive on a wreck that I’ve never seen before.And therein lies the appeal of wreck diving… it’s the NEXT wreck that has the potential to top your all-time, best in the world list.“
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by Mark Powell
“How do you choose the world’s best wreck dive? Well for me there are a number of criteria involved. I find that the more history that is involved with the wreck the more interesting it is. Equally, the better preserved, the more you can appreciate the layout of the wreck. While there are some very interesting smaller wrecks it is true that the bigger the better definitely applies to wrecks.“
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by John Chatterton:
“Some men will never make divers. Any man can go down, I believe, but not every man can dive and accomplish anything. “ Tom Eadie – 1929

Tom Eadie was one of the US Navy divers deeply involved in the rescue and salvage operations of the S Class submarine disasters of the 1920’s. His autobiography was simply titled, I Like Diving. In peacetime, he won the Navy Cross while diving the submarine S-51 in 1926, and the Congressional Medal of Honor for his dives on the US submarine S-4 in 1927. He is not just one of America’s heroes, but he is one of my heroes.

I have always wanted to be that guy, the guy to accomplish something underwater. This is especially true on shipwrecks. I love the idea of the big dive. Not every dive is a big dive, but I look at every dive as a training dive, to get ready for the big dive, even if I am not sure where or when the next big dive is.

I always want to have goals, address the challenges in making those goals a reality, and ultimately accomplish something. By its nature, wreck diving is complex and challenging. How complex and challenging we make it, is up to us. Every new shipwreck offers original and interesting ways for me to challenge myself intellectually, physically, and psychologically.

To dive any wreck that is important to me, I don’t just want to know about the wreck, I want to understand it. What is the history of the ship, and the circumstances of the sinking? What can I learn about the it’s design, and how it was constructed? How might the ship have aged, since landing on the seabed? If the location of the wreck is known, what can other divers who have been there tell me? If the location of the wreck is unknown, where have others looked for the wreck, and why have they been unsuccessful? Where can I look to know more, about what to expect on the bottom. How can I look at the wreck in ways that will take me to places no one else has been?

For any wreck dive, I will need the education, equipment, and experience to make the dive happen. This is even truer for the big dive. If I don’t know what I need to know to understand the dive and the hazards it presents, then where can I learn all that I need to know in order to plan the dive? Perhaps some of what I need to know, is not really about diving, but about things that may relate to my diving? Education often requires a broad base.

If am educated enough to plan the dive, then what equipment will it require? I have made dives on wrecks while freediving. I dive on Air, Nitrox, Trimix, Heliox, rebreathers, surface supplied hardhat, and even submersibles. If I know about a particular wreck, and I know enough to plan the dive, what equipment will best help me to get down there and accomplish what I need to accomplish. Often, there is not just one right answer, or one wrong answer to a problem, and this is usually true in diving. Good decisions can involve personal preference based on any number of things including experience, resources, or team capabilities. I need to fully understand where I am going, and how to get there, to accomplish something.

If I am not already experienced in making dives similar to the ones I am planning, then I need to obtain the experience to not just make the dive, but to dive with the kind of confidence that can allow me to accomplish my goals. On the big dive, the diving has to come naturally, if not comfortably, allowing me to focus on the tasks at hand. Even armed with the experience and equipment necessary, I believe it is always important to make tune-up dives, prior to the big dive, to get one’s mindset right.

Physically, it is obvious that I will need to have the appropriate level of fitness to execute any dive. However, I also need the resources to make everything happen, when it needs to happen. I will need to have the cash, the time, and the energy to invest in any diving agenda. If I do not possess all that I need, then I have to figure out a way to get what I need, or simply pass on the dives.

Finally, if I am going to accomplish something underwater; do I have the courage, the discipline, and determination to do just that? Often, accomplishments do not happen as easily as we expect. When things are easy, and go as planned, anyone can be successful. When times are trying, will I have the mindset to continue, or not? These are the kind of rare situations which allow us the opportunity to show who we are, and what we are really made of.

I am incredibly fortunate to have experienced all the opportunities in diving that I have. I have dived wrecks all around the world. I have been to big steel wrecks like the Andrea Doria, the Lusitania, the Britannic, and yes, even the Titanic. I have dived and excavated wreck sites far more subdued, like the Spanish ship Concepcion, and the pirate wreck Golden Fleece. I have been part of finding and identifying more than a few wrecks, like the German submarine U-869. Some of these wrecks have been very kind to me, while others have challenged me almost to the breaking point. Still, wreck diving has been very good to me.

What is the best wreck dive in the world? Every wreck is unique, and interesting, with its own particular challenges, but the answer to me is obvious. The best wreck dive in the world is always, and has always been…… the next one. It is what keeps me exploring, and working, and diving. It is also most likely the only answer Tom Eadie would have understood.


by Steve Lewis:
Not trying to cop-out of making a definitive choice, but this is an impossible question to answer. Well, not impossible perhaps but whatever choice I make today, it would change by next month or at least the next time I get the chance to dive on a wreck that I’ve never seen.

And therein lies the appeal of wreck diving… it’s the NEXT wreck that has the potential to top your all-time, best wreck in the world list.

The truth is, I regard myself as a cave diver: a cave diver who happens to live a considerable distance from divable caves but really close to some stellar wreck sites, but a cave diver nevertheless. However, that said, in the past 20-odd years, I’ve had the chance to see some incredible wrecks: some of them virgin sites that have been visited by fewer people than the moon: others, regular stops for sport divers from all sorts of backgrounds and with varied tastes.

So, let’s go back to the question. As stated, my list of potential candidates is long, and I am sure to forget a few but here are some that come to mind right now as I sit on a Delta flight taking me home from Florida’s cave country. To keep this simple — and within the space TDI has allotted each contributor — let’s restrict this list to cold-water sites.

Steam Yacht Gunilda. Around 80 metres deep (260 feet), in Lake Superior. Notable because of the level of preservation due to cold water.

Schooner Cornelia B. Windiate. Fifty seven metres deep (just shy of 200 feet), Lake Huron. Another site notable for the preservation of the wreck and the number of historical artifacts aboard, and the near freezing water temperature at depth.

Wooden freighter SS Florida, close by the Windiate and similar depth and water conditions. She was carrying general cargo when she sank in 1875 bound for Buffalo, New York, and diving her and exploring her interior is like taking a swim through a late 19th-century general store. Remarkable as well for the artifacts preserved in her engine room.

The Cedarville, which rests at sport-diving depths in the Straits of Mackinac. An advanced wreck-diver’s dream; on its starboard side with so much to see inside (including a massive triple-expansion steam engine) that even after several dives, most have only begun to get an idea of what secrets she holds.

The bow and stern sections (yep, two different sites miles apart) of the formally 184 metre long (600 foot), Daniel J. Morrell, in Lake Huron. This wreck is deep, historic, tragic and awe-inspiring. This enormous steel freighter broke in two and went down in 1966 with the loss of 28 of her 29 crew. This is a very sobering site to visit with excellent photo ops for cold-water enthusiasts.

Then we might consider the “Long Point” collection of wrecks in Lake Erie. Any one of these half-dozen or so wooden vessels could be serious contenders, but let’s settle for the St. James: another intact schooner.

Or if we head east into Lake Ontario, we have to include the Hamilton and Scourge, two War of 1812 American merchant vessels pressed into military service by the American Navy and sunk by a freak wind storm while at anchor just off Port Dalhousie, Ontario at the western end of the lake. To be fair, these small schooners can only be added to the list as an addendum since both are protected heritage sites, and the Canadian government refuses to grant permits to divers to document what remains. However, although prohibited, a handful of divers have visited the wrecks, especially as rebreather technology has rendered their depth (slightly less than 90 metres or 280 feet), within the experience of scores if not hundreds of Great Lakes wreck divers. Features include a carved figurehead on the Scourge, cannons, muskets, pumps, rigging and navigation lights.

The St. Lawrence River carries the outflow of all the Great Lakes as their contents spills east towards to Atlantic Ocean. There are several neat wrecks in the river but the most exciting for my money is the Empress of Ireland. Several hundred kilometres downstream of the great lakes, the Empress settled in about 40 metres (130 feet) of ice-cold water within sight of Sainte Luce sur Mer, Quebec. Nick named, Canada’s Titanic, the Royal Mail Ship Empress of Ireland was an ocean liner outbound from Quebec City heading for Liverpool, England. Following a collision with the Norwegian collier SS Storstad in the early hours of 29 May 1914, she sank in 14 minutes and of her 1,477 passengers and crew, 1,012 died… the majority passengers.

I guess if I had to choose one on this list and one only, it would have to be the Empress. Even after more than 100 years on the bottom, she remains alluringly intact. Protected now, but formally picked over by souvenir hunters, she still keeps many artifact inside her labyrinth of corridors, storage areas and cabins. Probably one of the toughest “shallow” dives in North America, visitors have to adapt to strong variable currents (the river here is tidal), challenging visibility, seriously bone-chilling water, and many, many places to get turned around and lost. The reward is to visit a truly remarkable historic site that is a pinnacle wreck dive, but that is within a short boat ride of comfortable hotels and fantastic little French restaurants!

Now, there’s a bunch of options listed above and all of them just in the Great Lakes Basin. Conspicuous by their absence are literally thousands of cold-water wrecks off North America’s east coast, from Newfoundland to Southern Florida. We have not touched European cold-water sites including the amazing wrecks found in the Baltic Sea.

And then of course, we could move to warmer water, such as Truk Lagoon for instance.

OK, so here it is. My final pick… I believe the best wreck in the world is one I have yet to dive. My guess is that it lies in deep water off the coast of Malta… Anyone up for a trip to Europe!?


by Mark Powell:
How do you choose the world’s best wreck dive? Well for me there are a number of criteria involved. I find that the more history involved with the wreck the more interesting it is. Equally, the better preserved, the more you can appreciate the layout of the wreck. While there are some very interesting smaller wrecks it is true that the bigger the better definitely applies to wrecks. The environment where the wreck is to be found is also important as good visibility makes it much more enjoyable to dive as you can see the size and scale of a wreck. Finally if the wreck has not been dived hundreds of times by other divers and there is an aspect of exploration and discovery then this adds to the experience.

When you put all of these criteria together there is one wreck that stands out for me. HMS Hermes. There are not many diveable aircraft carriers in the world so diving any aircraft carrier is a special experience but diving HMS Hermes, the first purpose built aircraft carrier, is unique from a historical point of view. There had previously been a number of merchant ships that had been converted for use as an aircraft carrier but HMS Hermes was the first to be commissioned specifically as an aircraft carrier. The Royal Navy, despite a very traditional approach in many areas, was at the leading edge by ordering the first purpose built aircraft carrier in July 1917. She was laid down in January 1918 and launched in September 1919 and so was too late to be of any use in the First World War. She was finally commissioned in July 1923 and so didn’t see active service until the Second World War where she was based for much of her time in Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka.

In March 1942 the Japanese Navy was ordered to carry out an aggressive raid on Sri Lanka and any British shipping in the area. Vice Admiral Nagumo, who was also responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbour, had a large fleet of aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers and destroyers. On 9th April the Japanese launched their attack with more than 80 Japanese Zero fighter bombers attacking HMS Hermes. Due to a lack of fighter cover Hermes had to defend herself but despite opening fire with every gun it was clear that she was almost helpless against such an onslaught. Numerous bombs struck the ship and she sunk in less than an hour with the loss of the Captain, 19 officers and 288 ratings on board.

Diving HMS Hermes is an unforgettable experience. She lies on her port side in 52m/170 feet. At the bow, the anchor chains as well as the anchor are clearly visible. The decking has come away from the bow and it’s possible to see right into the focsle of the ship. A row of toilets are clearly visible together with an intact lamp fitting in the ceiling. Beyond this it is possible to see down through several deck and light penetrating through the hull shows that there is a hole in the hull a couple of decks down. Looking in through these holes gives a clear indication of the layout of the forward part of the ship.

The flight control tower is lying on its side having collapsed down onto the sea bed. Unfortunately this has crushed some of the structure and the decks below but it is still very easy to make out the layout of this area of the ship.

Towards the stern of the wreck, where the flight deck should be exposed, the wreck has twisted and is almost completely inverted so it is difficult to see the layout of the flight deck. However, this does mean that the propellers are much easier to see. The starboard prop is standing clear and makes a very impressive sight. The portside prop is partly buried in the sand and is only partly visible.

Despite obvious damage and the collapse of the flight deck there are areas that are undamaged and look almost as they would have when the wreck sank. The control tower is almost intact showcasing gauges, complete with glass, are still present as well as a range of other fittings. Emergency lights are still in place with the light bulbs still preserved. Several of the guns stand proud of the hull with lockers full of ammunition next to them as if ready to be used in battle.

You cannot dive this wreck without thinking of the men who served, and in many cases died, on this wreck. The wreck serves as a museum to this unique piece of history as well as a monument to the men who perished on her. I hope that anyone who dives this wreck takes the opportunity to remember these men and treats the wreck with the respect it deserves.

The visibility in the area varies from good to fantastic; the worst it gets is 15m/45ft visibility but on some dives we could see the wreck from the surface. The wreck is also home to a large variety of marine life. Large tuna, grouper and jacks flock around the wreck as well as a huge number of other fish. Some of these are an impressive size with one grouper being considerably larger then me. Some of the tuna are also a very impressive sight. As well as the fish a huge variety of coral and other marine life means that there is significantly more life on this wreck than on the vast majority of reefs. Moray eels and even sea snakes also inhabit some of the more remote parts of the wreck.

Despite being an incredibly important historical wreck HMS Hermes has lain almost unknown until recently. This was because between 1983 and 2009 Sri Lanka was ravaged by a vicious civil war which had meant that the Hermes was inaccessible to divers due to the political situation. Since the end of the civil war it has finally come possible to dive her.

Despite the end of the civil war it was still a major effort to get to the wreck. Sri Lanka is a ten hour flight from the UK which is followed by a seven hour bus journey to get from the capital Colombo to Batticaloa which is the nearest town to the dive site. This all adds to the sense of uniqueness and adventure. Above the water Sri Lanka is an amazing country with a huge variety of history, culture, landscape and excitement. The setting adds to the historical interest and the state of the wreck to produce one of the best diving experiences in the world.

1 reply
  1. Simon pelletier
    Simon pelletier says:

    Way To go Mr Lewis, in fact it’s true that there’s a bunch of nice and memorable wreck to dive out there. BUT The Empress of Ireland is one of the best dive ever, ok I’m not immaterial here having more than 385 dives on it…hope to see you back on the Empress over the season to come.
    Best wishes to all

    Reply

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