When scuba divers reveal what they consider dream dives, many would say discovering a previously unknown wreck where they find an ancient Greek coin, a bar of Spanish silver or gold, an Etruscan jar, a Columbian emerald destined for royalty before a hurricane sank the ship, or a rare cannon once used by pirates after they appropriated it from the Royal Navy. Only a very lucky few ever experience such dives due to the years required for researching ships’ records, obtaining permits, and funding often fruitless searches not to mention the secrecy required in those endeavors. There are, however, multitudes of other wrecks throughout the world that bear their own wondrous treasures along with some danger. The target of a wreck dive can be watercraft, aircraft, military equipment, and in the case of man-made bodies of fresh water, even the remains of churches, silos, barns, and homes.
There are two types of wreck diving. The first is open water surveying of the exterior of wrecks which we address herein. With a watchful dive master or instructor, even the most novice divers can participate in these dives. The second type of wreck dive is known as penetration diving wherein divers enter the wrecks eliminating not only ambient light but also direct access to the surface. This type of wreck dive should unconditionally be considered technical diving and should never be attempted by divers who are not trained and certified for penetration diving by experts in the field.
Wrecks in place for several years are fantastic locations for finding marine life much like healthy reefs. In fact, as more understanding is gained as to the critical importance of reefs in the survival of all marine life, the sinking of unwanted vessels to create artificial reefs has become an industry unto its own. Sunken wrecks serve as nurseries for young animals as well as foundations for corals, sponges, and other incredibly interesting forms of marine life, often providing homes for creatures rarely seen otherwise. On well-established wrecks, if one takes the time to truly observe, a microcosm of life in our oceans displays itself. Prey and predator, from the smallest of juveniles to the top predators, inhabit these wrecks.
Not counting the pickup truck and the ski boat sunk in the quarry where this writer learned to dive; my first wreck dive took place off the island of Roatan on the wreck of the Prince Albert. This was only my second dive in salt water. Sunk in the mid-80s, after making a run from Nicaragua carrying passengers escaping the war there, the Prince Albert made my heart race with excitement on first sight. We followed the anchor chain path from shore when suddenly a large, hulking dark shape appeared in the distance. As we swam closer the Prince Albert began to reveal its many treasures in the form of soft and hard corals, sea fans, angel fish, thousands of silver sides, eagle rays, stingrays, and barracuda. It seemed as though almost every inch of the ship was covered in some form of marine life. Everywhere I looked there was something else to marvel over. There were Tunicates (sea squirts) galore that mesmerized my dive buddy and I as we watched them siphon water for food and ‘squirt’ out the filtered water.
As stated earlier, there is some danger in open water wreck diving with much more danger inherent in penetration wreck diving. Due to their nature and the abundance of marine life, especially on established wrecks, fishing over and around wrecks is quite common unless the wreck is located in a protected marine sanctuary and even then, it should be remembered that poachers do not necessarily give attention to sanctuary boundaries. Fishing line and other fishing gear is easily snagged and lost on wrecks. Line is often difficult to see and many a diver has been entangled, so the ability to keep one’s head and not panic is a must when wreck diving.
Wreck Diving Tips and Tricks
Divers should always remember their basic instruction.
When entangled, do not twist and turn as doing so will cause the tangle to compound. A small dive knife and a pair of snips should be standard equipment when wreck diving since they are often necessary to cut away tangled line.
Another tool for wreck diving is a good dive light. Depending upon the wreck’s location, currents may cause the water around wrecks to be a bit murky, and depending upon the location of the sun, one side of the wreck may be in shadow. In order to see what grows on the wreck and to peer into dark crevices that generally provide shelter for small, delicate life, a dive light assists in revealing the tiny critters that would otherwise be overlooked.
When wreck diving be aware that there may be jagged metal, frayed cables, broken masts and antennae, nails and other hazards that can tear or puncture flesh as well as equipment, so stay focused and be safe.
Lastly, observe all that is present on a wreck but do not take any souvenirs other than photos. Whether a wreck is deliberately sunk or sank as a result of disaster, each one has its own story like the Prince Albert, who carried his passengers to safety before becoming home to hundreds of species of marine life. Leave the wrecks as they are for others to enjoy.
Becky Bauer is a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.