Flickr| Facebook|Twitter| Bookmarks

First loves are never forgotten

Written by Agnes Milowka   
Tuesday, 11 January 2011 00:00

wreck divingIt is said that you never forget your first love. Underwater, as in life this seems to ring true. Shipwrecks were my first love and I have not forgotten them. As soon as I laid my eyes on a shipwreck I was fascinated. My very first dive on a wreck was on the scuttled J4 submarine, located in Victorian waters. The experience left me gushing.

'This was absolutely the greatest! I so want to do more wrecks. We penetrated into the wreck and weaved out way through about half of it. It was so peaceful in there, the light beaming in through the cracks and the holes. The sub was awesome with lots of fish swimming around it, especially around the conning tower. The whole thing is covered in gorgeous growth and coral and whips, so colorful. The wreck is almost all together, except for a little bit that has broken off. It's long and tall and incredibly beautiful sitting there at depth. It was so very, very cool. I can't say enough about it really.'

So what is it about these derelict bits of metal and wood that gets the hurt pumping and means love at first sight? Why dive shipwrecks?

Clearly my favorite part of the experience was penetrating into the wreck itself, guess I was a cave diver in the making… but my fascination didn't end there. I was impressed with the sheer size of the sub, the colors, the marine life and the history of the site. Diving shipwrecks has a lot to offer and it seems like there is something for everybody.

The J Class Submarines are amongst over 45 vessels that were deliberately scuttled off the coast of Victoria between 1910 and 1971. Dumping obsolete vessels at sea was common practice and was widely recognized as a legitimate way to dispose of worthless ships. The Government set up a designated area for scuttling wrecks in order to contain the practice and this area is now known as Victoria's Ships Graveyard. The Ships Graveyard is the resting place for ships of all shapes and sizes, from dredges to tugboats, from steamships to paddle steamers. Today this area is a magnet for divers who are keen to sink their teeth into a bit of rust and enjoy some superb wreck diving.

The scuttled wrecks often form an artificial reef that creates a habitat for countless marine life. The sponges, hydroids and zoanthids that cover many of the wrecks, coupled with large amounts of animals on site make for a breathtaking dive. Thus even if the wrecks themselves aren't an attractive proposition, the creatures that call them home will keep you coming back.

Having said that, I think the wrecks themselves excite most of us. There are interesting bits of ship structure and machinery to examine, not to mention the occasional artifact. Although I must admit that water is responsible for a funny and rather curious phenomenon. A boiler on land in just a boiler, yet a boiler underwater becomes terribly interesting and warrants closer examination by anyone with a scuba tank. Still, for those that know what they are looking at and enjoy the remains, the machinery and the artifacts that can be found on wrecks, getting to inspect these up close can be a thrilling experience.

Not all ships lying on the bottom of the ocean were scuttled; most vessels were lost in catastrophic circumstances. Over 800 ships are known to have foundered in Victorian waters since 1835 and most of these met a sudden and violent end and have never been relocated. Australia is an island and as such it has a rich maritime history; most of the transportation of goods and persons for over a hundred and fifty years was done by boat. All kinds of vessels can be found in Australian waters as a result, from wooden sailing ships to iron and steel steamers. It is the history associated with these vessels and the stories of the people that traveled on them that is the most enthralling. These stories are often filled with tragedy, suffering, loss of life and all possessions and for the lucky few, survival against all odds. Knowing the stories brings us closer to the people and the event and this adds another dimension to the diving.

It wasn't long before I started diving on anything that vaguely resembled a shipwreck. It is rare to see a real shipwreck totally intact underwater, at least in Victoria. Disintegration is a fast process and the remains of the wrecks are mercilessly pounded by waves and the elements, especially if they are close to shore. Sometimes little more remains than partially buried, scattered pieces of wreckage that are overgrown by kelp. Yet I love diving even these wrecks, as it is a chance to get close to history and see the remnants of what were once beautiful and imposing ships.

Take Empress of the Sea as an example, it was a magnificent wooden clipper, a ship of 2200 tons that plied the seas all over the world. The ship caught on fire, in what was believed to be a deliberate act of arson and eventually sank just off Point Nepean. Why would anyone purposely light a ship on fire? Well, in 1861 gold rush fever was in full swing and the ship was on its way back to Britain carrying valuable cargo including £80,000 of gold. While there was insufficient evidence for a conviction the quartermaster was the chief suspect and there are reports of the lifeboat with crew and gold on board trying to row off into the sunset and escape with the loot! This didn't happen and luckily no one was hurt during the whole debacle.

I still remember the sense of excitement whilst first diving on Empress of the Sea, despite the fact that so little of it remains. Well, for a ship that was ravaged by fire before it sunk quite a lot of it remains I suppose. There is clear evidence of the fire and you can see some of the wood is discolored and charcoal like. There are large timbers, chains and anchors and large iron tanks on site, as well as a mound of bluestone ballast. Admittedly, much of it is difficult to interpret and tell apart from the surrounding reef. The straight edges and right angles give it away though, despite the whole area being rather overgrown with kelp. Still, I was right there, at the very place it sunk. I got to see the remains with my own eyes… and imagine what the ship would have looked like as it sailed the high seas and eventually sunk beneath the waves at this very spot.