The first loves are never forgotten
It is said that one never forgets his first love. Underwater, as in life, this appears to be true. Shipwrecks were my first love and I have not forgotten them. As soon as I laid eyes on a shipwreck I was fascinated. My first wreck dive was the J4 submarine sunk, located in Victorian waters. The experience left me effusive.
‘This was the absolute best! I really want to do more wrecks. We penetrated the wreck and made our way through about half of it. It was so peaceful in there, light coming in through the cracks and holes. The submarine was amazing with lots of fish swimming around it, especially around the conning tower. Everything is covered in beautiful growths, corals and whips, so colourful. The wreck is almost all together, except for a little that has come loose. It’s long, tall and unbelievably beautiful sitting there in the deep. It was very, very cool. I really can’t say enough about it.
So what is it about these abandoned pieces of metal and wood that cause pain and signify love at first sight? Why dive wrecks?
Clearly my favorite part of the experience was penetrating the wreck, I guess I was a budding cave diver…but my fascination didn’t end there. I was impressed by the size of the submarine, the colors, the marine life and the history of the site. Wreck diving has a lot to offer and there seems to be something for everyone.
J Class submarines are among more than 45 vessels that were deliberately scuttled off the Victorian coast between 1910 and 1971. Dumping obsolete vessels into the sea was a common practice and widely recognized as a legitimate way to dispose of worthless vessels. The Government established a designated sinking area for the wreck in order to contain the practice and this area is now known as the Victoria Ship Graveyard. The Ship Graveyard is the resting place for ships of all shapes and sizes, from dredgers to tugboats, steamboats to steamboats. Today, this area is a magnet for divers who want to sink their teeth into some rust and enjoy some great wreck diving.
Sunken shipwrecks often form an artificial reef that creates a habitat for countless marine species. The sponges, hydroids and zoanthids that cover many of the wrecks, together with a large number of animals on site, make for an impressive dive. So even if the wreck itself isn’t an appealing proposition, the creatures that call it home will keep you coming back.
Having said that, I think shipwrecks themselves excite most of us. There are interesting bits of the ship’s structure and machinery to examine, not to mention the occasional artifact. Although I must admit that water is responsible for a fun and quite curious phenomenon. An onshore caldera is just a caldera, but an underwater caldera becomes terrifyingly interesting and deserves closer examination by anyone with a scuba tank. Still, for those who know what they’re looking at and enjoy the wreckage, machinery, and artifacts that can be found on shipwrecks, inspecting them up close can be an exciting experience.
Not all the ships that lay at the bottom of the ocean were sunk; most of the ships were lost in catastrophic circumstances. Over 800 ships are known to have been founded in Victorian waters since 1835 and most of these met sudden and violent ends and have never been relocated. Australia is an island and as such has a rich maritime history; most of the transportation of goods and people for more than one hundred and fifty years was done by ship. As a result, all manner of vessels can be found in Australian waters, from wooden sailing ships to iron and steel steamers. It is the history associated with these ships and the stories of the people who traveled on them that is most fascinating. These stories are often filled with tragedy, suffering, loss of life and all possessions and, for a lucky few, survival against all odds. Knowing the stories brings us closer to the people and the event and this adds another dimension to diving.
It wasn’t long before he started diving into something that vaguely resembled a wreck. It is rare to see a fully intact royal shipwreck underwater, at least in Victoria. Disintegration is a rapid process and the remains of wrecks are mercilessly battered by waves and the elements, especially if they are close to shore. Sometimes little more than scattered and partially buried pieces of wreckage remain that are covered in seaweed. However, I love diving even these wrecks as it is an opportunity to get closer to history and see the remains of what were once beautiful and imposing ships.
Take the Empress of the Sea for example, it was a magnificent wooden clipper, a 2,200-ton ship that sailed the seas around the world. The ship caught fire, in what was believed to be a deliberate act of arson and eventually sank near Point Nepean. Why would someone set a ship on fire on purpose? Well, in 1861 the gold rush was in full swing and the ship was returning to Britain with a valuable cargo including £80,000 worth of gold. While there was insufficient evidence for a conviction, the quartermaster was the prime suspect and there are reports of the lifeboat with crew and gold on board attempting to row off into the sunset and escape with the loot. This did not happen, and luckily no one was hurt during the entire debacle.
I still remember the feeling of excitement when I first dove into the Empress of the Sea, even though there is very little left. Well, for a ship that was devastated by fire before it sank, I suppose there’s quite a bit left. There is clear evidence of the fire and you can see that some of the wood is discolored and looks like charcoal. There are large beams, chains and anchors and large iron tanks on the site, as well as a bluestone ballast mound. It is true that much of it is difficult to interpret and differentiate from the surrounding reef. However, the straight edges and right angles give it away, even though the whole area is quite covered in kelp. Still, I was right there, in the same place where she sank. I was able to see the wreckage with my own eyes… and imagine what the ship would have looked like as she sailed the high seas and eventually sank beneath the waves at this very spot.