There is something about a shipwreck that haunts the imagination. Maybe it’s the horrifying thought of a ship going down and the loss of life entailed – or maybe it’s the way once glorious vessels that sailed the oceans lie broken on the seafloor. Whatever the reason, they hold a magnetic appeal for adventurous divers and photographers.
Since the scuba diving industry was born, people have been fascinated by shipwrecks. Whether it was finding new wrecks, salvaging old ones or treasure hunting, many of the most important advances in scuba diving were motivated by wreck diving. Today, there is a wreck for every ability level. We pick some of the best to explore.
Mary Celestia, Bermuda
Divers are spoilt for choice in Bermuda as the island has more shipwrecks per square mile than anywhere else in the world. However, if you are limited for time, the Mary Celestia is a must.
The side paddlewheel steamer was used by the Confederate Army during the American Civil War as a blockade runner while smuggling guns, ammunition and supplies to the troops. She is believed to have made at least five successful trips to the south before she sank in 1864 while being piloted by local Bermudian John Virgin.
The ship hit headlines again in June 2011 when a group of international marine archeologists discovered five bottles of fine wine — 147 years after she first sunk. One of the bottles was uncorked in March last year but unfortunately was reported to taste primarily of seawater.
Mary Celestia lies in approximately 17 metres of water and as well as searching for old bottles of wine there is plenty to see with artifacts such as the boilers, anchor and part of the bow clearly visible.
San Francisco Maru — Chuuk
For those with tech training and experience, the San Francisco Maru beckons from 200 feet below. View the three Mitsubishi tanks on the deck at 160 feet. One sits atop another, a result of the shock this cargo vessel experienced when six 500-pound bombs ripped it open and sent it racing downward, smashing into the bottom. If time and gas allow, trucks in the forward hold at 170 feet also await discovery.
USAT Liberty, Bali, Indonesia
The Liberty sits on a black sand slope, almost parallel to the beach and is only 30 m offshore. She lies between 9 and 30 m of water and is totally encrusted in fabulously coloured anemones, gorgonians and corals. The wreck is 120 m long and is pretty broken up so you can’t enter it, but you can still see the guns, toilets, boilers, anchor chain and such like. There is some confusion as to the history of the Liberty. Many people refer it as the Liberty Glo, but this is a different ship which sank off the coast of Holland. The difficulties probably arise as the ship had several designations during her life. The US Navy Museums site, tells us that she was originally the USS Liberty (1918), then the SS Liberty and finally the USAT (United States Army Transport) Liberty. On 11 January 1942 she was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-166.
The USAT Liberty is located in Tulamben, a small village on the northeast coast of Bali.
U.S.N.S. General Hoyt S. Vandenberg
For advanced divers, the thrill of the 158m starts with a drop down one of the 11 elevator shafts, choosing any floor to enter. Those with less technical training can still freefall into the elevator and cargo shafts of this Air Force missile-tracking ship off the coast of Key West, Florida.
Downed in 2009, this artificial reef has been cleaned of hazards, and made safer with doors removed and blowtorch-added exit points. Unique to the ship are the 2m resident goliath grouper and the ship’s satellite dishes that divers pop out of following swims through the interior. Oh, and the vessel served as a set for the sci-fi flick Virus – hence the Russian lettering in the passageways.
Zenobia, Larnaca Bay – Cyprus
Only 10 minutes away from the amazing holiday resort, Larnaca lays the resting place of the 10,000 ton ferry known as Zenobia, which sunk on its maiden voyage in 1980. Carrying more than 120 vehicles as well as Lorries, this dive site is an incredible wreck dive for any experienced and qualified wreck diver. Lying at a depth of 39m / 128ft, there are numerous dives to explore. Starting at 16m / 52ft, this is a great dive for any beginner wreck diver, however if you are looking for a more complex and technical dive then there are many diving tours which take you down to explore the lower car decks. With a huge variety of marine life that has made this wreck there home, this wreck will leave you wanting more.
Hilma Hooker – Bonaire
An interesting wreck, with an even more exciting story. Situated near Kralendijk, this huge wreck is surrounded by sponges as well as large sea fans, this wreck has something to offer every diver. In 1984, customs officials discovered nearly 12 tons of marijuana on the Hilma Hooker. The captain and all of the crew were detained and the ship was moored at the docks. At the time, the Hilma Hooker was in a state of disrepair and the authorities feared that the ship would sink and therefore cause an issue with incoming and outbound ships. At this time, the divers of Bonaire petitioned for the Hilma Hooker to be sunk, creating a new dive site. The ship was then sunk between a two reef system, creating what is one of the best dive sites in the world.
B17 Bomber, Corsica
This wreck dive certainly stands out and provides divers with a totally unique experience. Resting 27 metres below the surface, the fascinating remains of a World War II B17 Bomber plane can be explored by advanced divers. The American aircraft was deployed in February 1944 for the purposes of destroying the railway system in Verona, which had been seized by the Germans. However, it never succeeded in its mission as it was damaged on the way. After being hit by Geman fighter pilots, captain Lieutenant Charplik was forced to make an emergency landing on water, consequently losing 4 men from his crew.
The impressive plane, which has a 32 metre wingspan, is in excellent condition. Divers will be able to clearly identify the pilot seats and aviation instruments, which have been left intact in the cockpit. The engines and remaining machine guns are another highlight of this fascinating dive.
The marine life is vibrant in this area, and divers may catch a glimpse of seahorses, stingrays or even dolphins while exploring the wreck. This is also an excellent opportunity to see live coral, such as brain coral and red and yellow gorgonian fans, which have made their home inside the plane.
USS Saratoga CV-3 — Bikini Atoll
A 1946 nuclear test blast sunk this 880-foot aircraft carrier off Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Although this South Pacific destination is a commitment to reach — it’s approximately 30 hours by boat from the airport on neighboring island Kwajalein — the ship is worth the effort to get here. The bridge starts at 40 feet, and the deck at 90, giving divers relatively ample time to explore.
Lady Thetis & Constandis, Cyprus
Lady Thetis is one of three popular wreck dives just off the Limassol coast, including the Constandis and Akrotiri. Further up the coast in Larnaca lies the Zenobia wreck, which is on most people’s diving bucket list.
Lady Thetis is a 30 metre a passenger ship that was purposefully sunk in 2014 along with Constandis, a 23 metre fishing vessel, to create an artificial reef and recreational dive site. The latter was built in 1989 in the Soviet Union and was used as a trawler, while Lady Thetis was built in Hamburg in 1953.
Both now rest between approximately 19 and 25 metres deep and host a huge array of marine life in a location where all fishing is strictly prohibited. The project is being financed by the EU fisheries programme, the Cyprus Tourism Organisation and the Cyprus Dive Centre Association in an attempt to replenish the declining fish population around Cyprus.
Divers can hope to spot large groups of parrotfish, turtles, barracuda, monk seals, sea bream, groupers jacks and damselfish while exploring the amazing swim-throughs that the two wrecks offer, which includes storerooms, engine rooms, staircases, hatches and various decks.
It’s easy to visit this beautiful part of Cyprus by superyacht thanks to the nearby Limassol Marina, which can accommodate luxury yachts up to 110 metres. After a day exploring the two wrecks unwind with a spa treatment at the Sanctum Spa or a cocktail at the elegant Marina Breeze lounge bar.
Jake Seaplane — Palau
Resting on one float, its wing tilted off the 45-foot sea bottom, this Aichi E13A seaplane is Palau’s most photographed aircraft wreck. That’s because the water is super clear at high tide and — seen from the front, at least — the wreck looks surprisingly intact. But move aft, and you’ll see that the tail and second float broke away on impact. Pose for pics near the cockpit, but be careful — there’s still a live hand-dropped bomb near the gunner’s position.
Sea Tiger — Oahu, Hawaii
Originally apprehended carrying 93 illegal Chinese immigrants, the Sea Tiger now sits just a short boat ride away from Waikiki Beach. Sunk as an artificial reef in 1999, it features marine life including squirrelfish, filefish, moray eels, green sea turtles, sharks and spotted eagle rays. Depth ranges from 80 to 127 feet, making this site best for intermediate to advanced divers.
The ship is ideal for first time wreck explorers, the Shallow waters mean you can dive all day. Purpose sunk off Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach in 2011, the 76.5m long Kittiwake was stripped clean of hazards before sinking. Doors and hatches were removed, giving each room at least one exit point.
Those with wreck diver certification cards can penetrate all five of the ship’s levels. The wheelhouse is shallowest, housing the wheel and compass. Two recompression chambers and the artificial diving bell are also highlights.
Is wreck diving dangerous?
Like any type of diving, wreck diving carries inherent risks, but with proper training, these dangers can be minimized.
The most common risk in wreck diving is entanglement. This can occur in non-penetration wreck diving as fishermen’s nets and lines often become ensnared on ship structures. A reliable dive knife can go a long way in solving this issue.
Another risk to consider is a silt-out. In a limited penetration situation, a silt-out can become endangering if the nearby exit is blocked from view. Limited visibility causes confusion and often divers will progress further into the wreck accidently. For this reason, excellent buoyancy is essential to wreck diving.
Finally, in a full penetration situation, many dangers are present. Past the light zone, a multiple light failure or a disruption in air supply can prevent a safe exit of the wreck. For this reason, only fully trained wreck divers should venture so far into a sunken ship.