Full Fathom Five…

13 May

Imperial Japanese Navy ship AkutsishimaThere is a sepulchral magic to a shipwreck. Viewed from underwater, with russet filigrees of sea ferns flourishing on the fractured edges of a shell hole in the side, lettuce corals unfurling from a rusting crane, the gossamer fins of lionfish undulating like silken flags outside a propshaft, a wreck is one of the most awe-inspiring sights the planet has to offer.

The battle of Coron Bay might have faded into history. Just another skirmish in the closing throes of the Second World War in Asia, where US Helldiver pilots annihilated a Japanese supply convoy hiding in the Calamian Islands.

After the raid, in September 1944, it took weeks for some of these monsters to sink. They drifted, crippled, on the currents for many miles. Others went down almost instantly, taking many of their crew with them. Some have never been found.

Z and I visited three of the ones that have.

Approaching a wreck in deeper water is very much reminiscent of the discovery scene at the opening of Titanic. You descend through water that shades from crystalline turquoise to a deep blue flecked with sediment, nothing visible below you but the abyss.

A greyish hulk emerges, edges blurred by the blue as if a charcoal sketch.

You descend further. Details become clearer. Dense steel decks ripped upwards as if by a child opening the wrapping paper on a present. Gun turrets reduced to giant studs. And all, like Ariel’s mariner, absorbed back into nature, coral and plants obscuring hatchways, sea creatures living, dying, hunting through them, iridescent indigo sea slugs winding their way across skeletal decks which dead men walked, their bones now locked below.

Most of the colours are muted by the depth: water slurps up colours, one by one, as light travels to depth. But you can hear surprising things. The ethereal whistling of shoals of small fish. The grunts of larger ones…

Z, who is, after all, only nine, is far too young to dive the first two wrecks: the Akitsushima, a warship which carried seaplanes, sat in 36 metres of water, and the Taiei Maru, an oil tanker. The third, the 40m gunship Lusong, lies at such an angle that the bow is shallow enough to snorkel, so I’d hoped that an instructor would be free to take him around.

There was no instructor free. So snorkelling it was.

Actually, I’m not sure I was technically experienced enough to dive the first two wrecks, either…

I’m a new diver. Fresh out of my Open Water course. During which I did multiple choice exams with questions such as: what is the maximum recommended depth for open water divers? 18m, 30m or 40m. (The answer is 18.) And read entire pages on the danger of what divers term “overhead environments” — caves, wrecks, and other places in which you can get stuck and die.

So. We are on the boat. Well, since it has stopped, Z is already off it, monkeying along the outriggers, adjusting the steps, and constructing elaborate diving schemes.

Everyone on the boat has more experience than me (obviously). We have several divemasters and qualified instructors here on vacation, because the wrecks are amazing. I have told everyone several million times over that it is my first proper dive and I don’t want to do anything too challenging.

I’d understood that I could just cruise along the desk of the Akitsushima, at a relatively balmy 22-24m, which seemed a nice balance of view and drama, rather than “penetrating” (as the revealingly macho jargon has it) anywhere seriously inside the ship.

Lo and behold, the Filipino divemaster doing the briefing, with whom I’m on nodding and grinning acquaintance due to Z and I spending half our lives in the dive shop, brings out a plan of the ship. “So,” he says. “First of all we descend along the reference line here to 31 metres…”

31 metres?! I think.

That wasn’t in the manual!

In fact, I think, the manual, it say no.

At 30 metres, water pressure is four times atmosphere, meaning that you use air four times as fast as you would floating face down on the surface. Newbies, of course, use more air than experienced folk. There is also, at 30 metres and below, the possibility of nitrogen narcosis, a sort of light-headed high which can make you act stupidly. I am not familiar with nitrogen narcosis, but would prefer to experience it for the first time in a space which does not involve tight turns.

“Then we penetrate the wreck through here,” he continues, pointing to a jagged rip on the plan, “Swim 120m or so through the ship, exit here, explore the crane, then reenter here and swim back through the ship, exiting here.”

“Erm,” I say, feeling like a twat. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable going into an overhead environment at 30 metres as a new diver. Is it going to be tight tunnels or is it just going to be a swim around some open cargo holds? It’s my first dive and I’m honestly not sure I’ve got the skills.”

“Not that tight,” says the chap. “Half a metre, a metre tall. You won’t have to take off your gear and tow it behind you, or pass it through to someone else. But, no, it’s not open. There are some tight turns.”

“But I thought we could just swim across the top of the ship and look at the corals, without penetrating the wreck,” I say.

“No,” he says.

“I’m just not sure I should be doing this,” I say. “I only got my Open Water two days ago, this is my first dive, and the deepest I’ve been is twenty four metres. How many exit points are there once you’re in the ship?”

From his expression it is clear that it’s pretty much back the way you came.

He starts handing out diver’s torches. Clearly, it will be dark in there. I ask how they work.

I had identified two other newish divers – folk with a mere twenty or so dives behind them since qualification – and we’d assumed we’d be together.

In fact, I am going down with a divemaster-cum-diveguide (good) and Tim, who is also a divemaster, but not a professional, is on his holidays and probably doesn’t want to be stuck behind someone who could transform into a flailing panicking muppet at any time (good from a safety perspective but rather inhibiting).

“Tim,” I say. “I’m not sure I feel comfortable with this.”

“I’ll look out for you,” he says.

“I know you will,” I say. “But that’s not the point.”

Patrick, who runs the dive shop and looks like he played running back in college, is having absolutely none of this weedy British crap. “We-ell,” he says. “You can always sit out the dive.”

“I don’t want to sit out the dive,” I say. “I want to dive the Akutsishima but I’m not sure I’m in the right group.”

“If I were you,” says Tim, “I wouldn’t do it. Not if you don’t feel comfortable. It’s really dangerous.”

He is, of course, correct. “You don’t look like a panicker to me,” says Michael, an Australian known universally as the Doctor, rather nicely.

I conclude that it would be nigh-on impossible to die or incur serious injury while one-on-one with a divemaster who has dived the wreck a hundred or so times. I trust myself to stick close to the nice man, focus on breathing slowly, keep an eye on my air supply and not panic at any point.

Anywise. The dive proves challenging in a good way, rather than a terrifying way. There is something very, very extreme about descending through a coral-encrusted shellhole into the bowels of a ship. There are a morass of companionways, chambers, holds and hatches, all warped by bomb damage, time, the angle at which the ship lies and whatever happens to something of that mass when it hits bottom, into a sort of crazy 3D maze with wildly varying amounts of light.

And there is nothing more calculated to help induce a state of Zen-like calm than finding oneself in pitch blackness, 25 metres below the sea, in what was probably once a dogleg passage but is now, as the ship lies on its side, a sort of upwards S-bend, with your tanks caught on something behind you, and not sure whether the divemaster exited above you, in front of you, or below you.

I’m not joking. It’s Zen or panic. As in childbirth, with diving the deal is to focus on your breathing.

To be rewarded, after that, by emerging from total darkness into an abyss of holds, the struts of the ship dropping away below you as if to infinity, three pennantfish lined up at a neat 45 degree angle, dorsals waving like welcome flags in the royal blue water, huge shoals of golden reef fish suspended in space, florid seaweeds flourishing on the steel ribs of the ship, is something incredible. It’s awe-inspiring.

And the wreck that Z and I snorkelled, set amid a lovely shallow coral garden in hues of purple, ochre and beige, was pretty cool too. He’s acquired the art of snaffling folks’ spare regulators and using those to descend below the surface. Tim took him down a little way, so he even got a dive in.

It’s odd to think that a couple of months ago Z could barely even swim. I lost sight of him while island-hopping, then realised he’d just swum 30 metres from the boat to the beach. Without even thinking about it…

Travel truly is a wonderful thing.

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6 Responses to “Full Fathom Five…”

  1. nicole curry May 13, 2010 at 7:52 pm #

    Wow, what an adventure

  2. Anne-Marie May 13, 2010 at 9:14 pm #

    Wow just about covers it!

    • MummyT May 13, 2010 at 10:07 pm #

      Both: I was pretty wowed! We snorkelled two wrecks, which were also pretty wowy, but really pale into comparison with the Akitsushima. Nicole, I think I’ll take your advice on Rainbow Divers. It looks like they really cater well to kids…

  3. jessiev May 15, 2010 at 11:09 am #

    i love this. i think i’d be too creeped out to dive ships. but…you were so brave! wow!

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